Building Healthy Relationships with Family

All the feel-good and appreciative vibes set aside, the holidays can be a pretty stressful ordeal, especially when we focus on family: the factor in our lives that can really make or break us (or both).

For many, the thought of family can trigger negative emotions for many reasons including the complex (and headache-inducing) dynamics in a family structure, or the lack of traditional family figures. It doesn’t help that we are perpetually bombarded with cultural-normative familial icons – the typical media evocation of a perfect family, laughing and exchanging gifts beneath an elegantly-decked spruce tree. In reality, it represents a small percentage of the population. Media glorification of the “perfect family” leads to the false assumption that it’s the majority. But it’s not. It will probably never be perfect and that’s normal and okay. We are continual works in progress and the delicate nature of our interactions echoes that in extremes.

So the good news is that, while we may not be able to change our familial circumstance – the traditional structure or not – we can change how we build our relationships with family.

1. Understanding family
If we got a dime each time we heard gratuitous advice, criticism, and/or patronizing comments from family members, we would have…you know.
Conversations with family members can be difficult and frustrating, but understanding where they come from can help us navigate these difficult conversations with minimal upset. Most people grew up with different social and cultural ideals that shaped how they view and do things. The beliefs and behaviors that may have worked for them during their lifetime may not necessarily work for us, and they may or may not accept that.

Keep in mind that, to the best of their knowledge on what worked for them, they most likely try to be and do their best for us. Their best may not necessarily be the best for you and they may not change how they feel about that.
Understanding their backgrounds helps us understand their intents, strengthen the relationship, and improve our communication. However, in cases in which the familial relationship is harmful or even abusive, it’s okay to create space between you and the family members and getting external support. In the end, it’s about how you react to them, whether it’s negative or positive, and how you can choose what’s best for you and surround yourself with positive influences.

2. Honest Communication
Effective communication is pivotal to building strong and healthy relationships with family. Poor communication that is unclear or indirect can lead to more conflicts or perpetuate an issue that should be addressed. We hear this all the time and it’s true!
There are four styles of communication, according to Epstein et al (1993):

Clear and Direct Communication
“I don’t like you invading my privacy, mom.”
Clear and Indirect Communication
“I wish someone would stop invading my privacy.” Message is clear but doesn’t indicate to whom it is directed.
Masked and Direct Communication
“Mom, it seems like privacy isn’t respected much by people anymore.” Message isn’t really clear but is directed at the person in question.
Masked and Indirect Communication
“No one respects anyone’s privacy anymore.” The message isn’t really clear and is not directed at the person in question.

Clear and direct communication is the healthiest way to communicate, as it reduces misinterpretations, directly relays information, and opens doors for respectful and rational conversations. Openness, honesty, objective reasoning, positivity, and conscientious effort to listen make up effective communicative methods.

When it comes to conflicts, it’s often easy to take the negative route such as complaining and blaming others. However, being quick to argue can pose further problems. Get in the habit of brainstorming rational solutions or compromises, as well as accepting that it’s often not personal, but a matter of circumstance.
Communication is a key to successful family functioning and relationship building and it starts with being clear and direct.

3. Acceptance of imperfection
As in all interactions, it’s totally normal and okay if our familial relations are not perfect. Due to different backgrounds and experiences, people don’t always understand each other completely and conflicts can be inevitable. Restating what’s important: we are always works in progress and our interactions are very much so.
We can’t change who our family members are, but what we do is accept factors beyond our control, understand that it’s not our fault, and work on factors that we CAN control – such as how we react to family, how we understand them, how we communicate with them, and how we navigate difficult circumstances surrounding them.

4. Family isn’t always genetic
Remember, we have relationships with other people in our lives, such as friends, teammates, neighbors, coworkers, mentors, and others who enrich our lives! Familial relationships are not bound by blood – we can choose who we can surround ourselves beyond the home. Surround yourself with people who care for you, who have best intents for you, who love you, who make positive influences in your life, and provide valuable guidance to you.

5. Love and accept yourself!
However, even those relationships do not indicate who we are and our worth – the best relationship we can cultivate is with ourselves!
A healthy relationship with yourself paves the way for healthy relationships with others.

Get to know you and your needs, give yourself love and respect, be kind to yourself, and most of all: understand that you are worthy of love, care, respect, and acceptance!