Having a Broken Family: What It Means and How to Cope

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Even the most seemingly idyllic families face problems, and sometimes it can be hard to determine exactly how to go about navigating these issues. In the most extreme cases, certain problems can even lead to estrangement.

Often called broken families, there are many potential causes of estrangement between family members, and many of them come down to specific details surrounding the individuals and the situations involved. To find out more about what causes these relational rifts, as well as how to solve them, Verywell Mind tapped Frank Anderson, MD, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, who specializes in the treatment of trauma.

"A broken family is one that includes unhealthy or severed relationships within the family unit," explains Anderson. "They are often associated with divorce but certainly can occur in an intact family where various members are in conflict with or estranged from each other." 

What Causes Estrangement Between Family Members?

While every relationship is unique, Anderson explained some common causes of estrangement among family members:

  • Abuse: Anderson notes that this can include sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. While abuse is typically a result of some other factor (mental health problems, for example), it's understandable if it complicates your ability to forgive.
  • Mental health issues: If you or your family member faced mental health issues that resulted in the estrangement, it's important to address those issues before moving forward with attempting to fix the relationship. If you were struggling with the issues, make sure you seek help from a therapist and then communicate to the family member that you have sought help and moved forward. If a family member was the one dealing with mental health issues, it's OK to ask them if they've addressed the issues by seeking out help.
  • Financial hardship: Money can complicate any relationship, but this is especially true for loved ones. That said, many times these issues can be remedied by being open and honest about your concerns.
  • Differing beliefs: This can come into play in a variety of ways—such as political or religious—and if it impacts your ability or your family member's ability to be kind and respectful, then it can become a major problem.
  • Boundary crossings: This is perhaps especially true for immediate family members like parents or siblings. In these cases, it's especially important to make sure you've made the person aware of your boundaries so that they know exactly what it is that offends you. It's also important to listen to your family member if they are trying to explain their boundaries to you.
  • Overly controlling parents or parental figures: While parents or parental figures often mean well, they can sometimes push too far when it comes to exerting their control. If this is carrying over into your personal life and impacting your relationships, it's important to make your parents aware of the ways they're affecting your life.
  • Refusals to apologize: If you or a loved one are refusing to apologize, it's especially important to make sure you understand the other person's motives. If you feel that everyone's reasoning has been considered and there's still a refusal to apologize, this can cause a major rift.

How Do You Know When a Familial Relationship Is Worth Saving?

First off, it's important to be honest with yourself about the nature of the relationship you had with this family member before things went sour. Was it meaningful and positive or is the relationship's history lined with toxicity? If you do find that it was meaningful and positive, it may be worth mending.

"Broken families are repairable when the involved parties are willing to meet together, to listen to each other’s point of view and to be able to freely discuss their differences with the intention of resolving the conflict and repairing the relationship," says Anderson.

How to Effectively Repair Relationships With Family Members

In order to effectively repair a relationship, Anderson emphasizes the importance of both parties' willingness to "forgo a defensive posture." By this, he means that each party should be willing to listen to the other, even if this means hearing things that are potentially hurtful. It also requires both parties to speak honestly and openly about their feelings.

"If at any time it becomes unsafe to anyone involved, each party should have the freedom to end the discussion, perhaps postpone it for another time or leave it without further follow-up if necessary," says Anderson.

If you want to speak with a family member, but you're worried that things will get too heated for either person, it may be helpful to enlist the help of a mediator.

"It is often helpful to have a third-party present to arbitrate the discussion," says Anderson. "The neutral party should be able to feel empowered to speak up when necessary and establish boundaries and guidelines for the ensuing discussion."

How to Accept That a Family Relationship Is Over

It's important to note that you can forgive someone without reinstating a relationship with that person. In fact, it's better for your mental health if you do forgive them, because it can help you find peace.

"Forgiveness is something that is achieved internally," says Anderson. "It does not necessarily require the other person to be present in order for it to be meaningful, successful and long-lasting."

Anderson emphasizes the importance of therapy when it comes to processing the end of any important relationship. While it may take some time, if you're open to mentally forgiving someone, you can move past in a way that brings you internal peace.

"It is certainly possible, in the context of a supportive therapeutic setting, to work through, resolve, release and forgive a family member who has hurt you, even if you don’t have contact with them," says Anderson.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you need to forgive a family member for yourself or in order to mend a relationship, it's always best to make sure you do what's going to benefit your mental health. Moving past hurtful things from the past is possible, and you'll only feel better for it.

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