Relationship Patterns

Is My Relationship Reflection of My Family

Stepping into the adulthood many of us thought we could not only leave our family but also our childhood problems behind. However, many of us have found ourselves experiencing similar problems, feelings and relationship patterns, long after we left our family environment. In family environment, growing up children learn their worth and to value their needs and feelings. In many families the communication patterns are such that they limit a child’s expression of feelings and needs thus breeding low self esteem and a deep feeling that their needs are not worth to be taken seriously by others. As a result, they may face difficult establishing satisfactory adult relationships and often find we are finding people who are almost like our family members.

Patterns of Dysfunctional Families

 Following are the examples of patterns frequently observed in dysfunctional families: 

  • Either or both parents subscribe to authoritarian control over the children. Often such families rigidly adhere to a particular belief. Here are few examples:
    • Personal: No child of mine talks back to me; no one in this family marries out of caste; women in this family do not wear skirts/trousers etc. You follow the recipe as I taught you to.
    • Religious: In this family we follow our religious rituals in a particular way; our religion is the best etc.
    • Political: In this family we only vote for X political party because we have been doing so for generations etc.
    • Financial: Money is hard to earn, it is not for spending on fashion etc.

Food & Shelter What Else? 

  • Either or both parents are unable to provide adequate emotional support or threaten to withdraw emotional of financial support. Failure to provide basic physical care or provide it conditionally to the children. It is commonly heard in desi families- “We provided you with every comfort, even those that were beyond our financial reach.” “If you disobey me, I’ll disown you.” “If you marry him/her I’ll commit suicide.” Atiya, grew up with best amenities but resents how her mother was never emotionally available. Her mother was always preoccupied with her self and the needs of everybody else in the extended family. Even when Atiya initiated a talk about her day or life it always became all about mommy. Atiya feels she goes emotionally unavailable to her partner for days and weeks because that way she does not have to deal with his problems.

 Needy Parent: You Are Me, You Are For Me

  • Either or both parents treat children as possession and use children to meet their physical or emotional needs. Anuja, grew up in a family where she and her siblings had to protect her mother from her father’s openly sexual demands and his family’s vicious violence. Anuja feels she is observing similar trend in pareting her child. She often asks her son to take sides for minor things. My mother grew up taking care of her sick mother because her father did not pay attention towards his wife, as a result she has hard time accepting even she can fall sick and someone can care for her. Some parents use children to get even with their partner. They ask children to take sides. In some desi families mothers raise sons with a constant reminder to them how they brought them up irrespective of the hardships piled by their fathers and grandparents; how they are counting on their sons to pay back their sacrifices by caring take care or taking sides in any future dispute in the family. Some parents treat children as their extension. They expect children not only obey them but think and act like them.

 Angry Parent: Child’s Problem

  • Either or both parents us use threats or physical violence as primary means of control and disciplining. Children may witness physical aggression between parents or experience aggressive disciplining. Some parents force children to participate in punishing siblings, or they may live in fear of parent(s)’ explosive outburst. One time while growing up I saw a neighbor was punishing his very naughty teens by asking them to slap each other hard. I heard him say slap the other hard or I’ll beat you both; both boys were crying and slapping each other. Recently when I was back at my childhood neighborhood came to know both boys are no longer at talkig terms with their father and the older on has pretty bad anger issues famous in the neighborhood.

 All in the Family

  • Either or both parents have addictions or compulsions like, drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, overeating, overwork, over indulgence in children’s lives etc. these have strong influences on all family members. My high school friend Veenu’s mother followed too many religious rituals- fasting, extended poojas etc. Thus Veenu could never invite us to her home so she refrained from coming to our homes. Our friend Vinita’s mother was like a helicopter, she not only hovered on Vinita and her siblings for home work but was too involved in their lives. Vinita feels her mother was trying to escape her over bearing and adultrous spouse through her children. Vinita finds so many similarities between her spouse and her father. She said “Now I can join the dots, I am actually married to my father. During the courtship he acted just like my father, controling, emotionally unavailable, making evasive replies,  and pouting if I refused to do as he wanted. I felt it odd but then I thought I could handle it as I had seen my mother managing with my father. This familiarity seemed comforting but now I see how big a problem it is. I see a pattern here, I am just a copy of my mother, something I hate.”  Atiya says she married her needy mother, as her spouse demands too much attention and time.

