Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Relationships: When Family (or Any Relationship) Hurts


Relationships: When Family Hurts

Family. Love them or love them not, there’s often a limit to what you can do with the difficult ones. You can’t live with them and you can’t make them join the circus. When there’s a lifetime of emotional investment involved, it’s likely that any response will hurt and will require a huge push, whether it’s walking away or fighting for the relationship.

Even if you decide that the price of being in the relationship is too high, it’s not always easy to leave. Sometimes it’s just not an option. Whether you’re on your way out or bracing for more, here are some ways to protect yourself from the ones who scrape you:

  1. Don’t let anyone else’s behaviour change who you are.

    Be dignified. Be brilliant. Be kind. Don’t let anyone reduce the best of you. 

  2. Make it clear this isn’t personal.

    Insecurity is at the heart of a lot of broken relationships. Insecure people will feel attacked even when no attack is made. If this is a relationship you care about, do whatever you can to help the other person feel safe and secure. Insecurity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are insecure will often respond to the world as though it’s going to hurt them. They’ll be cold, they’ll judge, they’ll take the first strike – all to protect themselves. In response, the world walks away, confirming the insecure person’s view that the world just isn’t safe.  

    Show them you’re different. Let them know that you don’t mean anything personally, that you appreciate their point of view and that you want to understand how they feel. (You might need to say it a few times!) Whatever you do, don’t blame. If you need to point out something they’re doing wrong, end it by letting them know that the relationship is important to you and you want to work on it. The more positive you can be the better:  ‘Every time I see you, you’re pointing out something else you don’t like about me. I really want to have a good relationship with you but it’s really hard when I feel like everything I do is judged harshly by you. Can we try and do things a little differently?’

  3. Now remind yourself not to take it personally.

    People will judge you, hurt you, put you down and try to break you – and most often, this will have nothing at all to do with you. 

    You don’t have to stay around and you don’t have to invest, but if leaving the relationship isn’t an option, seeing someone’s behaviour for what it is – a defence against a world that has hurt them once too many times – will help to protect you from the pain that comes from taking things personally.

  4. Find compassion

     Difficult people weren’t born that way. Generally the way they are responding to you is the way they have learned to respond to the world to keep themselves safe. It might be an ‘adversarial’ ‘I’ll get you before you get me,’ response. It might stem from having to control everything in their environment because they’ve learnt (somehow) that unpredictability  isn’t safe. Perhaps they have no idea of their impact on people and all they know is that relationships seem to fall like broken toy soldiers around them. Just because it’s painfully clear to you what they do, doesn’t mean it is to them.  

    There may be little you can do to change the relationship, but you might just be able to change the way it affects you. Feeling compassion is important because of the way it changes things for you. Compassion is an empowering choice you can make when you feel like you don’t have any choice at all.

  5. Hold the space. For them and for you.

    Sometimes the best thing you can do for a relationship you care about is to hold steady and give the other person time and space to work out whatever it is they’re going through – while you stand still beside them. This is different to the space people give when they stay away for a while. 

    Let the person know that you’re not going anywhere, if that’s what they want, and that there doesn’t need to be any resolution for the moment. Do this without judging or criticising. It’s so difficult to be in an uncertain relationship but sometimes that’s exactly what the relationship needs – time to work through the uncertainty without fear of losing the relationship. There’s no need to hurry a relationship worth fighting for.

  6. Accept what is.

    One of the greatest sources of unhappiness is the chasm between what we want and what we have. The gap left behind by a family member who hurts you can be immense. What makes it worse is that the pain is often recurring, hitting you every time you’re with them. Who knows why some people have amazing families and some have families that drain them, but not everything makes sense. You don’t deserve a difficult relationship, but don’t allow yourself to be ruined by that. Acknowledge what it is, let go of what it isn’t, and flourish despite it.

  7. You don’t need to convince anyone. 

    You are not here to win anyone’s approval. None of us are. Run the race you want to run. You don’t need to convince anyone of your reasons, your direction, or why you’re telling some people get out of your way. Just go around them – it’s much easier.  That you are silent, still and choose not to engage does not mean they’re right. It means you just don’t have to prove anything anymore. Because you don’t. 

  8. It’s okay not to be with them. 

    They may be your family, but you don’t have to have a relationship with anyone you don’t want to. If it feels too painful, explore what you’re getting out of the relationship by staying. If you choose to have a relationship anyway, let that be a testament to the capacity you have to make your own decisions and act accordingly. Change the way you look at it. If you have to maintain contact, let this be your decision made in strength, not in defeat. Own the decision because it was the best thing to do for you, not because someone else decided it was the decision that needed to be made.

  9. Acknowledge their feelings, but don’t buy into them.

    Acknowledging how somebody feels doesn’t mean you agree with them. Saying something as simple as, ‘I understand you’re really angry but I  see things differently to you,’ or, ‘I know that’s how you see it and I have no interest in changing that. I have a different view,’ is a way to show that you’ve heard. Letting people know you’ve seen them and heard them is so powerful. Doing it and standing your ground without getting upset is even more so.

  10. Set your boundaries. And protect them fiercely.

    We teach people how to treat us. Imagine a visual boundary around yourself. You’ll feel when it’s being stepped over. Your skin might bristle, your chest might ache – it’s different for everyone but get to know what it feels like for you. When it happens, let the other person know. They might not care at all, or they might have no idea they’ve had that impact. If your boundary isn’t respected, walk away until it feels as though it’s been reset. Explain what you’ll tolerate and what you’ll do when that doesn’t happen. ‘I really want us to talk about this but if you’re going to scream at me, I’m going to walk away until you’re ready o stop,’ or, ‘I really want us to work through this but if you just keep telling me that I’m not good enough, I’m going to hang up the phone.’

