“My boyfriend avoids intimacy.”
“My wife doesn’t listen to me when I share my feelings with her.”
“Why is my partner pulling away from me the longer we are together?”
“How do I get my husband to consider my feelings before making important decisions?”
These are the kinds of issues a lot of people are dealing with in their intimate relationships. It can be confusing, frustrating, and confounding. How is it the person you fell in love with has changed to the point you no longer recognize them? How do you get back the feelings of euphoria you shared in the beginning? What happened? Why did they change? The answer isn’t always an easy one or the reason you might think, and depending on your situation, the effort involved may force you to reevaluate the entire relationship.
Toxicity and Dysfunction are Taught in Families
Whether we like it or not or are comfortable discussing it—our families create the blueprint for how we both approach and build all our relationships. And, if you come from a toxic, dysfunctional family—you have been miseducated at the very foundations of your personal identity.
Examples of Being Raised in a Dysfunctional Family
If your family never said, “I love you” to one another…
If you never saw your parents hug or kiss one another…
If birthdays and personal achievements were minimized or ignored…
If you were the child that was to be “seen, but not heard”…
If any of the above speak to you as your “normal” when growing up, then you can probably relate. Most children are not exposed to different people, family dynamics, or cultures until they begin socializing in school. So, that may mean the first five to six years of your life are filled with lessons of family dysfunction on repeat.
It’s not until we go to school for the first time or begin participating in social activities that it may occur to us that our family isn’t normal. Whether it's your first sleepover at a friend’s house, a birthday party, or a social gathering—this is when we begin to observe how other family dynamics work. For example, you may see your friend’s parents kiss and laugh, rather than argue. When you are a guest at a birthday party and observe what it’s like to have your existence celebrated rather than begrudged, it makes you wonder why your family cannot be more like the “happy” ones your friends are part of.
A Healthy Family Vs. Family Dysfunction
In a healthy family, parents are eager to assist, help, and clarify questions their child may have about anything. They welcome their child’s observations, thoughts, and instinctual need to assert themselves as individuals. They choose to empathize with their child’s feelings and struggles and do their best to prioritize the child in a way that makes them feel seen, heard, loved, and appreciated. They recognize parenthood, though challenging means they have chosen to guide another person in their journey to self-sufficient adults. Whatever the subject matter, the child feels safe enough to confide in their parents knowing they will be emotionally supported, and that their feelings, even if not understood, will be validated and respected.
Dysfunctional families discourage individuality, self-expression, and any other trait that goes against its identity as a unit. These kinds of families reject healthy conversations, meaningful discussions, emotional support, intimacy, and accountability. If your mother withholds affection from you, it’s your fault because you disappointed her. If your father avoids spending time with you, you must accept his absence because he’s financially providing for you. You are supposed to be grateful to be the recipient of anything they want to give you, even if it’s the things you are denied that make you feel as if you’re dying inside. The more you advocate yourself, the more you are treated like you are the problem, rather than the solution.
A dysfunctional family will gang up on the “sensitive” member to silence them, for they are a threat to the norm. You may become the person accused of being too emotional because you express something other than disdain, resentment, or anger. You may be branded as a person who’s never satisfied, happy, or always causing problems. Your toxic family may begin to resent you for trying to expose its toxicity and dysfunction. You may withdraw and become more silent, yet more resentful. Home doesn’t feel like home. It isn’t a safe space, it’s a box you do not fit in. It’s a place to escape from, suffer through, and offers you no comfort.
Recognizing a Legacy of Family Dysfunction
Most people would like to think they are nothing like their toxic families. They want to believe that by recognizing and escaping the dysfunction of their parents, siblings, and traditions, they avoided all the hurtful lessons they were taught. But rarely is that the case. In most cases, we’ve built up defense mechanisms to survive the childhood trauma that comes from growing up feeling unloved. It’s only when we begin building relationships outside of our families that we are met with the question: “Am I really different from them?”
People who struggle with taking compliments often come from families and traditions who forced them to learn the lesson of humility, to the point of humiliation.
