How To Untangle Unhealthy Family Dynamics — Without Cutting Anyone Out

Nearly 1 in 4 American adults are estranged from a family member, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Family enjoying dinner together in the back, while mother in law-son and his wife argue Johnce, Motortion | Canva

Your family is where you discover love, support and a sense of belonging. The familial bond is intended to be for life, right? However, a surprising number of families do not function in a healthy, harmonious way and have become estranged. Nearly 1 in 4 American adults are either not speaking with a family member, or have a family member who refuses to speak with them.

Unhealthy family dynamics are complexly tangled webs of emotional conflict and weaponized expectations. When you repeatedly have to face someone who creates family dynamic instability, you will begin to fear having to cut them out of your life.


You will need to untangle a whole mess of emotions if you want to avoid blocking them out of your life.

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How to untangle an unhealthy family dynamic — without resorting to estrangement 

First, let's look at what defines an unhealthy family dynamic.


Here’s a list of what can constitute unhealthy family dynamics.

Communication breakdown: A lack of open, honest, and respectful communication can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and frustration.

Unresolved conflicts: Lingering conflicts, whether recent or historical, create tension within the family and put a strain on healthy relationships.

Unhealthy boundaries: Some families struggle with blurred boundaries, where individuals may feel smothered or overly responsible for others' emotions.

Emotional neglect or abuse: Emotional neglect or abuse can cause long-lasting psychological scars and make it challenging to build healthy relationships.


Co-dependency: Family members may be stuck in a destructive pattern of justified “neediness” that keeps each person dependent on the other.

Cultural or religious extremism: The traditions of a family carried down through culture or religious beliefs may be unhealthy, with little flexibility to shift towards positive change.

Six strategies to untangle messy family dynamics, protect yourself, and deal with family more effectively

1. Identifying your part in the dynamics

Family dynamics are created by the family and you’re one of its members! You are responsible for the energy you bring.

It's essential to reflect on your role within any unhealthy family dynamics. Self-awareness is key.


Consider the following:

Your triggers: Identify what triggers your emotional reactions within the family. Does your sensitive nature have you take things personally? Is your need for perfection landing as controlling? Do you have a need to be right and rarely apologize?

Your boundaries: Check in with your own boundaries. Are they too rigid, or do you struggle to assert yourself? Do you need to please or apologize too easily and later feel resentful? Finding a balance is crucial.

Your contributions: Acknowledge any ways in which you may contribute to the unhealthy dynamics. This could be through enabling certain behaviors or avoiding conflict altogether. Are you aware of how you may be the problem to help you respond more constructively?


Your expectations: Having expectations of your family can lead to disappointment and frustration. A better approach is to simply assume everyone is doing their best as that’s all anyone can do in any given moment - otherwise you would have done it differently!

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2. Prioritize open, honest, and compassionate communication

Healthy communication is the cornerstone of any functioning relationship. To untangle unhealthy family dynamics, practice open, honest, and compassionate communication in these ways:

Initiate tough conversations: Take the initiative to talk about the issues weighing on your heart. Choose a time and place, and create a safe space for everyone by setting a judgment-free compassionate tone up front.


Use "I" statements: Frame your concerns using "I" statements, which express your feelings and experiences without blaming or accusing others. For example, say, "I feel disrespected when these words are said..." rather than "You always..."

Listen actively: Practice active listening by giving your full attention, being empathetic, and avoiding interruptions. Encourage others to express their thoughts and feelings as well by asking questions from your genuine curiosity.

Seek understanding: Make an effort to understand the perspectives and emotions of other family members first so you know how anything you share will land. Remind yourself that your family’s criticism and judgment is strong because they want what’s best for you in “their way” of believing it works when you know for yourself it does not.

Stay calm: Emotions can run high when family dynamics are unhealthy. Staying calm keeps your own mind clear, and if needed, take breaks to prevent escalation. Writing any necessary letters or having conversations when you’re connected to your heart not your head helps see how to pave your way forward.


Meet people where they are: Speak to where someone has the capacity to listen. It requires you to listen first to know who you are talking to. If you keep being surprised by how someone responds - you are creating your own frustration and disappointment. Not everyone has the capacity to hear what you’re saying, and you need to know what’s better left unsaid.

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3. Set healthy boundaries

Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial in untangling unhealthy family dynamics:

Identify boundaries: Determine what boundaries are necessary for your emotional well-being based on your values. Remember values are personal and subjective. These could involve personal space, privacy, or limits on certain topics of conversation. Know what’s a “Oh, no thank you!” for what you are not willing to tolerate.


