Monday, January 10, 2011

How to Forgive Your Family

© 2011 by Tom King

If you suffer a disability or a physical or mental illness, if you have suffered a tragedy or if you've suffered a devastating loss, you instinctively turn to your family for support and comfort. Sometimes, suppor is there in abundance if you are blessed with a healthy, strongly-bonded family that's worked out all it's issues and loves each other unreservedly.

Sometimes, though, our families fail us entirely at our moment of greatest need. The consequences can be fatal for a family. At the very least, it can leave us hurt, angry and vulnerable at our moment of greatest need.

So, is there any way to fix it?

There can be, but it takes a rather remarkable person to make it happen. If you are waiting around for someone else to be that remarkable person, you're likely to be disappointed. That remarkable person is very likely going to have to be you.

“But my mother should have.....”

“If Dad had just.....”
“My sister knows I need.....”
“I'm always there for them, but when I need them........”


I'm not going to quote long passages from researchers like John Bradshaw and Helen Featherstone, who have done extensive work on why trauma can wreck a family. I read all that stuff in grad school so you don't have to. I can best explain by drawing on one of Bradshaw's favorite illustrations – the mobile.

Imagine a mobile, one of those hanging art sculptures that have all the pieces suspended from wires and sticks and perfectly balanced and spaced so the variously shaped pieces hang there rotating slowly without colliding with one another in an intricate dance. Bradshaw used this to illustrate how families achieve a kind of balance with one another – healthy ones do at least. Like an element of a mobile sculpture, if one of the family members needs or situation change, the whole thing goes through a period of re-balancing. Some relationships and spacing may need to be changed. This can happen as a result of a marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, disability, mental or physical illness.

The mobile is a good illustration. A healthy family recognizes that when something like this happens, the family system will need to change in order to achieve a new healthy balance. If there are sufficient mature family leaders, the transition can be almost seamless. Usually, the strongest members take it upon themselves to do most of the accommodation – the shifting to a new balance point, if you will. This can be a brother who shifts his role from prince to mentor to the new baby brother. It can be the Mom, who steps back from a newly married child and gives them time to pair bond before attempting to re-establish the close relationship she once had with the child. It can be many members of the family adapting to the needs of a family member suddenly disabled or who is stricken with mental illness.

This is how healthy families do things. Chances are you don't have one of those. In very close, insular sorts of families or already dysfunctional families in particular, members may resist change. Sometimes, if the family balance was difficult to achieve in the first place because one family member is already needy or dominating, family members may be terrified of any change in the status of a family member and simply retreat from reality and refuse to recognize that change is taking place whether they want it to or not. They may blame the person who is sick or who they see as responsible for the change.

Doing so, leaves them unavailable to comfort the person in trouble. If that person is you, it is very painful to experience. It's easy to become angry because the people you thought you should be able to count on are so wrapped up in their own fear of change that they are worse than no help at all.


This may not be a lot of comfort to you if you are ill, grieving, disabled, mentally ill or sick. You have to decide if your relationship to your loved ones is worth saving or not. You have to decide if you have what it takes to actively participate in repairing the breach. There are three things you can do:

  1. Let things be and hope they come out alright. If you do that, things will likely get worse before they get better unless you have some unusually healthy kinfolk. While you view their lack of support as a betrayal, they may not understand what's happening with you at all. If the problem is mental illness, think about this.  They may not fully understand what's happened to you and blame you for acting erratically. If it's grief, loss, illness or disability, the family may simply be overwhelmed by the tragedy and be grieving themselves. Sometimes that grief can cause them to pull away and try to regroup. You can say nothing and let it happen and it may work out. The chances aren't very good, especially if you make a fuss because your loved ones appear to have abandoned you.
  2. Confront your loved ones and tell them exactly how you feel and expect them to fix it. Sadly, the chances of this working out well are very low. People are flawed creatures and yelling at them or demanding they be better than they are isn't very effective. Waiting on someone else to fix a damaged relationship between you and your family leaves you feeling helpless and your family feeling put upon. You'll need a professional mediator to solve your problem if everybody is waiting for someone else to fix things.
  3. Change what's going on in your own head. This advice applies particularly to Christians, though some other faiths and philosophies offer some variant of this advice. Being Christian I will defer to what I know. Families are God's microcosm of the human family. When God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, he was mad at them and wanted them to learn a hard lesson. Families are where we learn to love someone besides ourselves. It's where we learn the practical application of the Golden Rule. Forgive your family and toss aside what you believe they should have done. Believe that they love you and look for a solution, not for someone to blame. It may just be the whole horrible situation that's to blame and not any one person. Ultimately, though, you may have to be the first person to realize and accept that.
Love is something you do, not something you feel. It flows out from you. In no place in Scripture does God tell you to sit back on your fuzzy butt and wait for people to give you love. As His agent, each of us is commanded to love one another. It's hard when you are hurt and suffering to love people who seem to have abandoned you, though. Paul gives us a hint about how to do that in I Corinthians 13. He says that love bears all things. He says that love believes the best of others.
So how do you believe the best of someone who is acting like your tragedy is all your fault and isn't there to support you when you need them? You believe the best of them, that's how. You have the template for doing that inside you already. God gave each of us the innate ability to believe the best of ourselves. No matter what we do, we always find excuses for ourselves. Jesus told us to love others as we love ourselves. So do that!
We are apparently under orders, by God to expect the best of our loved ones (technically, that's everyone, but it ought to be particularly true of our family – the very ones on whom we are to practice love). If our loved ones fail, God wants us to believe the best anyway. Assume there's a reason they seem to have failed. Assume they really love you, but for some reason, they have been overwhelmed by it all. You'll be happier than if you cling to your hurt feelings and assumption that everyone's being selfish (which is probably untrue anyway).
Try honestly discussing your own situation with the family members you most need comfort from. Be honest about what's happening to you. If you feel overwhelmed, say that. If you are in constant pain, tell them. If you feel useless and depressed, tell them that.
Forget about confrontation. Don't demand anything of them, just ask them to let you talk over what you're going through, if they can. Tell them you love them and need them to know that you will always love them no matter what. Let go of your anger. Don't even tell them you forgive them, just do it!
They may not handle it well. They may want to give advice to try and make it all better. It's okay to ask them just to listen and trust that you were raised well enough to figure it out for yourself. If you tell your loved ones you're miserable and just need someone to sympathize, you'll be surprised how fast their hearts melts.
It may go all wrong too. Your loved one may be so desperate to stop the change in the family dynamic that they unload on you, tell you how it's your fault and telling you what you need to do to fix it. When that happens, back off and try a different family member, because that one is in just as much psychological trouble as you are. If they react to you with pent up anger and can't grant you a simple shoulder to cry on, something is very wrong with them. Don't hate them, pity them. It's lots easier.
Say to yourself, “She's just too upset over this to think clearly.” Then move on. Sometimes, all you do is say, what you need to, especially with compulsive people who tend to really resist change. Don't worry if you appear to have lost the argument.  Forgive and sleep well. They, on the other hand, won't be able to stop thinking about it for days. They'll argue with themselves in their heads and they won't be able to sleep till they come to some new internal balance. They may even argue your side of it so well in their own heads, that they eventually see your side of it and come and apologize to you days later.
I know it's tough to have to endure trauma yourself and be the mature one in your family at the same time, but it's the only sure way I know of to preserve your relationship with those you love. It's up to you to decide if it's worth it. I believe it is.

Beside, it will help you not to feel helpless anymore.


  1. Thank you for you wise comments. Been there, done that - & God has supported me thru the decades of healing. Now I'm passing it on - too.

  2. Been there myself, Donna. God go with you....