Are Your Relational Problems Inherited?

Three Common Family-of-Origin Issues

Jackson, Mississippi has two types of homes: those that have foundation issues and those that are waiting for their owners to find out they have foundation issues.

We lived in one of the former for years. The house slanted so severely that if a round object of any type was put on the floor, it would race from one side of the room to the other. We constantly employed paint and mortar to remove the visual reminders of the foundation problems we had. But no matter how hard we tried, the cracks returned. The only way to get them remedied was to do significant work to the faulty foundation.

Similarly, when people come from unhealthy homes, they can come with foundational issues. Ones which can cause problems throughout life if they are not dealt with in a healthy manner. Fortunately, we have the balm of the gospel which can overcome any earthly deficit (1 Corinthians 1:26–31).

Foundation Flaws

In order to apply God’s word with skill and wisdom, we should think carefully about the sorts of “foundation” issues that can cause troubles in other areas of life. Wherever there is sin, Christ can give forgiveness (1 John 1:9); wherever our thoughts are twisted, Christ can give us wisdom (James 1:5); wherever there is weakness and brokenness, Christ gives his perfect power (2 Corinthians 12:9). So, as we look to Christ to supply our every need (Philippians 4:19), what sort of “foundation” issues are most common?

1. Attachment

One of the most common issues is the ability to have a healthy level of attachment. Healthy attachment is where we know how to meet other people’s needs and have our own needs met as well. It means we are willing to sacrifice even when our own satisfaction seems nowhere on the horizon (Matthew 16:24), yet we are also able to honestly speak up about our own unmet desires.

Unhealthy attachment comes in two forms. In the first, it believes that all needs are met by others and therefore clings desperately to them. This sort of codependent attachment leans too heavily on others for emotional protection and security, and tries to bear the burden of other people’s emotional weight, even when it’s not their responsibility. Life experiences are filtered through the lens of being responsible for others’ needs and having others be responsible for their needs. But because it’s impossible to be responsible for someone else’s emotional world, all parties end up feeling exhausted.

In the second type of unhealthy attachment, people believe that others are a source of pain and rarely, if ever, are able to reliably meet needs. If those in the first category are over-dependent on others, those in this category are over-isolated. They avoid vulnerability like the plague because it so seldom leads to anything but agony. For them, islands of isolation are better than communities of pain, making intimate emotional experiences both fleeting and rare. They cannot respond to others’ needs because they are so preoccupied with keeping themselves from getting hurt. Sacrifice is a foreign concept, and intimacy begins to dry up.

2. Conflict

The next most common set of issues I see from those that come from an unhealthy family background are those that revolve around conflict resolution. Conflict happens in all relationships — even the apostles had it (Galatians 2:11–14)! But still, sometimes conflict reveals more than we want to see in ourselves. Again, let me paint two opposite poles.

On the one hand, there are those that are ardent conflict avoiders. Conflict has either been incredibly scary in their family of origin, or they’ve never seen it done at all. To be in conflict at all feels like death, so they avoid it at all costs. When forced to have conflict because they can no longer run away, wounds — weeks, months, sometimes even years old — come pouring out all at once, sometimes adding more pain to an already painful situation.

Then there are conflict provokers. For some, chaos simply feels like home. When it isn’t present, they feel like they are just waiting for the other shoe to drop — so they often make it drop on their own terms. For others, they are so afraid that something might get swept under the rug that they feel driven to conflict about any minor relational infraction. The ability to overlook sin and forgive (Proverbs 19:11) without giving it the slow-motion play-by-play treatment only seems like deception.

3. Boundaries

Giving and receiving the word “no” is another skill that people often inherit from their family of origin. Some families treat boundaries like four-letter words — boundaries are not clearly defined or understood, causing confusion and frustration in place of healthy freedom within clear borders. Again, this foundation flaw can split in two directions.

Some are too flexible, allowing others to run over reasonable boundaries and push them into relationships and activities that are neither healthy nor sanctifying. Without the structure and authority to say “no” to some things, their energies are directed not by themselves or kingdom purposes — for example, saying “no” to an extra hour of work in order to be present at the dinner table — but by the people around them.

On the other hand, others are too rigid, breaking off relationship at the slightest hint of disagreement, destroying relationships that otherwise would be helpful. Their boundaries are too tall and too wide. If it doesn’t fit their plans, the answer is automatically “no.” There is no category for sacrificing plans and structure in order to serve others. There is no flexibility to turn the other cheek or walk the extra mile when called by the Lord to do so (Matthew 5:38–42).

Foundation Repair

While all three of these patterns may be problematic, none of them is fatal. Why? Because the love of God is greater than all of these. Christ’s love — not our flawed families — controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14). Christ does not forsake those with flawed family foundations. In fact, this is often where he shows grace most powerfully (2 Corinthians 12:9).

1. Hope for Attachment

Perhaps you feel you can never be whole on your own — if there’s any hope for a happy life, it depends on the people around you. This is a lie. As much as God loves to give us his grace through the people around us, he does not leave us dependent on them for the grace we need. Indeed, even when everyone around us fails us, we are not alone. We always have Christ’s grace, the Father’s love, and fellowship with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Perhaps, on the other hand, you fear that vulnerability is just the prelude to betrayal. Remember that God knows us more fully than we even know ourselves, and still, rather than rejecting us, he chose to send his most precious Son to die for us that we might be his.

2. Peace in Conflict

And for those that struggle with conflict, they too can find rest in the gospel. While the Christian life is full of conflict (John 15:19), Christ gives us his peace through his Spirit, the Great Comforter (John 14:27). Timidity and anxiety in the face of conflict may give way to confident praises, as we wait for the day when peace will reign in all creation and conflict will be a matter for history books (Isaiah 2:4).

And for those who find conflict normal, or even comforting, we should show them that the fruit of the indwelling Spirit will yield a soul-soothing peace (Galatians 5:22–23), not just on the last day, but here and now. They too have the ability to find comfort in the calm.

3. Love in Boundaries

Lastly, for those for whom “no” feels like a sort of personal assault, the gospel frees us to make wise and loving decisions about gospel resources. Those resources include our time, our money, and our affections. Our commitments, relationships, and energies are not in the control of those around us; they’re not even in our own hands to control. Rather, everything belongs to Christ and must be used to glorify him (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Our choices should enable us to focus outward more and more on Christ’s kingdom, serving others skillfully so that the great Servant and King may be made manifest in us (Philippians 2:3–11).

A Father Who Gives and Gives

In the end, none of us comes from perfect families, however healthy they might be. Always, our goal should be to apply the balm of the gospel to our relationships, while looking for the evidence of its fruit. Where there are strengths, you lean into them while thanking God for his goodness. And where there are weaknesses, you bring them to the cross and wait expectantly for Christ to work there, too.

God is not stingy with his mercy, because he wants to get glory through our gratitude, awe, and dependence on his mercy (Romans 15:9). This is where our hope lies: not in perfect family origins, but in the perfect Father who gives us the grace we need to follow him.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.