  11. Is there anything you can do differently?

    You might be dealing with the most difficult person in the world, but that doesn’t have to stop you from being open to the things you might be able to change about yourself. Is there any truth at all in what that person is saying? Is there anything you’re doing that’s contributing to the problem? This isn’t about winning or losing but about honesty, learning and growth. Nobody is perfect – thankfully – and the best people to be around are the ones who are constantly open to their impact and their contribution to relationships, good or bad. That doesn’t mean you have to take the blame for the mess, but this might be an opportunity for your own wisdom to flourish. What can you learn from the situation? What can you learn from them? Nobody is all bad or all good. Take advantage of the opportunity. Focus on what you can learn. Ditch the rest.

  12. Leave with love

    This is important. If you walk away from family don’t let the final words be angry ones. You never know what the future holds. However angry or hurt you are, death has a way of bringing up guilt and regret in the cleanest of relationships and forever is a long time not to have resolution. Anger is the one emotion that’s never pure. It’s always protecting another, more vulnerable one. Some common ones are fear, grief, insecurity, confusion. Tap into that and speak from there. That way, when you walk away, you’re much more likely to feel as though nothing has been left unsaid. Just because a relationship is ending, doesn’t mean it has to end angry. You don’t want to leave room for regret. Leave it with strength, dignity and love because that’s who you are. Trust me on this.

There will always be those whose love and approval comes abundantly and easily. They’re the keepers. As for the others, if the fight leaves you bruised, you’d have to question whether the relationship is worth it.

There will always be people who try to dim you. Sometimes this will be intentional and sometimes they will have no idea. You can’t change what people do but you can keep yourself safe and strong, just as you deserve to be.

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For a long time I’ve had a feeling that my sister doesn’t like me .I think sometimes she resents my existence.She is quick to judge me and berates me if she thinks I’ve done something to offend her.She doesn’t do this with other family members.
The other day during a group phone chat with my other siblings she yelled at me for something I did not do.
After the call I offered to make amends but it did not make a difference to her.I feel like there’s no point in continuing the relationship.


Oh my goodness, I am literally crying right now. Some of this is exactly what hit me and what I needed to hear. But for some reason, I feel as if I am a possible problem. Maybe I am being selfish in believing that no one likes to listen to me or to each other, but that is how I view my family. No one has respect for each other and they never listen. After I argue with one family member, sometimes another one will jump in the fight. It seems as if they are deliberately ganging up on me and just picking on me, but maybe I am the problem. That is the exact feeling I have when I leave an arguement. Please, someone explain to me what is happening. If I really am the problem, I would like pointers as to becoming a better person for myself and for those around me so that I can encounter less tension. Whoever has read thus far, I am sorry for hurting your eyes with so many words.


The person who says: “Maybe I’m the problem?” is rarely the problem. Some families seem to do Communication By Combat. God alone knows why. I don’t know whether it would help to raise the issue at the next family gathering. (“Hey, does anyone else feel that we do more yelling at each other than most families do? Anything we can do to change that?”) If not, maybe just good old-fashioned avoidance of drama (attending few events, going silent when voices are raised) would help.


Thank you Ms. Young. My sister and I are always having problems and your words really hit home. I have been handling things very much like you suggest and hearing it sure lifts a weight. The validation feels good as well. You also give me the tools I need to move forward so I thank you for that as well.


It might be rare for the problem child to admit they are the problem but if it’s not them then who, hmm? Remember, Ms. Young said you might not know if it’s you. So I think it’s best to point them in the direction of help. The chances are they could use it anyway. I mean, can’t we all?

andria t

I have been wronged by the worst kind. I won’t be going to any of my family members’ funerals if they die first. If I die first I don’t want them there. I hope I never see them again. I hope they go through he worst trauma one can imagine after what they did to me. God hasn’t been kind to many of us and I don’t blame him for that. I just hate living my life concerning myself with every move that I make to make sure I pleased him- but he has had his back turned to me all my life. I don’t worry now and my life has gotten much better. I don’t have those family members in my life and my world has changed for the better. No wonder people who don’t believe in God seem to have the best time out of life because they aren’t caught up in the worry of what will god say if I hate my family after they lied to authorities to have my children taken from me. This is the same family that I have always helped when they called. I never want to see them again and if the coroner calls to tell me one of them have past on- I’m going to reply- you have the wrong number. Thanks God for my wonderful life!

Donna R

I have had a hemmoragic Stroke and family members don’t tell me things anymore and it hurts. I feel like they are afraid to tell me things for fear of me having another stroke. What can I do?

Colleen Mc

I don’t understand for my family to feel they have to manage me rather than have a relationship with me.
I have tried my best will all of them and have always but their needs before my own and sometimes before my children’s to keep the peace. But after 4 hateful years of diversion and division I find myself the only one on the outside looking in.
I am hurt but dealing with it best I can. I don’t want to go backwards with anyone of them and find myself now only staying connected for my children’s sake. I pray to god each day that he keeps me safe until my children are grown up to a age they are able to cope in their own. I have provided for them well should I die but emotionally I need to ensure they are at age where they don’t need anyone except each other in a healthy way. Everything I have I worked hard for and would love to live in peace now and not to be continuously emotionally abused by my families unkindness


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