Communicate boundaries: Clearly communicate your boundaries to your family in a respectful and assertive manner. Explain why these boundaries are important for you. If someone needs to be right even when you believe they’re wrong and where apologies either don’t come or mean nothing — why even bother engaging unless you enjoy constant conflict?

Enforce boundaries: Be prepared to enforce your boundaries if they are crossed. This may involve calmly reiterating what does not work for you or temporarily distancing yourself if necessary. If someone speaks to you in a tone that’s condescending, call it out and simply say you will be walking when spoken to this way.

 you Respect others' boundaries: Respect the boundaries of other family members as well. If you see where someone holds a belief that differs from yours, accept you are different. We don’t all need to agree. Avoid trying to convince someone of your “right opinion”. Mutual respect means allowing others to think and behave in whatever way works for them and you having this same freedom.

Make up your own boundaries: We do not choose our family of origin and the in-laws are not who you committed to marry. Sometimes, maintaining harmony among family means getting creative around attending separate activities especially over the holidays.


4. Focus on healing and forgiveness

Untangling unhealthy family dynamics often requires healing and forgiveness. This process can be challenging but is essential for personal growth and inner peace.

Self-healing: Focus on your own healing and self-care. What wounds are you still carrying? Seek therapy or counseling if necessary to work through past traumas or emotional pain.

Practice forgiveness: Forgiveness doesn't mean condoning hurtful actions; it means letting go of resentment and judgment you’re still holding against someone. We have no control over how someone else chooses, but can choose how we respond. We can accept without agreeing with other people to find inner peace.

Avoid having expectations: When we hold expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Instead, lean into trusting that everyone is doing the best they can at their own level of awareness. When you practice releasing your expectations, you open a space for people to simply be themselves and you create the freedom to be yourself.


Seek support: Lean on those who’ve earned your trust outside your family, such as friends or support groups who can give you the safe space to share your frustrations, hurt or anger. Try to avoid blaming and complaining, but instead vent your tangled emotions to release this toxic energy from your system. Instead of “she’s such a _____!" express “I’m so hurt, angry, sad or frustrated because my values are being stepped on".

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5. Take care of you 

Throughout the process of untangling unhealthy family dynamics, it's essential to prioritize self-care:

Physical health: Maintain good habits for your nutrition, exercise, and adequate sleep. Physical well-being supports emotional resilience.


Mental health: Practice mindfulness, meditation, and stillness. Listen to relaxing visualizations to manage stress and promote emotional balance. Be in the power of the present of the moment not fretting about the past you cannot change or worrying about the future that is relying on your current mental health to create.

Self-reflection: Continuously engage in self-reflection by journalling to monitor your journey and notice your “ahas”, signs and synchronicities. A great way to practice getting insights is to write out your frustrations and questions directed to your higher self, and then answer as if your highest Source is advising you.

Patience and compassion: Being kind and patient with yourself and your family members are powerful change makers. Change takes time, and remember flare-ups can happen and are often needed to get to the other side toward a better place.


6. Celebrate the little steps of progress

As you work toward untangling unhealthy family dynamics, celebrate the small victories and progress you make.

Acknowledge efforts: Recognize and acknowledge the efforts of family members who are working towards healthier dynamics. The smallest changes add up.

Express gratitude: Express gratitude for the positive aspects of your family, such as good memories or moments of connection.

Reflect on growth: Reflect on your personal growth and newfound strengths in navigating challenging family situations. Notice who you are becoming and your outside world will reflect your higher vibration.

Sometimes estrangement is the best option

I would love say you don’t ever have to cut a family member out of your life, however, there are always exceptions to every rule!


If you’ve given these steps a sincere go with your family dynamics, and you’re still experiencing emotional, mental or physical pain that drains you threatening your health in any way emotionally, mentally, or physically, it’s time to get honest.

You have hard choices to make in this short life and just because it’s “family” does not mean you have to tolerate whatever is getting dished out.

Even if it’s not clear abuse, ask yourself: “Am I growing into my best self when I’m around this family dynamic or does this bring out the worst in me?" can help you determine your best next direction to take.

You are not alone if you decide it’s time to break some family ties, but using the above strategies can help untangle the knots of your family dynamics and help slowly take a few steps closer to a more enjoyable family experience.


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Carolyn Hidalgo is a soul executive coach with a vision to create a judgment-free world.