How to cope with difficult family relationships

Family problems counselling totnes, paignton and newton abbot


So what is it about families that seems to create such a deep seated pull towards and push away for some people?

Let’s start with the very beginning. Your family is your place of origin. From your conception through to birth you are generally carried by your biological mother, though these days sometimes a surrogate is involved. That is the starting point of your existence.

From birth, many babies stay with their family of origin. Some are fostered or adopted or handed over to grandparents or siblings for their care.  A minority go into care. In all these cases there is a moment of arrival into the family, whatever that unit it is.

In most healthily functioning families, the unit provides a mostly safe, supportive place for children to develop their identity and place in the world. The impact of a loving, accepting environment with boundaries teaches them the rules of engagement for life in the wider world and gives them the safe base from which to venture out.

Yet for many people coming to counselling later in their life, their family seems to be at the heart of a lot of their pain. Perhaps more than anything else, in my experience.

Maybe some of these experiences which I hear about resonate with you?

  • Feeling like you didn’t belong – including the fantasy of being adopted
  • Feeling like the lesser sibling – another or others seemed favoured by one or both parents
  • Feeling in competition with siblings or with a parent
  • Feeling suffocated and intruded on
  • Feeling ignored or forgotten
  • Feeling like you need to protect and safeguard a parent

In extremes of course, there can also be systematic abuse, physical, emotional and sexual where the family structure of safety and trust breaks down completely.

All of these experiences can have a deep impact on your sense of wellbeing, your ability to form relationships and friendships, your ability to find a life which satisfies and thrives.

One of the most difficult things to discover and to accept when you come to counselling is that you can hold ambivalent  or opposing feelings for family members. It is possible to love a parent and to dislike them or even hate them at the same time.

For some people admitting that hatred can feel like the deepest of betrayals. It can also bring the deepest of relief. That the experience of difficulty, suffocation, mistreatment was not imagined or exaggerated but a genuinely painful, scarring moment in their life which can be spoken of without fear or rejection or reprisal.

Over time, you can come to some acceptance of where you came from, and the pain that caused as well as the joy and the support your family may have offered you too. Recognising the difficult side of that; the painful and hurtful side is incredibly important.

It helps move you away from the child position. This is where the feeling of betraying the family feels too big, too dangerous to experience (and often leads to feelings of anger being suppressed or turned on oneself so you become hateful  to yourself rather than hating a parent)

In arriving at the adult position, you can hold both the love and the sadness, hatred and other feelings that being in a family evokes. It doesn’t make the feelings go away, but it allows you to start to breathe again and develop some strategies to manage what remains difficult in your family interactions.

If some of the experiences and feelings described here resonate and you’d like to explore further, why not get in touch?

By Matt Fox  Counselling in Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott
Photo by Sarah Irick licensed under Creative Commons