Does it feel better to give a compliment than receive one?
Does it feel painful to be celebrated for your abilities, your accomplishments, or even your existence?
Do you have an aversion to being honored by those who love you?
There may be an inner child within so used to hearing, “You’re not special” or, “You think you’re better than the rest of us, don’t you?” that keeps you from accepting the healthy love being offered to you. Perhaps you hated the way your family made you feel then, but do you now find yourself not only thinking this way about yourself, but simultaneously feel resentment toward people who show the least amount of self-confidence, or self-respect? Why do they think they are so important, so special, so worthy? Especially when you never feel this way about yourself.
Those who do not live life with authenticity are often tormented with thoughts like, “If you knew me, you wouldn’t really like me,” or “I’m a fraud.” So, they never allow anyone to be close to them, they actually avoid emotional intimacy. If your childhood included shaming for being sensitive, different, or questioning the family norms, it’s understandable that you may have built a wall around yourself to keep you safe from the resentment, criticism, or belittling from your family. While building a wall around your feelings and emotionally detaching may have protected you as a child, as adults we may come to realize that the wall built is no longer keeping us safe, so much as it’s keeping us from healthy love - both giving and receiving it. Everyone becomes an “enemy” because of their potential to cause hurt, therefore they are kept at an emotional distance to avoid the danger of causing more trauma. It doesn’t matter if they are friend or foe, they will receive the same treatment.
Control Issues and Adults From Dysfunctional Families
Children who were never allowed to express themselves, make their own decisions, or were frequently shamed for going against traditions, often become adults who develop control issues. They need to control how they are perceived. They need to control an image. They need to control their relationships. The illusion of being able to control everything helps alleviate feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. These people tend to be emotionally unavailable because they are attempting to avoid the loss of control felt when one is in love. Seeking, enjoying, craving love from another involves risks.
For some, these risks may be a reasonable trade-off to enjoy the comfort and sense of belonging that love offers. For others, risks are to be avoided, no matter the costs. For some, the goal is survival, not love, even if the threat no longer exists. It isn’t that they are incapable of love, it’s that they refuse to allow it to make them lose control. They will sacrifice their relationships before relinquishing control. Even if they are unhappy, they will be able to justify it by feeling “safe.”
Breaking Toxic Generational Cycles
While it may be important to recognize toxic behavior that our family taught us in childhood, simply recognizing it is not enough to create effective change. Life can be filled with potential triggers that may cause us to revert to our well-honed defense mechanisms. But, if we want to move beyond the legacy of family dysfunction, we must resolve to relearn the things we were incorrectly taught. We must seek to release our habitual need to live our lives from a place of fear and defensiveness. That in itself will be a process. And, yes, it will take a village—from professional therapy to spiritual advisors, to mentors and life coaching. And, yes, surrounding yourself with good people who want to see you happy, some people refer to them as your “chosen family.” It is up to us to show up for ourselves as an act of defiance against the normative traditions of our toxic upbringing, and heal our emotional pain.
Learning to value, love, and respect yourself simply because you exist will change not only your relationship with yourself but the entire world. Understanding that everyone does not have to be the enemy, will help you realize the significant role vulnerability plays not only in love but in being human. Our ability to empathize gives us the capacity to show compassion. Being able to discuss, share, and express your emotions allows you to release them in a way that increases your ability to love and be loved.
You can accept a compliment, knowing you deserve it.
You can breathe life into your true self understanding that the real you, can be and likely, is someone worthy of both love and admiration.
You can allow the experience of all forms of love to increase your happiness quotient and quality of life.
But, most of all, you have the understanding and tools needed to break the cycle of familial dysfunction. Whether you are a spouse, parent, or friend, you can create your own family dynamic built on the foundation of creating, sustaining, and supporting love.
Please note, there is a fine line between a dysfunctional family or relationship, and actual abuse. Psychic Source would like to make clear the important differences between typical relationship struggles vs being the victim of an abusive relationship.