Strained family relations are not something we talk about often. They’re hush-hush and quiet and burrowed down deep below to prevent your image from being anything less than that of the perfect family’s. But they exist. More often than not. And for most of us, they’re not as dramatic as TV makes them seem. Sometimes you cut off contact completely, sometimes you pretend the other party doesn’t exist, and sometimes you tolerate their presence in quiet calm. These are the relatives that you may have grown up with, laughing, sharing, crying. As you mature into adulthood, though, you start to form your own person — as does the other party — and this can cause distance. It could be because of something as menial as conflicting personalities, or for something as significant as stretched-out arguments or opposing beliefs.
Regardless, relationships strain. Now and then, they patch up with the conscientious effort of both parties. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, they fall apart nonetheless. We often end up with a relationship that’s completely cut off, and we think often about our family member but leave it as something to be remembered, not reignited. Otherwise, we end up with one that is uncomfortably polite; we can’t avoid or ignore the other party, so we maintain a civil facade and bury our feelings to maintain a cordial, public relationship.
However, the lack of closure from a failed relationship can often lead to weaker mental health, with a vulnerable emotional state and a fragile psychological state. We live our lives through relationships and stories: we create a past, present and future, and try to steer our lives through this structure. As such, our definition of our sense of self becomes intertwined with these stories and relationships, and our sense of worth is tied to the nature and outcome of it. Broken family relationships usually tend to hurt the most, since they’re one of the first forms of relationships we experience and they’re often the defining moments of our relational self-worth.
Consequently, it’s important to an individual to either patch a relationship or to completely move on from it, because only then can we restructure our past, present and future and perceive it in a healthy way. Without it, we get a warped sense of trust, and relational responsibility. Other than our the state of our mental health, our personalities, availability, attachment styles, and moods all may undergo a drastic and dramatic change.
As such, it’s vital that we learn when to salvage our relationship with a family member, and when to step back from it. And how to do so.
Choosing whether or not to try to save a relationship is perhaps the most important step. Usually, we’re attached to these life-bonded relationships that we don’t even think of letting them go. However, sometimes that may be the better case: these relationships might be dangerous for our self-perception, mental health and the overall state of mind. However, we might not be able to see that — especially as the other party involved is someone we’ve probably trusted for a long period of time — so it’s important to set boundaries.
Stepping away from a relationship.
Set Your Boundaries
No matter how close you are to someone, it’s good to set boundaries as to how you should be treated or how you expect to be treated by someone else. Everyone is deserving of some respect, gratitude, and empathy. If you feel as though someone is constantly putting you down, and/or constantly making you feel less than, causing a drop in your self-esteem, then it might be a good idea to take a step back. Especially more so if you’ve already expressed your sentiments and have observed no change.
Often times, women feel guilty about requesting attention from family members. This stems from a couple of society-induced notions: that women are the ones that keep the house together, that if women ask for “too much”, they’re high-maintenance, that it’s not acceptable to be too greedy. This is something my friends and I have to remind each other consistently: it’s fair to be selfish. It’s okay to want certain levels of care and consideration from those around you, specifically if you’re communicating this to them. It’s easier said than done, of course, and requires persistent reminders from yourself that you shouldn’t feel guilty or like a burden to those around you.
Hence, don’t feel at fault for setting expectations and boundaries. Everyone has their own way of doing this, be it requiring active listening, mutual communication, or even something as simple as talking to you respectfully. Whatever it is, allow yourself to ask for it, and allow one to improve on their interactions with you. However, if you feel like you’re constantly undermined or looked over, know that you would be understood if you choose to shut the door.
Ease Into It
If you decide to cut off a familial relationship, ease into it. Don’t ignore all calls, texts, or requests to hang out at one go (well, unless it’s a situation that warrants it). Rather, do so slowly by reducing the frequency. This is for two reasons. First is that your relational attachment is not just between the two of you, but an entire network of family members that are attached to the both of you. Easing into it slowly can allow you to understand how much space you need from the other party, and doing so also gives your family members space and time to adapt to the changing dynamics. Second, you may realise that you don’t need to cut off the other party completely for your ease of mind, but rather just distance yourself, which may make it easier for you to navigate around relationships and sense of self.
