How can I break the cycle of my dysfunctional family?

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This topic contains 2 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  EllenCabot 3 years, 3 months ago.

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    I’m 29 years old and am the middle child with two brothers. While my family has always been close it is also a very dysfunctional and sometimes toxic one courtesy of my father. My father often has exhibited an unhealthy amount of control in each of our lives. Many of his actions have left a negative effect on each of us that outweighs any of the positives.

    My father has never admitted fault or apologized for anything he had done even when he had clearly crossed the line. Whenever something one of these incidents are brought up, he denies that it ever happened and gets very defensive. Instead, he always focuses on the fact that he helped us by paying for each of us to go to catholic schools and college without having to take out loans or work jobs growing up. With my mother, he never allows her to have any members of the family from her side or friends over to the house. My mother still holds a grudge against him over an incident when her mother came to visit us and he forced her to leave because he brought over a few of my cousins. During another incident he got mad at her for having her friends over the house on a Friday night and sat around and scowled at everyone until they left. Whenever they have some sort of disagreement he always forces her to go and sleep on the sofa.

    He has a horrible relationship with his younger sisters. It is believed by my mother, that his parents had always shown favoritism to his two younger sisters over him, which has lead to a lifelong and extremely bitter sibling rivalry which carried over into the relationship I have with my cousins. Whenever my brothers or I did something good it was talked up to no end to my grandparents and aunts while any shortcomings were never brought up for fear that it would make him look bad. He has had long periods of estrangement from both of them, most recently since my grandmother passed away two years ago after a series of disputes over their parents will. Family gatherings at our house are nonexistent outside of the nuclear family.

    Even worse is the relationship he has with my older brother. For many years, he constantly criticized my brother for the way he dresses, being overweight, and anything else in between. Many times, their arguments would turn into physical confrontations. My older brother has an extremely quick temper and gets enraged when provoked. This along with a several other traits has lead to me to think that he might have some sort of personality disorder, which was ignored by both parents for many years. When my older brother was in college, he first majored in accounting, like my father had done but he hated it and did poorly in every accounting course he took. He then majored in communications and was constantly told by him that he would never find a job in that field and that it was a worthless degree.

    After graduation, he moved in with a girl he met in one of his classes, who was several years older than him. They eventually got married and had a son. Career-wise he never held a full-time job and his wife never encouraged him to look for one, since her parents paid for the lease of their apartment. She was also the one who made many of the decisions in the household, which he was not too pleased about.

    He has also seemed threatened and slightly jealous of my younger brother’s academic accomplishments. One thing my father always liked to brag about how he was an honor student in high school and his grades in college. Both my older brother and I were never able to match him. My younger brother was not only a regular honor student but was in the honor society in his college and has a Masters degree in economics as well as a decent paying job as an analyst for a real estate company. On occasion he has tried to undermine and belittle him. During one incident he insulted and berated him and warned him that he would end up a failure if he did not go back to school and get a doctorate.

    With my life, he has always held very high expectations for me. He once told me that he had hoped I would be the one who would exceed each of his accomplishments but I was never anything more than an unmotivated mediocre student who never really liked to do homework. As a child I always had a somewhat cheerful and outgoing personality. When I was in the 5th grade and occasionally got into trouble with teachers for not doing my homework, my father resorted to an extreme form of discipline by having my lay down on a bed while he hit me with a belt. I would still miss assignments and get into trouble well into high school but the punishments would continue until I was in the 7thgrade. By that time, my personality changed into one that was much more shy and cynical.

    In high school and still to this day, I have a crew cut and listen to rock music. During the moral panic that followed the Columbine incident, he tried to force me to grow my hair in because people might start to think that I was “skin-head” and stop listening to rock music. I was a big fan of bands like 90s alternative rock like U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins and he tried to get me to like the same music that he did, such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. If anything, that music was a encouraging and positive influence in my life. He first tried to get me to stop listening to it by telling me that people who listened to that kind of music didn’t have class and if I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t classy I wouldn’t listen to it anymore. When that didn’t work, he confiscated my stereo and portable CD player (this was before iPods were around) so I wouldn’t be able to listen to it anymore. Instead of conforming to what he wanted me to do, I simply bought a new CD player and he eventually gave up.

    After I wasn’t accepted into the college of my choice I ended up going to a small community college that was close to where my father worked. During my first semester, he came up with a plan to ensure that my first semester would be successful a one academically. He forced me to wake up at 5:30 each morning, leave the house at 6:15 with him and sit in his office and study for my courses until my classes began which were usually around 1pm. After class, I had to stay in the library and study again until 4 pm, when he got off of work and go home with him to do more studying. I was forbidden from watching television or listening to music. He even tried to dissuade me from making friends in that school because the people who went to that school “weren’t exactly the smartest people.’ He also on occasion would berate and belittle me when he felt I “wasn’t giving a full effort in my schoolwork.”

    In one of my classes, I was given an assignment in which I had to read an article and write a 2 page reaction essay. Before turning in the assignment he asked me to give it to him so he could “proofread” it. A few days later he gave me back long, rambling 10 page essay that he told me to turn in, despite the possibility of being expelled for plagiarism, because it was “guaranteed to impress my professor.” After comparing both essays, I still felt that mine was the stronger one, so I turned it in and got an A. About a week later, I decided to end this arrangement when I decided to hang out with a few friends after class and ditched him. His reaction was to “punish” me by having to go to school and study on my own without his “help.” I responded with a B average during my first semester.

    Ever since I was younger my primary career ambition was to become a teacher. In grade school, I used to think of look at the strategies that some of my own teachers did and think of what I would do differently. Many of my friends, other relatives and even some of my professors in college told me that I would probably be a great teacher one day. All of this, however, meant very little to him who tried to discourage me by telling that teaching was a low-paying career field and always tried make choose a more profitable career path. First it was computer science, followed by finance, then law but none of those appealed to me and I still only wanted to be a teacher. Since he was the one who was paying my tuition he told me that if that I was what I wanted to pursue it was fine but I would have to pay for it myself. I ended up majoring in Communications, like my older brother and was subjected to
    the same insults and put downs that he was. Eventually I graduated and ended up working a series of nondescript dead-end jobs. Whenever I would consider going back to graduate school and majoring in education, he would get angry and stop speaking to me for weeks. After a long period of unemployment, I finally decided to go to graduate school and get a masters degree in education. Since then, I have done remarkably well in my courses. I earned a 3.5 GPA and was inducted into the honors society.

    About a year ago, with my unemployment benefits set to expire, I was forced to take another menial, low paying dead-end job where I have been very unhappy. I was set to begin student-teaching but because of this I was forced to put it on hold until I learned that if I were to get a substitute teacher license and work a certain number of days it would fulfill my student-teaching requirement, as well as get paid for doing it. It would also allow me to quit my job.

    None of this means anything to my father who warned me not to quit my job and to do whatever it takes to keep this job, even if it meant putting school on hold and waiting until I got laid off again to finish my degree. He is under the impression that substitute teaching is not a real job but instead some kind of paid internship program that was set up by the school to fulfill a teaching requirement, despite the fact that I would be make double what I make at my current job. I feel that trying to juggle subbing and this job would not only be difficult for me but also unfair to my employer. He has gone on to hint that if I were to quit my job he would cut me out of the family.

    Over the summer, my older brother and his wife separated after a tumultuous four-year marriage and he was forced to move back home. Since that time, my father has become very distant and cynical. He spends most of his time locked up in his room avoiding everyone. He’s also become extremely sensitive and somewhat moody. On his birthday, he scolded me for buying him a gift saying that he didn’t want anything and did the same for other family members on their birthdays. He even adopted a similar attitude during the holidays and embarrassed my mother in front of her nieces when he told not to buy them gifts.

    Recently, things started to get serious between my girlfriend and I. So much that I started to spend weekends and even holidays with her family. But while her family has welcomed me, mine has been somewhat indifferent to her presence. On several occasions, he has avoided wanting to meet her parents for dinner, despite repeated invitations. During Christmas day, when she was out of town, My father and I had a long, talk that started over my finances and ended awkwardly with him tearfully accusing me of being more open and outward with her family while becoming more distant with my own. He claimed that I was only using when I wanted something and was distant the rest of the time I spent there.

    He has also discussed selling the house moving away from the neighborhood, even though it seems as though my mom is not entirely on board with this idea. She has also complained to me that she has had enough of his negative attitude and had to get out of the house soon.

    With my family seeming a breaking point, I’m wondering,
    1. Why is my family so dysfunctional?
    2. What can I do about it?
    3. How can I break the cycle of dysfunction?



    I think asking why is a waste of time. You will drive yourself crazy with the why and likely never get an answer. Simply accept that it’s the way it is. I think in order for you to break this cycle you must look to make yourself happy. Follow your own path. As a child we are led by our parents, as adults we lead ourselves. I see alot of frustration and control from your father, but I also see sensitivity and love. I have had some of these control issues with my own mother. I think you have to follow your own path and make it clear to your father, if he will respect you then you will maintain your relationship but that you are an adult and must make your own decisions. It seems that his degree of control in your life has gone unchecked far beyond a parent/child relationship. You have to be true to yourself and maintain your relationship with your father to the degree he respects you. It doesn’t sound like an easy situation, but your life is your own now and it is up to you what you do with it.



    At 29 years old, you are spending too much of your time worrying about what your father things and trying to *fix* other people. You can’t fix other people, and you can’t make other people change, no matter how badly you want it. All you can do is what you need to do FOR YOU. Don’t worry about him, be confident and happy in yourself.

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