“When is it time for the entire family to enter into therapy?” People often contemplate counseling when the tensions in their families have become unbearable, and when they can no longer cope with inescapable pain and suffering. As a counselor, I am invited to witness the discord of multiple generations and to provide support as they work through their emotional and psychological brokenness. Counselors become a conduit through which family members can process their pain, betrayal, anger and disappointment. As the individuals begin to heal, this produces healing in the family dynamic.
Family discord can take various forms. For example, one may find:
- A mother and daughter with ongoing arguments about abandonment and abuse.
- Ex-spouses who cannot agree on the best way to raise their children.
- Sisters who refuse to speak to their estranged brother or father.
- Parents who demand that their children take their sides in an argument.
These are just a few examples of the challenges that bring families into therapy. In this article, I take a candid look at some of the dynamics that indicate that it is time to enter into family therapy.
Taking Sides Causes an Emotional Chasm
“I just don’t understand how my mom could leave my father. He has taken care of us all our lives. Just because he stepped out on my mom once does not mean she has the right to divorce him. She is so selfish.”
Family members often have an opinion about the decisions of other family members. It is difficult to be objective when you are too close to the situation, and the offender and the offended may begin to make an inventory of their sympathizers. The message that is given is essentially, “If you don’t take sides with me, you don’t love me.” Such dysfunctional allegiance only produces further discord within the family.
It is not easy to step outside of the narrow view of the situation held by the differing parties, and it takes a great deal of strength to extend compassion to all those involved. Doing so does not mean that one should not hold people accountable or ignore the consequences of their actions. But it does mean that when one member of the family suffers, the other members of the family should seek to empathize with their pain.
Communication Requires Real Dialogue and Openness
“It is impossible to get a word in edgewise. The moment I try and explain, I get shot down. My family don’t want to hear my truth. Instead, my parents want to dictate what I do and then throw their hands up when it doesn’t work!”
When things go wrong in the family dynamic, different members are pushed and pulled to take sides and are expected to declare their allegiances in disputes. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what is right or wrong. Reserving judgment because we know that we need more facts to come to a better understanding can create challenges for others. Building communication requires a real dialogue between the individuals involved. Communication is undermined when one family member projects their own interpretation onto the words of another family member.
The challenge in such a situation is to identify your own personal motivation. Is this an opportunity to connect with a disproving father or a distant mother? Have you confused your own personal issues with other people’s relationships and is this affecting your current family issues? As it says in Proverbs: “Out of the heart flow the issues of life.” (Prov. 4:23)
Violence in Conversations Indicates a Need for Therapy
“Hearing my father badmouth my mother is more than I can bear at times. I even changed his ring tone so that I can avoid it. I feel so conflicted when my mother calls and feel so down when I get off the phone.”
We often associate violence with a physical attack, such as striking someone across the face or physically abusing child. However, we can also inflict violence through the words we speak and the deeds we do. How easy it is to speak harsh words without thinking of their consequences. We live in a society that endorses freedom of speech, yet not everything needs to be said.
I have found that counseling can help reduce the effects of violent altercations. When family members are hurting and do not feel heard, they resort to angry outbursts followed by regret and remorse. “I don’t know why I ever had children,” a mother shouted in her depression and anguish over the death of a child. Yet these words would later become a horrible flashback for her remaining children, who had to grapple with the pain caused by their mother’s statement. As the violence in a relationship escalates, so the need for counseling increases. The harm inflicted by such violence takes more time to heal than the short-term gratification clients may experience in the moment. If you can’t say something nice about the other person, say nothing. Remember that “the power of life and death are in the tongue.” (Prov. 18:21)
We Need to Make Sense of Suffering
In No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton writes: “Suffering, therefore must make sense to us not as a vague universal necessity, but as something demanded by our own personal destiny.” My clients want to make sense of their relationships with their families. They ask: “Why do I act the way I do? Why does it matter what my parents think of me?” We do not live in isolation, and our actions have an impact on the world in which we live. Our interactions with family members or ex-spouses affects how we love, live and breathe.
To live successful lives we need to make sense of our past and present suffering. In Mending the Soul, Dr. Steve Tracy confirms that many of the abuses we struggle with are a product of our family disconnects. This why we need to learn to grow and heal in our family interaction. And it is this that produces character and increases our emotional strength.
Christian Counseling Can Help Your Family to Heal
My clients are often amazed at the relief they experience when confronting a family secret with their siblings. In therapy we are able to surrender to the truth of our situation. This includes our past, our thoughts, our feelings and our need to be in relationship with others. Healing begins when we are willing to acknowledge both that we have been wronged and that we have wronged others in our intimate community. Family therapy is an important part of Christian counseling and can be an important part of your own journey to healing.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Image courtesy of Vlado / FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
No man is an Island by Thomas Merton was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002; Mending the Soul by Dr. Steve Tracy was published by Zondervan, 2005