There are numerous variations in how often dysfunctional interactions and behaviors occur in families so is the severity of their dysfunction. No family will have an absolute match to the mentioned patterns and some families will have over lapping conditions. If the patterns mentioned above are a norm rather than exception, they systematically foster abuse or neglect. Children may:

  • Be forced to take sides in conflicts between parents.
  • Feel ignored, discounted, or criticized for their feelings and thoughts.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately intrusive, overly involved and protective.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately distant and uninvolved with their children.
  • Have excessive structure and demands placed on their time, choice of friends, or behavior; or may receive no guidelines or structure at all.
  • Struggle with rejection or receive preferential treatment.
  • Experience restrictions on direct and full communication with other family members.
  • Face temptations to use drugs or alcohol and subtle encouragement from parent(s) who abuse the same.
  • Experience physical violence- slapping, hitting, kicking etc.
  • Experience verbal and emotional abuse- name calling, undue criticism etc.
  • Experience “reality shifting,” means there is a contradiction in what is being said and what is happening in actuality. A child may see one a parent hit the other but one or both parents may deny if physical scuffle ever took place.


End Result 

For children to develop trust in the world, in others, and in themselves they need life free of abuse and neglect. Those experiencing abuse and neglect as children later as adults find it difficult to trust not only others but their own judgments and actions; they have doubts about self worth. They also experience problems in their relationships and their identities.

 Abused and neglected people often struggle to interpret their families as “normal.”  They make accommodations to make their situation seem normal, such as, “I wasn’t beaten, I was just slapped little too often.” “My father didn’t have anger issues; he just had low threshold for frustration.” The more accommodations they make the more likelihood is they will misinterpret themselves and develop negative self concepts (example, “I deserved it,” “I had it coming,” “I am a bad person”). 

Making Changes 

All behaviors are learned behaviors. At times we continue in our roles in a hope that our parents will give us “permission” to change. This permission has to come from within. People can ask you or encourage you to change but it is only your prerogative to change. Often people and parents in dysfunctional families fear change; they feel threatened by changes in their family members and children. They may even try to thwart your efforts to change by manipulating you to give up attempts to change or revert back to your previous self. For this reasons it is important for you to trust your own perceptions and feelings. Change is difficult but not impossible. Only you can change your self. You can do the following:

  • Identify difficult or painful experiences of your childhood.
  • List your those behaviors and beliefs you would like to change.
  • Against each behavior or belief in the list write what you would like to do instead.
  • Choose the easiest item from the list and begin practicing the alternative behavior or belief.
  • After you have performed the first alternative behavior number of times and you feel comfortable performing it without much difficulty follow the other items on the list.


You may seek support from people who believe in what you are doing. You can also seek help from professional counselors. 

Best Practices  

  • Perfection is not the aim just be comfortable in practicing the change you want.
  • Don’t try to make your family perfect. You can only change your self and inspire others to change.
  • Don’t try to win the old struggles- you can’t win.
  • Set clear limits- e.g., if you do not plan to spend your vacations with your parents say “no” not “will see.”
  • When you try to change your self people around you may not like it. Even if you make small changes be prepared for adverse reactions from you near and dear ones. The anticipated reactions are tears, yelling, temper tantrums, threats etc. Prepare your self how you will respond to these adverse reactions.

 End Note 

Change is difficult but not impossible. It is normal to slip back to your original behaviors patterns because you are accustomed. Change is slow and gradual. If you miss some day do not treat it as an excuse to give up. Instead continue to practice healthier and new behaviors soon they’ll become part of your daily life.


Forward, Susan. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Bantam Books, 2002.

Osterkamp, Lynn. How to Deal With Parents When They Still Treat You Like a Child. New York: Berkley Books, 1992.

