Updated: Jan 31
Family conflict has been a recurring theme throughout my life. Coming from a dysfunctional home, I didn't always have the tools to figure out how to deal with toxic family members and control my own emotions so that I wasn't a part of the mess. I recently got a call from an old acquaintance asking for suggestions on handling the ongoing tension between her mother and siblings. She remarked that there is always an issue with them and that their behavior is toxic. She required assistance to navigate the complexities of her family relationships.
There are many ways that family dysfunction manifests. The more obvious dysfunctions involve violence, abuse, and neglect, but more subdued problems like a lack of unconditional love, addiction problems, and weak boundaries all play a role. The result is the same no matter what the cause. The dissolution of the family and lingering shame might result from an unhealthy emotional bond. According to current research, approximately 70%–80% of Americans believe their families are dysfunctional. You are not alone, as you can see if you are dealing with a challenging family situation. Here are five things to think about if you encounter a similar circumstance.
Step 1: Do Introspective Work.
Ask yourself if you're part of the problem. Let's face it, sometimes finding fault in others is easier than noticing and addressing our issues. The reality is there are times when we are the agitators and source of the conflict. Even if you contributed 10% to the problem you are experiencing, you must take responsibility for your contribution to the issue. This doesn't mean you don't address what was done to you by the other person, but it ensures you have taken the time to analyze the situation from multiple angles. Lamentations 3:40 ESV says, "Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!" Introspective work is needed to test our hearts and ensure we're not harboring bitterness or resentment. Yes, you have a right to be upset if you have been mistreated, and yet, God still holds us responsible for our actions towards others—even those who have harmed us.
In other words, we can't control other people but can control how we respond. So before taking action, take time to reflect. Reflection will help you see the situation more clearly so you can respond appropriately. It's also important to note that sometimes we have been dealing with the dysfunction for so long that it is difficult to determine what happened objectively. We will talk about resources to help with that in step 5.
Step 2: Identify the Toxic Behavior and Address it Respectfully.
In many cases, toxic behavior is normalized in families, which makes it more challenging to identify. In contrast, sometimes we can identify the issue, but we are afraid to address it because we find our loved ones intimidating or challenging. We might also fear rejection or are concerned about our safety. If you find it hard to identify or address the toxic behavior, pray for God to reveal the root cause of what is keeping the family in disarray. Then ask God for wisdom and discernment on how to address the behavior with the family members who are the main players.
Once you identify them, you must muster up the courage to address them. The key part of this step is maintaining respect even if they don't. As soon as you decide to confront the person, respect must come first. Think about what you want to say and the hurts you want to express before you speak. If it helps, put it in writing. Stick to stating the facts and avoid using accusatory language. Using "I felt" statements versus "You" phrases can steer the conversation in a progressive direction. 2 Timothy 2:24-26 ESV says, "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil after being captured by him to do his will."
Step 3: Establish and Maintain Healthy Boundaries.
The reality is that some people will not change because they are not ready to change or do not believe their behavior is problematic. And that's ok, but that does not mean you have to tolerate it. Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is necessary for your mental health. The Bible warns against investing time, effort, and money in poisonous individuals who hate the care, deny reality and resist change. That kind of person will turn on you and make you regret your good intentions. Matthew 7:6 ESV says, "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you." That may sound a bit harsh, but it's the truth. Some of us deal with codependency issues where it is difficult to set boundaries. Codependency is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual's ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as "relationship addiction" because people with codependency often form or maintain one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive relationships. This brings us back to step one, which informs us to be introspective. Are you codependent?
Step 4: Understand that Forgiveness Does Not Mean Access.
Yes, the Bible commands us to forgive, but forgiveness does not mean granting a toxic person access. Forgiveness also does not mean you forget about the wrong done to you, nor does it mean you will be reconciled with the person who offended you, whether they are family or not. It's critical to recognize the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness. Even while we can and should forgive those who have wronged us, forgiving someone does not necessarily lead to mending the damaged relationship. While reconciliation is a mutual decision between you and your offender that necessitates the fulfillment of several conditions, forgiveness is an unconditional action we take alone. If the end game is reconciliation, the offending person must show repentance. The second step is rehabilitating the person, where the person begins working to change the behavior that caused the offense. This might require support from external parties.
Additionally, reparation could be necessary to mend a damaged connection. Sometimes reconciliation is not possible. In those cases, ask God to help you release that person to Him through the act of forgiveness, along with any feelings of bitterness or resentment. At that point, you can choose to go your separate ways. Romans 16:17-18 ESV says, "I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive." Forgiveness does not require access.
Step 5: Give Yourself Permission to Heal.
Once I gave myself permission to heal, I experienced a new level of freedom. If you refuse to deal with the pain derived from these toxic relationships, eventually, the pain will deal with you. The unhealed version of yourself will show up in meaningful relationships that should otherwise be healthy. The healing process is a process you do not want to experience alone. We all can benefit from wise counsel. In fact, the Bible encourages us to seek it. Psalm 1:1 KJV says-"Seek not counsel from the ungodly. Seek Godly council from those season saints who you know walk with the Lord." Sometimes wise counsel is not your best friend or even close family members. Even though your inner circle might mean well, they are often not equipped to help you to process what took place objectively. In addition, they're typically not trained to provide the type of counsel that most people need. This is where the help of a professional Christian counselor can really help. They can be a safe space for you to share, reflect, and process the family dynamics while helping you to see the situation through a Godly lens. If you need a Christian counselor, please visit our website our counseling page HERE for more information.
Rev. Dr. Robina Wright-Alexander is an ordained minister where she serves as an associate pastor at New Faith Baptist Church International in Matteson, IL. She
earned her doctoral of education in Organizational Leadership at Argosy University in 2017. She is currently working on her master’s degree in divinity from
McCormick Theological Seminary, while also pursing her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling with a focus on trauma at Governors State University inUniversity Park, IL. Robina is passionate about helping trauma survivors to become the best versions of themselves. She is trauma healing intern at Faith on the Journey and an apprentice facilitator with the Trauma Healing Institute.