Can we resolve severe family dysfunctions? (Case study)

One of the most important in the 4 relationship circles is the relationship we have with our family. The lack of connection with our family and roots can have a very negative impact on our wellbeing, but the question is: can we resolve severe family dysfunctions?

I would like to share with you a case study from my recent work to help you search for an answer to this very important question within yourself.

Let’s call my client John, to protect his confidentiality. John came to see me to explore some work difficulties, but the conversation took him someplace else pretty early in our sessions. John shares that he is 48 and his 4th and only biological son will soon be celebrating his 18 anniversary. This brings John a lot of stress because in 18 years he has never seen his wife together with his mother in the same room.

I tell him that it can be challenging to work through the accumulation of events that marked their lives for the past 18 years, but not impossible. “I will be very curious to hear how you could to bring these two women in the same room”, he replied to my encouraging statement.

“They are already very present in the room, although not at a physical level”, I said, wondering what the real issue was and how the family dynamic developed in time.

The story unfolded slowly. He married a divorced woman and “knew” his mother would never accept his older wife with 3 children from her previous marriage which he agreed to father.

John shares that his life was “hard” over the past 2 decades, caught between the mother and the wife, but “there was no way to make them see eye to eye”. He tells me that the family dynamic is filled with silence, omissions, frustration, drama and suppressed anger. At Christmas, Easter or anniversaries he needs to divide his time and attention in two “to keep both ends happy”.

I find it hard to imagine how he lived 5 miles away from his mother for 18 years and yet she never knocked in his family home door. I also wonder what prevented the wife to show up at his mother’s house to just say hello, have a tea together and talk about their family affairs. 

It is very tempting to make judgments and label the 2 women in question, but life has showed me that things are rarely what they seem to be, so I remain curious and open to the development.

Little lies can grow biger and destroy lives around

“Has your mother met your youngest son?” I asked him. “Yes of course, I take him to her all the time. She is lonely, you know”, he answers.

I’m sensing that he is withholding something as the picture does not emerge clearly so I decide to ask him openly what happened that led to the unhealthy family dynamic. It resulted that until he met his wife he had a fantastic relationship with his mother. However, concerned that his mother would disapprove his involvement with a divorced woman, he hid from the beginning who he was dating. 

As it happens, his mother found out accidentally from other people that he was seeing a divorced women 10 years his senior. She imagined the worse and started spying on them to find out what was going on. The more she spied the further he got from telling her the truth and that distance brought them apart.

This is a typical case of family estrangement due to lack of trust and unhealthy communication, but it quite unusual to last for close to 2 decades. What prevented these two women to meet up and talk to each other? This thought keeps coming back into my mind.

“Things became a bit more complicated”, the client explained. In order to prevent his wife to ask questions about the mother and engage in a conversation with her, he told his wife that his mother was difficult, that they did not have a good relationship and that they needed to keep her at distance otherwise she would want to control their lives.

“It was a little lie to protect us from my mother’s questions” he shared. I wondered silently why he needed protection from his mother’s questions? What could have been so challenging in those questions to really make him avoid them with any price? What was in there for him that made him risk the family unity and allow for a “little lie” to grow so big that it literally destroyed the peace of all those involved?

I had the feeling that John was not ready to answer those questions directly so I gave him some assignments between sessions. He left the first session with 4 sealed envelopes: one for him, one for his youngest son, one for his mother and one for his wife. In each envelope there was a piece of paper with only one question: “How has your life been over the past 18 years?”.

I was hoping that if any of the letters returned we will have enough information to clarify some of the questions that emerged already.

Our ideas are our twisted reality

The client returned with only 2 envelopes. I was not surprised. I thought that might be the case. He never gave the envelopes to his mother and wife and I never asked why. I read out loud his story first. It was filled with justifications, rationalizations and denial. There wasn’t much in there really, but one line caught my attention towards the end, something that he mentioned before in our first chat: “I knew my mother would never accept my wife”. It was a good lead so I decided to take it further. 

“How did you know that your mother would never accept your wife? Did she ever say it in words?”

“No, she did not have to. I know her very well… She had other plans for me. I’m the only child, you see”.

“What would you say her plans were?”, I asked. “She never said it, but I knew she wanted me to marry a good woman, my age, with no past… a woman that could become the daughter she never had”, he replied.

“I hear very often from you that you know your mother’s wants, needs, wishes, thoughts… but they remain your assumptions after all…”, I challenged him. “You could be right…”, he said. You see, what we sometimes miss out is that the ideas we create in our minds are only our twisted reality and do not form the beliefs and truths valid for others also.

I then moved on to his son’s story. There were 7 pages written neatly, full of emotion and garnished with many details from his short life experience. The boy shared his pain of visiting the grandmother briefly and leaving her on her own. He spoke about a very genuine connection between them and the wisdom he captured from the grandmother during his visits at her place.

The son also spoke about his love for his mother, father and step-brothers and how he dreamed all his childhood that the grandmother will join them one day, how upset he was at the thought he will soon be 18 and the grandmother will miss that party again, and so on. The client cried softly throughout my read and listened quietly to my interpretations at the end. 

