You won’t see it splashed across social media but, behind every closed door, everyone you know is dealing with issues arising from difficult family relationships. From the sibling who always has to outdo you, to that disrespectful teenager who shouts and swears, or the parent who can shatter your self-esteem with one misplaced remark, there are few of us who don’t have at least one relationship that could be improved.
But family ties are strong, so we keep circling back to the people who share our DNA. Little wonder, really. We all want to get on well with our families, and not doing so is detrimental to our mental health. A recent study found a link between depression in women and their relationships with their siblings and mothers. Even as adults, these dynamics have the power to derail our health and happiness.
You don’t have to be Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, to know that families are messy and relationships with loved ones can be painful – but that needn’t mean you’re consigned to a lifetime of either avoiding your relatives or enduring awkward encounters that leave you feeling hurt and disappointed. There are common mistakes that many of us make around family. These simple changes could make relating to your nearest and not-sodearest easier and far more satisfying.
1. You try to change others
It may seem obvious that your relationship with your sister would be better if she wasn’t so stubborn, and that your teenage daughter should be less volatile, but the first step to improving relationships with your relatives is to accept that you can’t change them. You can, however, change yourself.
‘The idea that you can control other people’s behaviour is hardwired into how you engage with others, but accepting that you can’t change people is key to more enriching relationships,’ says Rachel Kelly, a mental health campaigner and author of Singing In The Rain (Short Books, £12.99). What’s powerful about accepting the futility of trying to change others is the rediscovery of the immense power you have to change yourself. ‘It’s easy to forget your own agency and to become passive or victim-like, but giving yourself a sense of empowerment in how you relate to others is a powerful mindset shift.’
The solution – take back your power
If you’ve ever been the person someone else is trying to change, you’ll know how crippling it can be. Pressure to fit into your prescribed role is exhausting. I’ve always been a rescuer, and feel a subtle expectation that I will do things for others that I end up resenting, and which they’d benefit from doing for themselves. How can you move towards accepting people as they are – yourself included?
When you feel compelled to force change in someone else, instead try reminding yourself of the power you have to control your own actions and responses. ‘I’m a people pleaser who, in the past, did the washing up for my teenage children, but I try to remind myself that I have a choice: it’s to wash up my own stuff, and leave my teens’ dishes for them,’ says Kelly. ‘It helps me avoid becoming a passive, resentful doormat.’ And the less you try to force or influence other people’s behaviour, the more likely it is that they’ll choose to play their part.
She also believes the word ‘yet’ has potency in reframing our relationships: ‘Thinking, “I can’t cope with my angry father,” puts you in a powerless position, whereas, “I can’t cope with my angry father yet,’ restores a sense of control.’
Another practical way to reframe relationships is to use verbs such as learning, growing, practising and developing in affirmations ahead of challenging situations. ‘Instead of feeling fury at how easily others upset you, repeat affirmations like, “I’m learning to respond in a calm way when my sister blows her top.”’
2. You misread emotional cues
Misreading other people’s emotional cues is a common source of conflict. A classic example is the well-intentioned family member who offers advice which, because of childhood clashes, you immediately hear as criticism. Misreading someone’s cues can leave them feeling as if they’re not being heard. In response, they might stop engaging or develop a script to please you.
That’s a scenario I’m familiar with. I’m constantly juggling work pressure with family commitments, so I’m quick to act defensively when relatives comment on how busy or stressed I am. I assume they’re criticising my choices, when they might be expressing admiration. When I fall into treating loved ones like critics instead of believing the best of them, they invariably shut down, and I miss out on their kindness and support.
Coach Jane Evans thinks this stems from being out of touch with your own emotional wellbeing. ‘Many of us have low emotional intelligence and are disconnected from our feelings because we live life to the max and are rarely calm, quiet or tuned into our own emotions, never mind those of our loved ones,’ she says.
You know that you are better equipped to take care of other people’s physical needs when your own needs are being met, and the same applies to your emotions. If you’re disconnected from your own emotional wellbeing, you are less likely to read other people’s emotions in a healthy way.
The solution – tune into your emotions
Forget about making a conscious effort to become more emotionally available to family members, Evans cautions. It never works: ‘The conscious mind is the part of you that resolves not to lose it the next time your dad talks about politics in a way that sets off a volcano of emotion inside you,’ she says. ‘But that has the power of a shrimp compared to the subconscious mind, which is partly shaped by the emotional responses you developed as a child, and that’s the size of a whale! So, by the time you’ve set foot in your father’s house, the whale has already devoured the shrimp.’
