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Navigating Difficult Family Dynamics | The Central Relational Paradox

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

Why does being a part of a family feel so difficult and exhausting at times? While there are some people who may be unable to relate, it seems clear that the overwhelming majority of families experience some significant degree of disconnection and pain. In this blog post, we look at how chronic disconnection shows up in the family dynamic as a result of what is known as the Central Relational Paradox.

Each family has their own way of attempting to maintain some semblance of connection, peace, and safety. In doing so, each member of the family takes on a particular role (even unknowingly) which has a powerful contribution to the family system. These roles represent one's personal (often unconscious) strategy for how they will show up in relationship with others; and they all demonstrate something known as the Central Relational Paradox. To explain this concept, I've borrowed the following excerpt from Untangled Psychology:

Relational Cultural Theory suggests that human beings are, above all, relational creatures. They seek connection and they experience anxiety, terror, and depression when isolated. These two truths work in tandem to form the ‘Central Relational Paradox’.

‘The Central Relational Paradox’ asserts that though we desperately seek and desire profound connections, we are terrified of being rejected and isolated. And so we proceed tentatively in relationships, keeping fundamental parts of ourselves separate and out of connection. These parts of the self-thoughts, behaviours, needs, desires, emotions-are often parts that have been imbued with shame in the past. Somehow, somewhere, it was communicated to us that these parts are ‘unacceptable’ or ‘bad’, and so we try to keep them hidden. We develop ‘strategies of disconnection’, that is, ways to conceal our shame-ridden parts from others.

We attempt to secure relationship by leaving important parts of ourselves out of it, resulting in inauthentic connection with others.

And this is where things get problematic. We want to connect with others and be seen, and yet we cannot and do not reveal large parts of ourselves. Our natural, and often necessary, instinct to protect and safeguard ourselves from rejection, stands in the way of the very connection we so deeply need and desire.

According to Miller and Stiver (1997), families who experience chronic difficulty and disconnection as a result of the central relational paradox tend to experience at least one of three major patterns:

1) Secrecy in the family

Also known as the "conspiracy of silence" which denies an "unacceptable reality." For example, in a family in which abuse occurs, the conspiracy of silence is essential to the continuation of the abusive relationship. The perpetrator may cajole, threaten, terrorize, or victimize the family member. While some family members may be unaware of what has been happening, others may know at least "something" but maintain the secrecy and denial in order to hold on to some connection with the abuser and with one another.

Secrets interfere with the development of authenticity and relational capabilities. Parents and other family members cannot "see" or acknowledge fully what they actually know at some level. They may become blind to or deflect communications which may threaten to lead them to emotions associated with the secrets they are keeping.

In the family, relationships become so conditional on maintaining a myth that authentic interactions are impossible. Thus, the key result of secrecy is a denial of external reality and of inner experience.

2) Inaccessibility of the parents

Where children have neither permission or opportunity to learn and know about them. When parents are too preoccupied, too split off, too much compelled by their own needs, or too depleted to be responsible to their children and to their children's need to know their parents, and when they are unable to share their own experiences or family histories, the children will feel cut off from both their own emotions and other family members.

An all too common kind of inaccessibility can be seen in families where a parent is addicted to alcohol or other substances; where the parent is either drunk/high. Children growing up in this type of family talk about being unable to trust that the feelings their parents express to them will be consistent and "real." It can be terrifying in this instance to risk an expression of vulnerable and genuine feeling if one expects that the other person will not acknowledge it, and instead will disengage and disconnect.

In families where a parent suffers from depression, children may also experience that parent as inaccessible and unknown to them; as they are often preoccupied, disengaged, and unable to explain what is happening to them. Their children have no way to make sense out of the profound disconnection that they are experiencing; and often believe that it is their fault--that they are the cause of the parents unhappiness.

3) "Parentification" of children

Which occurs when children are prematurely placed in positions of responsibility that are not reciprocated. In this, parents expect and often demand that a child take on roles or perform them at a level inappropriate to the child's emotional, intellectual, and physical development.

In families where this dynamic occurs, the burden of responsibility that children assume for the well-being of others overrides their own entitlement to receive care and devotion, yet

taking on this burden may be the only way they can maintain some connection with family members.

However, it is important to make a distinction here. In families where parents are empathic, responsible, and caretaking too, then the children's contributions to a family may be very valuable and appropriate. However, when children must take care of parents long before they are cognitively and emotionally capable of handling the burden this imposes, this activity becomes destructive.


As these patterns become more and more consolidated, both parents tend to sustain them, feeling unable to find a new pattern which suits their family dynamic. Even when children are neglected, when parents are unaware or unconcerned about where their children are, what they are doing, and how self-destructive or disturbed they are, families like these often maintain a façade of togetherness and a resistance to any influence or interactions with people outside the family.

Can you identify yourself in any of the above dynamics or stories? As the child? The parent?

While reading this may feel difficult, even discouraging, the most important point here is that you can still do something. Working with a therapist can often break up these kinds of patterns and help create new ones.

Special thanks to the work of Jean Baker Miller, M.D., and Irene Pierce Stiver, Ph. D. where a majority of this content came from. To read more from Miller and Stiver, check out their book at this link here.

Do you have any feedback/questions on this article? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. I'd love to continue learning with you :)

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