Why Families Struggle with Relationships (and ways to fix it)

I still print photos.

Yes, I know I’m a dinosaur.

I don’t print all of them.  But I do have a pretty hefty and poorly organized box of hold-in-your-hands snapshots from over the years.

It’s fun to pull them out every now and then- and comes in real handy for my kid’s last minute school projects.

Plus, walking down memory lane completely melts my heart- those chubby cheeks and toothless smiles are so dang adorable!

Thank goodness photos don’t really capture the whole story.

Between all those moments of sweetness and joy has equally been my own mistakes and frustrations.

Family life is bumpy.

And rollercoaster-y.   And exhilarating and sacrificing.

It pushes us to grow as human beings and tests the meaning of unconditional love.  This is its nature.

Family life is also a tremendous gift and the foundation of our society.

When asked by a reporter at her Nobel Peace acceptance “What can one do to promote world peace?”, St. Teresa of Calcutta responded: “Go home and love your family.”

Her version of “Think Global. Act Local.” …I think.

So simple and yet not always so easy.

Lot’s of people experience more than just ‘bumps’ in life, which can make strong relationships seem impossible.

You might have grown up in a family where it felt like the rollercoaster went only one direction- down.

Or maybe you’ve gone through huge hurdles like the loss of a child, infidelity, divorce or you feel really overwhelmed with behaviors from your kids.

Perhaps you’re just feeling ‘lost’ and off track or really disconnected from your spouse or children- and not sure why or how you can fix it.

If this is you, you are not alone.

Sometimes a counselor can help.  Please get help if you need it.

But there are also other ways to move momentum upward, to a more loving, happier family life.

Ask questions about your childhood

The first place to get started is with yourself- and a great place to begin is with your earliest years.

Ask yourself: When I was a kid...What were relationships like?  What did I learn about family life?  Are those the values and behaviors I want in my family today?

People resist this kind of self-reflection.  That’s normal (but not helpful).

We come up with all the reasons not to…

“I turned out okay.”    “What’s the point, you can’t change anything now.”    “That stuff doesn’t affect me.”   “I’m nothing like my parents…”

Those are excuses that block your growth and self-awareness- so dump them.

This isn’t about wallowing in a pity party, it’s about being realistic with our story, embracing who we are and moving forward consciously.

Let me explain…

Why Attachment Theory Matters

In 1949 work was started from a theorist named John Bowlby and expanded on by Mary Ainsworth.  Together, their research birthed what we call Attachment Theory.

Attachment theory tells us that parent-child relationship is crazy important.

It also teaches us that having healthy relationships requires self-reflection and self-awareness.

Here’s why-

After studying post-war orphans Bowlby concluded that “a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with (infant and) his mother” is essential to thrive.

In the 70’s Ainsworth looked at Bowlby’s theory in action through a series called the “Strange Situation Test”.

Ainsworth placed a mother, her 12-month infant and a stranger (to the baby) in various scenarios. The child’s reaction (or lack of) was organized into styles of attachment- either secure or insecure.  The latter of these was broken down into 3 types of insecure: Anxious-avoidant, Anxious-ambivalent, and Disorganized.

Ainsworth found that mothers who had securely attached children responded in a nurturing and attuned (present) way with their baby.

She also found that almost all moms with insecurely attached children were themselves insecurely attached.

And that the attachment style of the baby tended to stay with him as he grew.

So in a nutshell, relationship patterns stick with us and get passed on to our kids.  (Disagree?  Keep reading…there’s more.)

Attachment Styles Explained

Here’s a breakdown of the childhood attachment styles, the style of parenting and resulting adult traits:

  • Secure: Parented in a way that was attuned and responsive.  As adults, they are able to create meaningful relationships, set boundaries and are empathic.
  • Insecure, Anxious-avoidant: Parent was unavailable or rejecting.  As adults, they tend to avoid closeness or emotional connection; distant; critical; rigid.
  • Insecure, Anxious- ambivalent: Parent communicated in an inconsistent or sometimes intrusive way.  As adults, they can be anxious and insecure; erratic; blaming; unpredictable; sometimes charming.
  • Insecure, Disorganized: Parent ignored or didn’t see the child’s needs, the child was traumatized.  As adults, they can be untrusting while craving security or attention; insensitive; chaotic; abusive.

This information is grossly general, but still really valuable.

Since the beginnings of attachment theory, there has been a mountain of research to validate it and information to give us helpful direction.

But listen up, because THIS is my favorite part-

We now understand that if you’ve had bumps in life as a kid, you aren’t destined to stick with an insecure attachment, you can EARN your secure attachment.

I’m personally a proud member of the earned-secure club and I wouldn’t want it any other way (a colorful past can make a person enormously resilient and empathic).

Earned secures understand that the past is significant, but it does not determine the future.

Earning Security

Becoming an earned securely attached adult requires 3 things: Self-reflection, self-awareness, and forgiveness.

Why?  Well, you can only change what you are aware of.  And forgiveness cuts the cord of resentment or dependence that continues the unhealthy patterns.

Forgiveness is saying “I’m letting this go”, it is not saying “That was okay”.

This is a very important distinction.

In my line of study, I’ve had the benefit of diving deep in this area with brilliant teachers and mentors.  You can, too- but without all of the expense and time.

For less than the cost of gas to see a therapist, Dr. Dan Siegel writes about this in his book Parenting From the Inside Out.   It’s awesome and can walk you through a lot of this stuff.

For even quicker and free access, here’s an AttachmentQuestionnaire from his work on the topic.

Self-work requires carving out time, but it’s so worth it.

Moving onward and upward

We hold on to ‘old habits’ and patterns in our relationships.  Some are helpful.  Some are not. We’re usually unaware of most.

As you become more aware of your past, many patterns will reveal themselves.  Keep what’s helpful.  Dump the rest.

And when you feel off track as a family, these are some excellent guiding questions.

  • What is deeply meaningful to our family?
  • What is blocking or limiting this from happening?
  • What actions can help us get more of what we want?

These three questions are as simple as they are complex.

Love your tribe

That messy box of mine contains more than just photos.  It’s filled with memories of the most valuable gifts I have in this world- my family.   There is no greater treasure and nothing more important to invest in- which often starts with our own self-work.

All families are lovely messes of good times and challenging times.  Through them all, it’s LOVE that binds- that’s really all you need (the Beatles nailed it).

The greatest gift you can give your family is your time and attention.  

Change is tough.  Counseling can help, but sometimes the office isn’t the right fit.  I get that.  That’s why I’ve created an e-course for people looking for a little extra family support.  It’s packed with tons of direction and support- all that you can do from your home.

I also have a free monthly newsletter (scroll down to sign up) and facebook page with tons of support for strengthening families and navigating tough parenting issues.

There are so many resources today to support your family.  More important than ‘what’ is simply to take action on something.

Above all, remember that the journey is meant to be enjoyed.  So just breathe, smile and let go of perfection (it’s so over-rated).

…and if you can, print a few photos along the way.


Jenna Fleming, LPC, NCCJenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens, and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling services, courses and classes to help families enjoy life more fully and get to a smoother, healthier path.