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  • Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.

How to Navigate Difficult Family Relationships

The truth about repairing complicated relationships.


Difficult Family Relationship

- There is a problem with hoping another person will change: People tend not to, at least not for long.

- Many people focus on others to remove any accountability from themselves.

- When we accept others, it doesn't mean we are okay with everything they do and say.


Some of our family relationships feel secure and satisfying; those are the relationships we are comfortable being ourselves in. On the other hand, certain family relationships can feel so difficult and stressful that we wonder if that person should even be in our life. Many of us hope that the family member or members who emotionally trigger us will change, keeping us in the relationship until the next emotionally triggering event happens. Maybe your father will finally appreciate all you do, your sister will complain less, or your aunt will stop telling you what to do. Perhaps you've set boundaries, expressed your feelings about behaviors you don't like, or even pushed yourself to be more accommodating. However, if you've managed a problematic relationship long enough, you have probably started to notice the other person never really changes—not for long at least.


There is an issue with thinking, pushing, or hoping the other person will change to improve our relationships. When we focus on the other person changing so our relationship can improve, we don't see what we are blind to—understanding how we might contribute to the problems; what we have control of (ourselves); and how we could learn to manage conflict better.


In therapy, I often work with clients to shift the focus from others to themselves. In sessions, I ask questions like, "What does your father's criticism of your marriage bring up for you?" "How did you react to his criticism?" "How would you like to respond to him in the future that allows you to communicate your thoughts constructively?" and "What is your father up against if you yell and criticize him for criticizing you?" Our complicated relationships are the ones that can help us grow the most—if we let them. The emotions that others trigger within us tell us some important information about ourselves. First, we can learn what bothers us, telling us where to set a boundary. We can discover if there is an unmet need or a wound we must heal and when we should speak up more or let something go. When we take control of navigating complicated relationships, triggering moments can help us learn how to better self-regulate when we are upset, communicate more constructively, be vulnerable, and remain connected to people even if we don't always get along.


The person you find difficult might be challenging and need to change, but trying to push them to change or being reactive yourself isn't helpful when trying to mend those relationships. Also, we have no control over whether someone will change, potentially creating more pain and suffering if we continue going down that path. It is wasted energy that could go into more helpful areas of your life. So, when navigating complicated relationships, don't blame the other person entirely, force others to change, and react without thinking first. Instead, try to accept them for who they are, take accountability for yourself and your part, better communicate what is and isn't okay with you from a clear mind, and lean toward connection instead of protection.

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Accepting Others

When we accept others, it doesn't mean we are okay with everything they do and say. We acknowledge this is who they are now and become aware that their behaviors show us that. We see them more objectively when we accept them; we can respond to them from a place of calm, not anger or reactivity. When viewing the situation from a place of acceptance and objectivity, you can decide if you want the person in your life as they are or if you can work on mending the relationship. Inner peace and calm come with acceptance and a clearer sense of what is happening in the relationship.


Taking Accountability

Many focus on others to remove any accountability from themselves. Your difficult family member may overreact or not treat you well at times; but how often have you said "yes" to them when you wanted to say "no"? How often have you ignored bad behavior to "keep the peace"? Taking accountability goes hand in hand with advocating for yourself in your relationships. It also means becoming more self-aware and noting how you might contribute to the issues.


Communicating Clearly

When it comes to communication, many know it's essential but have yet to be taught how to communicate appropriately. Many people yell and scream from anger or don't communicate at all. People can't hear you when you yell and scream, and they especially can't listen to you when you say nothing. Communicating is about sorting through your emotions, then talking clearly and openly about what behaviors you want to see change or continue. Communicating is not a way to control or put the other person down. It is a way to express yourself to others concerning you so they know what you are thinking and feeling.


Leaning Toward Connection

When emotionally triggered, we lean toward protecting ourselves instead of connecting. Even without a threat to our lives, when we are emotionally triggered in our relationships, we go into our fight, flight, or freeze response, which can look like verbally attacking, avoiding issues, or feeling helpless. When we lean toward connecting to others, even when we go into protection mode, the better chance we have at repairing our relationships.

Houston Therapy Counseling

Family relationships are essential, although they can be challenging and hard to manage. You might decide a relationship is beyond repair because the person is abusive or harmful to your mental well-being, which is okay. Sometimes that is the more objective and honest approach; other times, some people are just harder to get along with, and working on repairing complicated family relationships can benefit your personal growth and mental well-being.


Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D. - website - books

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