What To Do When Your Family Pretends

November 7, 2023

You can no longer pretend that your family isn’t dysfunctional, and you’re wondering what your options are.

There are a few things you can do:

  • Set boundaries around the behavior. Once you have identified the behavior(s) you can no longer ignore, it may be possible to set boundaries around them without completely cutting family out of your life. For example, if your parents have a very dysfunctional marriage and they try to include you in that dynamic, you can set boundaries around their behavior when you’re present, you can stop discussing their marital discord with them, and you can stop getting involved or playing peacemaker. These changes will ultimately change your dynamic and prevent you from participating in this part of the dysfunction.
  • Announce your departure. When you no longer play a role, it may be necessary to let people know what you’re doing or no longer doing. You can kindly and directly explain how the dysfunction hurts you, what role you will no longer be playing in it, and how you plan to take ownership of your behavior. There might be pushback at this stage, and that is ok.
  • Temporary or permanent cut-off. Sometimes, the dysfunction is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Sometimes, it’s impossible to maintain a relationship and stop pretending. It is okay to end these relationships and save yourself. These dynamics require pretending, and you may not be able to have any type of relationship while this type of behavior is happening.

How To Explain That You’re Done Pretending

Yes, there are situations where the dysfunction gets so bad (or dangerous) that you must disappear and leave the family dynamic. But, in most cases, I err on the side of clearly and respectfully sharing that you will no longer be participating in a dynamic or that you are setting a boundary. Here are some examples:

  • "If you are going to drink, I will not bring my children to your house."
  • "I cannot help you with your marriage problems. I hope you can figure this out between the two of you."
  • "You are raising your voice at me. I am going to hang up now. Let's discuss this another time when we can both stay calm."
  • "Last Christmas, there was a lot of yelling and insulting each other. I take responsibility for my part in that, and I will not put myself in that position again. I will be spending the holiday with a friend this year. I hope we can work on communicating in a healthier way."
  • "Please do not talk to me about your problems with my sister. It would be best to call her and let her know how you feel.

The goal here is to clearly name the problem and what you will no longer do or tolerate. Keep it simple, clear, and focus on your part.

What To Do When People Want You To Keep Pretending

There will always be those family members who want you to just get over it because it’s family. They have their reasons for this, and we can certainly empathize. And this doesn’t mean you must give in to the pressure. If someone in your family is upset that you’re no longer participating in the dysfunction, remember:

  • You know why you’re taking this step.
  • You are trying to create new patterns for your current and future family.
  • The dysfunction was costing you too much.
  • Someone has to be the first to change if the family is going to change,
  • Being the cycle breaker is lonely at first. It will get better.
  • Nothing is forever. Give people time to work through their relationship with the dysfunction.
  • It’s human nature to want your family to be close and functional. Some people will give up on their own needs and wants to have the facade of a “happy family.”

sign up to have little epiphanies delivered to your inbox