To avoid this, Evans recommends developing your subconscious mind by slowing down and checking in with your emotions. ‘By the time we become adults, most of us are so disconnected from our emotional state, which resides in our bodies, that we either don’t notice our emotions or we rationalise ourselves out of them because that’s what we were taught to do as children – when we were told to stop crying, or were distracted from our emotions with a biscuit, for example.’
To combat this and strengthen your ability to engage with your emotions, Evans recommends a simple exercise. Gently place a hand over your heart, then breathe in and out slowly while thinking of someone or something you love. Notice where you feel this in your body. Next, think of someone or something that makes you angry, and track the difference. Finish by focusing on feelings of love. ‘Keep practising,’ says Evans. ‘All emotions have an energy, and that’s what you’re feeling.’
3. You repeat arguments
If you’ve ever had the feeling that you keep coming up against the same issue over and over again in a particular relationship, it’s not just deja vu. Psychologists say you play out the same conflicts on a loop unless you change course.
Performance coach Ruth Kudzi believes conflict within families often stems from misaligned expectations. ‘Whether it’s unspoken expectations placed on you by your parents or siblings, or your own expectations which aren’t fulfilled by family members, unmet expectations have the power to sour relationships and cause real pain and disappointment.’
I’ve seen this play out in my own inner family. At Christmas, I used to pull out all the stops, cooking up a storm for days, only to feel my efforts weren’t really acknowledged or appreciated. But I’ve realised we were experiencing a classic clash of expectations. No one really wants to eat six courses; my loved ones want me to relax with them instead of sweating in the kitchen, and I’m overdoing it out of some deeper sense of inadequacy. Hardly the recipe for a memorable family day!
The problem is that you don’t treat your flesh and blood like other people you’re in relationships with, says Kudzi. ‘Most of us would never treat our friends as we do our family members, in part because we know they wouldn’t stand for it – but, with family, we have all these “shoulds” obscuring our relationships, not to mention that when relatives let us down, it actually damages our view of ourselves, and those dynamics can quickly override common sense.’
The solution – reset your expectations
Expectation management can help us clean the slate and move forward in relationships. Kudzi recommends writing down your expectations of a particular person and discussing them together.
Understanding your own pressure points is also key to the conversations that can help you set more realistic expectations. As an example, Kudzi describes a chat she had with a family member who was hosting a family gathering, but whose expectation that people should arrive promptly was creating pressure and stirring up resentment. They agreed to adjust the time of the event so latecomers wouldn’t feel awkward, the meal wouldn’t be ruined by people being tardy, and the host could relax.
Many of us also feel a need to be seen as the ‘perfect’ family, which creates unattainable expectations. ‘We may have expectations that our relationships with siblings should be super close otherwise it’ll reflect badly on us but, instead, try reflecting on what would actually make you happy in terms of how often you see your siblings and in what context,’ says Kudzi.
‘Instead of talking, we tend to catastrophise internally and resentment builds, and that has to go somewhere. Resolving conflict within families is, ultimately, about having important conversations.’
4. You forget the past is always present
Families can make us feel both our safest and our most vulnerable, says Annette Byford, psychologist and author of A Wedding In The Family (Free Association Books, £11.99). ‘If families work, they can provide a place where people know and accept you and will be there for you if the going gets tough; where everybody can relax and regress, understand the rules and laugh at old jokes because everybody has a shared past,’ she says. ‘But therein lies the rub; you have a past together, and that means that whatever happens in a family never happens just in the here and now. That shared past plays a huge part in what we do and feel in the present.’
That explains those times you turn into a teenager on the threshold of your parents’ house. Or those blazing arguments with your sibling that seemingly come from nowhere and feel out of all proportion.
The solution – look for the good in people
What can you do to prevent the past from taking over? Byford says it can help put things into perspective to ask yourself the question: ‘Is this really only about what is happening right here, right now?’
In order to stay in touch with your adult self and recognise when something from your past has been triggered, ask yourself whether you’d feel similar expectations, or the same sense of entitlement or hurt, if you were in this situation with friends, instead of family. ‘If the answer is no, then you are most likely dealing with something that belongs in the past,’ says Byford. ‘At that stage, any strategy that can help you step back is useful. Delay your response and give yourself time, if you can, to try to identify what this situation reminds you of. Remove yourself from the situation for a bit – and remember that, as an adult, you have choices that you did not have as a child.’
Remember that everybody is under pressure. When you recognise that difficult dynamics are a normal part of family life and look for the good in others, you’re less likely to blame them for your feelings. And, when you own your feelings, you’re empowered to change them. Pausing to remind yourself of other people’s good intentions is an effective way to reframe your interactions with them.