A hand holding some family photos

5 Ways I Learned to Love My Dysfunctional Family

My family has always been what some might describe as ‘textbook Christian’: We go to church every Sunday, and attend fellowships and retreats. We read the Bible, join Bible study groups, and hold Bible study sessions at home. We believe that a family that prays together stays together.

And yet, it has always been painful for me to see how much conflict and tension we have in our home. As a child, I’d always felt uncomfortable whenever I would see my parents bicker intensely right before church, and then immediately stop upon arriving at church. Then they would each go to their own things—dad to the worship hall and mom to join the choir or teach a class, while I would hurry to Sunday school class and pretend that everything was okay. Somehow, even then, I implicitly understood that I had to keep that sort of distress to myself.

I don’t recall ever hearing my parents apologise to each other, much less actually discuss the problem afterwards.

When I grew up and recognised how dysfunctional—abnormal and unhealthy—that kind of interaction was, it became difficult for me to not say anything, so I spoke up. This, of course, was not welcomed, given the parent-child dynamic in our culture.

Over the years, I have learned—and am still learning—to surrender this situation to the Lord. I have been blessed to have befriended caring pastors and wise mentors who have journeyed with me through my distress. I attend therapy with a Christian counselor, and have friends who do their best to be there for me. On a personal front, I have done what I can to learn to live with dysfunctionality.

I have also learned to call my situation a dysfunctionality, something that I couldn’t have done before. Almost a decade ago, I was telling a friend about how my parents fight and how that seems to be normal, when he bluntly replied, “Uhm, it’s not normal.” His response startled me, and almost immediately after, I felt embarrassed. Did he mean that my family was abnormal? Does this mean we’re dysfunctional? How could he say that? How dare he say that? His parents aren’t even believersat least mine are. How can we be ‘problematic’ if we’re Christians?

In hindsight, that was a crucial learning moment for me. Even though my friend probably could have said it better, what he said was true. It’s not normal for families to be this way. And being Christians does not exempt us from being problematic.

God clearly described His vision of family life in Ephesians 5:21-6:4—one that involves mutual submission and sacrificial love, to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church. In my family, most of our conflicts stem from impatience and a strong desire to “do things my way” (James 4:1). Crucially, both passages present the same conclusion—we need to submit to God.

Over time, I’ve come to see how my friends also struggle with their own families, but have chosen to bring these dysfunctionalities to God. That brought me immense comfort and moved me to stay on the path of faith. They’ve taught me, over and over, that our lingering, seemingly permanent brokenness does not cancel out the truth of the Bible and of what Jesus did on the cross. Their responses remind me that God is continually at work in us and will complete His work when we see Him again.

I have also learned to reconsider how we use the word ‘normal’. While conflict is normal and a part of life, frequent and unresolved conflicts shouldn’t be treated as normal (i.e., healthy or sound). This distinction helps us to not sweep things under the rug and to confront reality with truth.

As Paul says in Romans 6: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (vv.1-2). This means that even as the struggle with sin continues, the fight also continues, and victory is sure because of Jesus’s work on the cross (11-14).

How then can we live with abnormality and remain healthy? How do we accept it and not dismiss its impact and consequences in our lives?

 

1. Acknowledge and mourn the destructiveness of sin

We know the consequences of sin, but having to live with it every day can be truly difficult. Acknowledging the continuing presence of sin does not mean resigning ourselves unconditionally to it (telling ourselves “it’s hopeless”), but it does mean not downplaying it or dismissing it as ‘normal’.

When I talked to a friend about my family’s dysfunctionality, she reminded me of how dysfunctional some of the families in the Bible were (e.g., Abraham, Jacob, David), and how God still cared for them and used them to fulfill His plans. We also discussed how we ought to reflect on our part in this brokenness: aside from acknowledging our own hurts, we also need to humbly examine our hearts and confess that we have inflicted hurt on others.

This doesn’t mean we can think that one hurt cancels out the other. It only means that “we all have sinned” (Rom 3:23), and yet “God demonstrated His love for us in this—while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

 

2. Go back to God and meditate on His promises

Every time a conflict arises in my family, I am tempted to run away and hide, to wash my hands off it if I can. But avoidance is, at best, a brief respite. I have realised that I can either hide in my own cave and lick my wounds (e.g., replay them in my head and mope indefinitely) or I can choose to hide in God’s presence (Ps 32:7).

To hide in God’s presence means to turn to His Word and channel all our woes to Him, laying them at His feet. Hiding in God does not end with weeping and mourning (Ps 30), because He “will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go” and “will counsel you with [His] loving eye on you” (Ps 32:8).

In moments of heartache and despair, I often return to Lamentations 3:

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” (vv.19-24).

 

3. Seek restoration if possible

We know that life on earth is never smooth-sailing, but we can (and should) long and pray for restoration, and hope that God will bring about repentance, healing, and reconciliation. Yet, we also need to learn to be at peace with the possibility that reconciliation may not happen in this lifetime.

There was a time when I had hoped that everyone in my family would seek counseling so that we could sort out all our issues, but I’ve learned the hard way that this decision is a personal one. I used to feel very discouraged and even bitter about my family’s refusal to seek therapy. But through my own counselling sessions and the listening ears of mentors and friends who prayed for me, I’m slowly learning to accept their choice and to just love them to the best of my ability. This means serving them as much as I can while keeping healthy boundaries, and continually praying for God to heal and restore them.

 

4. Set healthy boundaries and seek healing for yourself

In the culture I grew up with, the concept of boundaries is very alien, and even seems unfilial. But with the help of Christian therapy, books, and resources, I’ve learned that drawing boundaries is actually healthy.

The first thing I learned is to recognise my role (or non-role) in a conflict. When my parents fight, I know it is not my responsibility to mediate and help them reconcile. The hard part is saying no, but I’ve learned to do so for the sake of my mental well-being. Instead, I offer to pray as much as I’m able. I also attend therapy regularly as this has always been a helpful outlet for me and is key to my healing journey.

 

5. Continue to labour in prayer

More than the words we utter, prayer is in the posture of our hearts—how we direct our thoughts and emotions to God. It means recognising that He loves us and sees and hears everything we say and don’t say. From there, we can remember that He “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20).

Don’t give up on praying for your family, no matter how broken things seem to be. Because God has not only saved us for the life to come, He continues to save us every day (Psalm 68:19) and He has given us a living hope in Jesus (1 Peter 1:3).

3 replies
  1. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    Thank you for writing this piece! Dysfunctional relationships within the family are more prevalent than we think, as you’ve pointed out that most of us mistakenly shrug it off as ‘normal’. Would you like to recommend any platforms for Christian therapy or counselling?

    Reply
    • Jane Lim
      Jane Lim says:

      Hi Audrey! Thanks for your feedback and encouragement. I don’t really have experience with finding counseling through a platform, though I’m sure there must be good sources. In my case, I got connected to my counselor/therapist through a pastor friend, so I would recommend checking with your church if they have counseling ministry or if they can connect you with Christian counselors elsewhere 🙂

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