10 Responses to “Relationship Patterns”

  1. Niketan April 4, 2013 at p04 #

    I know this post is years old, but this is superbly written. I’ve seen patterns of these in several desi families I’m close to (girlfriend’s family, my own). Thanks a ton. Its so relieving to know I’m not alone with these feelings.

    Welcome to GGTS, a safe space.
    Glad you can see the patterns now you can make the changes you want.
    Please share this message of hope with anyone who may benefit.
    Desi Girl


  2. Sam January 2, 2012 at p01 #

    DG.. thanks for sharing such a post.. Until sometime back I always knew something was not right about my family.. but somehow accepting it is difficult.
    To this day, my parents control me and I feel increasingly claustrophobic. But I am trying to convince them for my marriage and trying to do whatever they want. But slowly I have realized that they are unhappy as a couple or maybe not great. Yes they have stuck together all these years. But to this day, my mother just cribs and cribs about past 30 years – my dad, in laws, aunts and what not. She never seems to have a good opinion about anyone. I feel her emotional needs have been totally unmet by dad, And dad has always been busy with his rituals and work. They love me and all that. My brother has learn abusive behavior and uses that on his spouse and family.
    Also, I have felt that my mom’s control over me has spilled over to my relationship. After I recognized it, I have started to reduce the anger and frustration directed towards my partner.


  3. PT April 24, 2011 at p04 #

    Just as I suspected.

    My parents’ patriarchal upbringing and my mother’s major control issues/authoritarianism combine to make my family totally dysfunctional.

    The funny thing is that only I and my sister (out of four siblings) have ever admitted to having problems with the household. I also have another sister and a brother, and both of them are very close to my parents. Or maybe they just pretend to be. Is it common for desi kids to fake having a good relationship with parents? Or do you think it’s possible that siblings with different personalities can genuinely bond well with the same set of parents that other siblings find hard to tolerate?

    It’s such a mess.

    Yes, people bond differently. The truth is all parents insist they treat all their children equally but they have favorites and program kids according to the temperament of kids and according to their parental needs. A mother may use one son to fulfill her emotional needs especially crisis and another as her shield to get even with abusive or negligent spouse and in-laws. Another mother may use daughter for her personal agenda of fulfilling her dreams and a son for exhibiting power and control, like see how well behaved my son is, he won’t go to pee without my permission.

    Yes, desi adult children do fake good relationship with their parents because to say “my parents suck” is against desi ethos. If you and a sister see a problem and word it then you are considered black sheep of the family so the burden of fulfilling your lack automatically falls on the other two, who have to prove they didn’t fail the parental sacrifices. 🙂 In interpersonal relationships every actor has a personal agenda, saving face, feeling wanted etc. for that they’ll every thing in their power. For feeling wanted a parent/spouse will purposefully create dependence in the other by being available all the time; thus their absence will create hardships for the other.
    Desi women has a favorite, “I cannot stay longer because my husband/children will be waiting for me to go home and feed them.” How foolish, if their hands can wipe their behind then their hands can also cook and feed themselves.
    Desi Girl

    Liked by 1 person

    • nolongeraslave June 2, 2011 at p06 #

      ” Is it common for desi kids to fake having a good relationship with parents”

      Absolutely…co-sign with what Desi girl says. It goes against Desi ethos, so why risk the negative consequences that come along with admitting that your parents are toxic?

      Those that say they have a good relationship could be in denial, don’t want to admit the truth or just want to look good in front of the Desi community.


    • Glacier June 2, 2011 at p06 #

      I agree, desi kids are in three categories :

      1) Completely brain-washed. They basically do what they are told and think their parents are right in all the emotional blackmail. They don’t see it for what it is, this is the most hopeless category as these kids will never stand up for themeselves.

      2) Are aware of their parents blackmail but feel compelled to go along as their is no other choice. This is depressing but there is still an inkling of hope that these people will find the courage to live their lives as they see fit.

      3) Kids who have separated themselves from parents and formed their own independent lives.

      It takes mountains of strength to go from 2 to 3.

      Desi communities are all about show and putting up with the circumstances. “Kam chalao bas, guzara karo ……” which means “Just make it work, just put up with it so there is some peace of mind”.