“Perhaps your wife  developed rejection towards your mother when you told her your mother wants to get involved in your family life. She took on the role of the savior, “the real mother” for you, the woman that cared about you, the “perfect mother” for her children and as a consequence she looked down to her mother-in-law. She ignored her and kept her away, allowing her 4th child to see the grandmother only with you around. If you look from her perspective, she was a devoted mother and wife, protecting her family form external negative interference”, I said loudly.

“It could have been that your mother developed resentment towards both you and your partner. Maybe she felt excluded, lied to, ignored, abandoned, betrayed and she got stuck in those feelings and that obsessive mental film. Perhaps the more time passed, the more convinced she became that your wife was influencing you against her as you shut her down from your life completely. Perhaps she also felt that you were dis-considerate towards her and devalued all her struggles to raise you up and guide you in life. If you look from her perspective, she was a devoted mother wanting the best for her son, wanting to be part of her son’s life”, I continued looking at my tearful client.

It is hard to look into the mirror of our souls

It was the son’s letter that awakened the client to the reality of his life. Listening to his son’s story he realised how much dysfunction his little lie created in everybody’s life and that glimpse of awareness was overwhelming. A catholic at heart, it took the client 18 years to recognise that parts of himself were not comfortable with the idea of marrying a divorcee with 3 children, a thought he then projected on to his mother. 

I looked with respect and understanding to that vulnerable man in front of me, very successful in building million pounds companies and leading over 3,000 employees, yet struggling to manage his own little family dynamic. It was only human and more common than we like to acknowledge. He felt full of guilt and shame for starting that artificial feud between his mother and wife which he now deeply regretted. 

“I did not think that relationship with a divorced woman was serious or that it would lead somewhere”, he said and I completely understood his stance. Only that a little lie used to resolve a temporary situation can become sometimes a huge problem that can spread over an entire life time or even across generations and can affect many lives around.

I always say it to my clients that it takes one person only, one genuine and kind person to repair a conflict and in this case it was the grandson who repaired the severe relational problems in the system of his family. Sometimes it takes and entire generation to heal the hurt from the past and the grandson did exactly that by becoming the catalyst in his family and reuniting them together with his love and pure heart.

This would have never happened anyway if the client would not had looked into the mirror of his soul and recognize that he made an error of judgement when he prevented the wife and mother to know each other and kept them away from developing a relationship. It took him a lot of time to accept that he was in the wrong and that he was the one that made the assumption that his wife was not appropriate for him and then displaced those feelings onto his mother.

In reality it was him thinking that she was older, that she had 3 children and it was him doubting within himself that she would be his future. The years passed and he felt even more ashamed of his lies, which developed into other lies, then questions, unexpressed emotions on both sides and significant distress in the family.

This sounds like an easy fix, but we cannot change the existing dynamic in a family unless we make real shifts in thinking and behaviour. In this case, it was essential for the client to move into the truth and become authentic in life. He stripped himself from all the pretense and justifications and worked hard to resolve the puzzle he created in time. He found great help in therapy, but also great support in his amazing son who helped him understand the colossal loss for all those involved who lived separate lives for close to 2 decades. 

Build those bridges that can ease your inner pain

The unity that the son created was the bridge the family needed to reunite and learn to communicate again. It helped the client understand the past which was essential in moving further into a better future. The client spoke to his wife and cleared up the path of mistakes, errors, lies and judgement. This has created space for a more authentic, loving and respectful family dynamic. 

Together with the wife, the client went on to visit the mother and they all spoke lengthy about the many years of joy and peace they have lost. The wife and the mother got the chance to finally meet and discovered there was a genuine connection between them. They all attended the son’s 18-year-old party and started to rebuild the family relationships.

You might think this is a happy ending. It is not. I love the client success stories, but this was not one of them and I am sharing my learnings with you to highlight how important it is to live a conscious life.

Not long after the son’s party the client came back to see me. He was visibly distressed and told me his mother has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. We sat there in silence for a long time. The words were futile.

I had this disturbing thought that the past 18 years of life lived in isolation and distress have taken their toll on the grandmother who is now too ill to enjoy the reunion with her family. I could not voice it out, but if it is true that living in stress and suppressing our emotions is also suppressing our immune system, then a large part of the grandmother’s illness came from the suffering and the disconnection from self and others.

I wondered what was he thinking. Maybe that there was not much time for them to recuperate the loss of those 2 decades? He told me that the entire family is shattered and they all need individual and family support. I am now working with the entire family around the terminal illness the grandmother is  facing and it is heart-breaking to see its impact on them all.

It had a great impact on me, too, and as the story comes to an end now so I am leaving you with a question:

Who is the “grandmother” in your life? What distorted ideas or wrong actions have you allowed to inhabit your mind and how are they keeping you in conflict within yourself or disconnected from the important others in your life?

Write down your own story and get in touch with those important people that have been pushed out of your life at some point in the past for reasons that you might not even remember.

Build those bridges that can ease the pain you carry within your heart and possibly the suffering the others hold within their soul, too. My life and work experience has shown me that we can definitely resolve our family dysfunctions if we really want to. To do that we need to stop listening to our Egos and sometimes it is happening too late. Make sure you do it now when you still have time to enjoy being together with those important people in your life. 

To talk to me about your family situation you can email me in strict confidence at:

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