Don’t Pretend It’s All Okay
Don’t minimise the impact of your thoughts and feelings by chanting the mantra of “it’s all okay” to yourself. Yes, it definitely works at times, but when doing so compromises your mental health and emotional vulnerability, then it’s detrimental to live in a falsehood of stability. If it’s possible, talk to other family members about your situation, and explain why you would be choosing to step away from a certain family member. Open and honest communication goes a long way in avoiding miscommunication and having those around you understand you. If you truly feel unjustly treated, don’t back down and stand your ground in explaining yourself and countering arguments.
Restructuring a relationship.
From time to time, you might decide to try saving a relationship instead of cutting it off, whatever the reason. This would require you to restructure the relational value and what the other person means to you.
You Can’t Change Them, Only How You Relate To Them.
People change, that’s for sure. Consciously or unconsciously, everyone takes in their surroundings, their circumstances and adapts, even if they don’t realise it. However, we usually can’t change someone. Our interactions with them but change them, but if we try to force change, it more often than not pushes people away from that attitude and mindset. Therefore, it’s important to get perspective of what you can really control. You can’t control someone’s attitude or behaviour, but you can control your understanding and interactions with them. Try to change how you relate to them. Watch shows, read, and see where their opposing views and mindsets might come from. Encourage them to do the same so they can understand you. That way, even if you can’t agree with the other party, at least you can try to figure out their point of view. It’s not agreement that pushes for companionship, after all, but rather a mutual understanding. Even the bestest of friends disagree with each other.
Work Out What You Want From Them
“Be different” is hardly indicative or communicative of what you need from someone. Instead, work out what it is you need or want from them. I had a friend who had a strained relationship with their older brother: he felt like a third parent instead of a friend or companion, and it felt like she was being picked on in the family. She then suggested a weekly or fortnightly movie and/or gaming session instead of daily calls and multiple texts every day. This allowed her to have some space for herself, for them to have fun when they met up, and for them to be able to connect during their meet-ups instead of calls and texts every day.
At the end of the day, it’s your prerogative to choose to either end a familial relationship or to try and continue on with it. Family is perhaps the most complex institution we’re part of. Being a family member is not something we choose: being a sister, daughter, niece, aunt.... these are not roles we’re asked permission for. It’s something we’re born into and grow into. We get attached to the group of strangers we’re born into and gain a sense of obligation, duty, and responsibility. This makes it difficult to see yourself as separate and to differentiate your needs and wants from that of your family’s. Sometimes these might align, so you don’t feel the need to differentiate them. But sometimes they’re different. And things can awkward, unstable, uncomfortable (even more so if it already were); it’s a gamble to rock the boat even more.
However, you are important. Your requirements and desires should be valued. Love can be unconditional, definitely, but it’s okay to want this unconditional love to be reciprocated. Or, it’s not entirely selfish to engage in conditional love. It’s hard to say “I love you” to the people you don’t mean them to, and to do it just because of an obligation is doing a disservice to yourself and the value you place on the love you give out.
I’ve spent a good part of my teenage years and early adulthood evaluating and reconstructing the relationship I have with my parents and extended family. As the eldest daughter and the eldest cousin, I know there are certain expectations set on me, which to me are uncalled for. It made a lot of experiences a burden for me and I used to get really stressed out about the unsaid but anticipated expectations put on my shoulder, and the brunt of this stress went on the relationship I had with my parents. It took me a lot of time to communicate my issues, and even longer for me to understand their points of views (teenage obstinance and all), and I will admit it was tiring but it was worth it. Instead of having to mould myself into a person I was not at all, my relatives started to see me as my own person instead of an extension of their projection of me. It also made me see who I had to not care at all about for if they failed in trying to understand me, it felt unfair that I would have to go out of my way to adapt to them.
So, yes, it’s not easy to love, and you shouldn’t force yourself to do it. Instead, try your best, and communicate so that the other party tries their best too. We’re often protective of our best friends, wanting the best for them in their relationships and their personal lives. If we treated ourselves like our best friends, could you imagine? All this is is to say that there’s no harm in giving a relationship your all, but there’s also no harm in realising when a relationship is taking too much out of you with no reciprocity. It’s alright to take a step back and more than a few steps away.