      • nolongeraslave June 3, 2011 at p06 #

        “It takes mountains of strength to go from 2 to 3”

        I agree that you can’t underestimate how exhausting it is to break off from a family like that. People say “Just move on”, but it isn’t simple and doesn’t happen overnight, especially when you have family members trying to sabotage your plan for escape. You’re one person fending off an entire army.


  4. S April 8, 2011 at p04 #

    I loved reading this post.I come from a dysfunctional family.My father has psycological issues.He abuses my mother verbally and emotionally even to this day. I witnessed some physical abuse also while I was growing up.He never beat me or my sister but he demands a lot of attention specially from me as i am the elder one.He wants me to take care of him like a child. My sister turned out to be like him. She cannot empathize with anyone at all. I thought my family was normal until I faced a huge crisis in my life and they just abandoned me.Thinking back now I realize that I was stupid at that time to expect anything from them. I still make the same mistake some times but I am learning. I am getting better at managing my expectations around them so that I can protect my broken heart from further damage.

    I am married to a nice guy who respects me and loves me. I have a young child who means the world to me. I really want to focus all my energy on my family and be happy but doing so has been a challenge to say the least. Not to mention the fact that parenting my child is much harder to me than people who were raised in normal families because I don’t have any role models in my life to emulate and I am hell bent on making sure I don’t repeat my parents’ mistakes with her.

    That said, parenting my child has also been very rewarding and a great confidence booster (I suffer from self esteem issues) also at the same time. I realize that I am just rambling off here.There is so much baggage from my past that whenever I reflect upon it (which is exactly what I did when I read your post), everything seems to come out at once. It is like that old wound that I barely managed to cover up with a bandaid. I never know what can cause it to open up again.Thanks a lot for this post. It confirmed all those things that I seemed to have figured out on my own already during the past few years.

    Welcome to GGTS, a safe space.
    So sorry you had to go through all that just because grown ups chose to act irresponsibly. Now you know you are not to be blamed for what happened in the past. What happens hereon is your responsibility.

    Yes, these wounds will bleed everytime they are touched until they are treated and healed for good. Please browse around GGTS and you’ll find resources on self confidence, assertiveness etc. try them. Also read around posts that do not even remotely relate to your situation like those on in-laws because some readers explored the relationship patterns there. It is a learning experience we have to work on it every day.

    See if you can seek professional counseling to heal your childhood trauma. Or you can use the books DG mentions in various posts.

    You are always welcome here to share and feel supported. No one needs to suffer alone. Sharing breaks the isolation and together we can find solutions to our problems.

    Blessings to little one. Happy parenting.
    Desi Girl


  5. Kislay Chandra April 7, 2011 at p04 #

    I must say I am surprised to a get a few matches here . My parents have been good to me , they have been very supportive in the worst phase of my life . But I guess , they are human as well . Thanks for this post .

    @Kislay Chandra,
    Welcome to GGTS, a safe space.

    Isn’t it interesting to note that everything is not book perfect in our lives. People who love us have their own flaws and that is ok. This is another reason that voicing concern is difficult because 50% or little more of the time they are good and we start blessing our lucky stars, it could have been worse. 🙂

    What irkes DG is how much energy families and individuals put into normalizing and putting up good face on to their dysfunctional lives. Only if they could devote this time and energy in being kind to each other.

    Please share this message of hope with anyone who may benefit.

    Desi Girl


  6. Lurker January 6, 2011 at p01 #

    Wow, Desi girl-You are a life saver. I was so sick of people telling me that my parents are just “typical Indian parents” or how my parents are so advanced and liberal!

    They fit this description, and it’s music to my ears to hear a fellow Desi acknowledge this as wrong.

    Now you know you are not alone. To make one feel alone, thus abnormal (e.g. everyone else is okay only you are complaining so something is wrong with you) is the strategy of the abuser to maintain control over the abused.
    Now you know so you do not need to prove anything to anyone, just do what is right and keeps you safe.


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A Desi Girl's Guide to Relationship Survival

Own your relationships. Don't let them own you.

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