Coming to Terms with Dysfunctional Family Background Issues
By Dr. Thomas B. Holman and Abby Viveiros
Christ’s Atonement Working in Us Changes our Hearts about Bad Things that Happened in our Family Backgrounds
My students and I did a large number of interviews of young single adults several different times during a 12 month period. We asked them about their current dating relationships and about their family background. Some like Amanda had family dysfunction in her family background.
Amanda’s mother had a habit of flirting with other men. This behavior led to cheating and led her parents to divorce when Amanda was a child. Now that she is an adult and dating Ryan, Amanda struggles to gauge if he likes her and uses jealousy to measure his level of commitment. She does this by talking to Ryan about other boys who are interested in her in hopes of getting a jealous reaction out of him. She feels that jealousy is an important tactic in dating.
In this illustration, you can see how a mother’s flirting (that led to cheating and ultimate divorce) continues to impact a daughter’s ability to trust now that she’s in a dating relationship and how Amanda may be unconsciously following her mother’s example of flirting inappropriately. But Amanda and others struggling with dysfunction in their families do not have to stay stuck in this rut, there are ways out. Research demonstrates it.
Coming To Terms. In one study young adults who were in serious romantic relationships answered questions about their family processes and family life. We also asked them questions about how well they had “come to terms” with issues from their family backgrounds. Then we divided them into three groups, 1) those from very healthy family backgrounds who had little or nothing to come to terms with, 2) those from moderately to severely dysfunctional family backgrounds who had come to terms with the dysfunction from their family backgrounds, and 3) those from moderately to severely dysfunctional family backgrounds who still had not come to terms with these issues. Then these three groups were compared on several indicators of the quality of their romantic relationships. As you can imagine those from group 1 with great family backgrounds had significantly better quality romantic relationships than those from group 3 with dysfunctional family backgrounds who had not come to terms with that dysfunction. But the most interesting finding was that group 2’s romantic relationship quality was just as high as those from group 1. In other words, by having done the work of coming to terms with dysfunction in their family backgrounds, this group was able to erase much of the negative effects family background might have on their ability to have high quality romantic relationships!
Change of Heart. The question then becomes, “How do I come to terms with problems from my family background? The second study we want to share begins to answer this question. Young, recently married couples where at least one spouse came from a poor family background were studied. As in the previous study, some had come to terms with family dysfunction, and some hadn’t, and the ones who had come to terms had better marriages. But this study went further and asked how they came to terms. After doing in-depth interviews with these couples, the researcher concluded that those who had come to terms had had what she called a “change of heart.” This change of heart involved several things:
- A change in the person’s attitude, feelings, perspective and behavior toward the parent or parents who had hurt them.
- Becoming more accepting of what had happened in the past and what was happening in the present with parents. This occurred whether the parents had apologized for what they had done or not, or whether the parents had made any changes in their behavior. One young man who had a profound change of heart, “instead of feeling like his parents are not treating him right, [he] continues to try to have a good relationship with them and worries that his father ‘thinks that I don’t care about him’, rather than worrying about why his father does not care about him and his family.”
- Seeing good even in bad situations. Even though the past had not changed—parents had still divorced, abuse had still occurred—they were able to see it differently and remember good things. The researcher said of one young man that “he could remember the pain, [but] he was able to look past the suffering and see good where some people would not expect to see it.” Those who could see no good whatsoever in their families had not had a change of heart and it was negatively affecting their marital relationship.
We have learned that this change of heart is really not something we do. The change comes through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As we learn the truth about God and Jesus Christ, have faith in them, and begin to keep Their commandments and ordinances, we feel Their love and are blessed with power through Christ’s Atonement to become more and more like Him. His Atonement working in us changes our hearts.
We gave you three ways to have this “change of heart” about your family or a particular family member. Choose one of them to work on and write down specific things you can do to put it into action_________________________________________________________________________________
What do you need to learn about Jesus Christ and his Gospel? What commandments can you begin keeping or keeping better that will allow His Atonement to start working in you and through His grace change your heart concerning things from your family past? _____________________________________________________________________________________
This article is one of a series. For others in the series, see: