A Family Break Up
About the Guest
All of us have an extension cord tied to our family of origin. Author Julie Plagens explains what life was like after she cut ties with her family. While her health issues did improve, Julie admits that avoiding her parents and siblings was still difficult. Julie tells how prayer and Scripture became a lifeline and helped her heal mentally. She realized that by severing her family ties, she just traded one set of problems for another. After her father suffered a heart attack, Julie began to realize how unforgiveness had taken root and prayed for God to change her.
Julie Plagens explains what life was like after she cut ties with her family. She realized that by severing family ties, she just traded one set of problems for another.
A Family Break Up
Bob: By the time she was a wife and a mom, Julie Plagens realized her relationship with her own parents was unhealthy. She made the difficult decision to cut off that relationship—to become estranged from her parents. That decision brought all kinds of new challenges.
Julie: The depression started in October; because I knew I was about to hit all the holidays, from October all the way through to January. It was terrible. You really have to consider your steps and pray before you decide to break off a relationship. You have to pray and see if that’s God’s best for you. I can tell you—His original design was not for families to be broken.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, December 3rd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. Sometimes adult children have to put up boundaries to protect themselves from extended family relationships. But that doesn’t mean things won’t still be very difficult. We’ll hear more about that today from Julie Plagens. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. With the holidays upon us, I’m thinking about the families that are facing the kinds of challenges that we’re looking at this week, where there are fractured family relationships, and we’re not sure what to do with those. We’re going to continue hearing a story about God’s work in one family today.
But before we do that, with the start of December, we’re coming to our listeners and saying, “This is a month where we need your help.”
Dave: Yes; I know December, for the Wilson family, is the beginning of Christmas. My wife actually starts in September. [Laughter]
Ann: I wish that was true.
Dave: I mean, she starts singing and getting ready for Christmas gifts. There’s a part of me that has a tension in my heart about spending money on Christmas. The other part of me is like: “It’s such a joyous time. I want to give, give, give.” At the same time, you’ve got our church and yearend giving; and FamilyLife® and yearend giving. I want, at the end of the year, to look back and say, “I handled my money, and we gave in such a way that we blessed others, not just our family.”
Bob: We made a determination, years ago, that whatever we were going to spend on gifts for family members and friends—we were going to try to match that in what we gave for charity, for church, and for donations.
Ann: That’s a great idea!
Bob: Whatever we were going to give for ourselves, we were going to give that to the Lord as well. We pull back and we say: “What ministries have had an impact on our lives this year? Who has God used? What ministries have been significant?” That’s where we start to give.
We’re hoping listeners, here at the beginning of December, will take that kind of discipline; and we hope that FamilyLife has been one of those ministries for you this year. We hope that listening to FamilyLife Today on this station has been an encouragement to you. We hope you’ve been challenged, and convicted, and helped by what you hear. If that’s the case, we want to ask you to make a yearend donation.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to make a donation, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate over the phone. When you do, your donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $2.5 million, thanks to the generosity of some friends, who have offered to match every gift we receive during the month of December. And we’ll send you, as a thank-you gift—if your donation is $50 or more—we’ll send you a new devotional for couples called The Story of Us. Again, that’s our thank-you gift to you when you donate $50 or more, here at yearend. Give online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a yearend donation.
I remember a conversation I had, years ago, with an author and counselor friend of ours, named Dan Allender. Dan made a statement that kind of took me by surprise. I thought, “Is that for real?” The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “I think it is.” He said he believes 90 percent of the issues couples are dealing with in marriage can be traced back to a failure to leave father and mother.
Dave: Really?—90 percent?
Bob: That’s what he said. I thought the same thing: “Ninety percent?” What he was saying is: we’re unaware of—you already called it, this week, “the extension cord to the past.”
Bob: Other people talk about your baggage/whatever; it’s what we carry in. It’s the lifetime of shaping and molding. Even if we are financially independent, even if we’re living on our own, we may not be aware of the emotional dependence that still exists in our relationship with our parents and how that can affect every other aspect of our lives.
We’re talking this week with Julie Plagens, who joins us on FamilyLife Today. Julie, welcome back.
Julie: Thank you. Good to be here, Bob.
Bob: Your story captures a little bit of what I’m talking about right here; because you grew up in a home, where your dad and then your mom were both converted when you were five or six years old. You came to faith not long after that. There was still emotional volatility in the family; there was a lot of family drama going on that shaped what was going on in your life.
Now, we jump ahead to when you’re married with two kids; and at age 40, you have just had a colonoscopy. The nurse has told you that you have Crohn’s disease, and you’re going to have to live with a colostomy bag for the rest of your life. You go—this is connected to that extension cord Ann was talking about—“This is connected to all kinds of emotions and feelings that go back to the drama of my family”; right?
Julie: That’s true. I want to make sure that we understand, right here, that there was no sexual abuse. Because of the estrangement of two out of the three daughters being gone, my poor father is—I know people have thought things. I want to clear that up right now—that that did not happen in my family. Ours was a lot of tempers/a lot of anger type things—more just relational problems.
Bob: When you were diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and you said, “This is affected by all that’s been stuffed down in my heart with my parents,” you and your husband made a decision: it was time for a break with your parents. At the same time, you’re dealing with a major health crisis. It would seem like you’ve just added stress to your life rather than taking stress away by cutting things off with your parents.
Julie: Yes; I didn’t realize it at the time. For me, it was the right choice. And here I am, a Christian; what a horrible secret.
Ann: Even explaining that to friends, or you know, like—
Dave: Nobody knew?
Julie: My closest friends knew, because I was in a prayer group. It’s very hard to explain, though, especially at the holidays, when people say, “What are you doing for the holidays?!” You’re like, “I don’t see one-half of my family.” And trying to explain it to my children; because we’d said, “No contact,”—that meant no gifts; no contact with my children. We pulled out completely.
Ann: And how old were they?
Julie: When it happened, my daughter was in fifth grade; my son was in ninth grade.
Bob: When you went to the kids and said, “We’re cutting it off with Grandma and Grandpa,” what did they say?
Julie: I think they had lived with me being so sick, and they saw that I was getting better; because after the first year of my estrangement with my parents, I was starting to eat pretty much what I wanted. I had been on a restricted diet for years.
Bob: I thought you had Crohn’s disease, and you were going to have to live with a colostomy bag.
Julie: Right; I refused to do it. Leaving the family really helped. I’m not saying it was my parents that caused it; it was the way I dealt with stress with my family. I’m not blaming my parents at all. This was on me and my way that I dealt with things. I needed to get away and learn how to deal with things.
I didn’t even think God loved me. I needed to get away and find Jesus for me and find God outside of my family.
Dave: You wrote that you started eating; and you were getting better, physically. Then you said you were sitting with a counselor, and you dealt with lies. What were the lies?
Julie: Oh, yes: “Your family doesn’t love you,” “Your grandparents don’t love you,”—I had a lot of abandonment issues. “You’re worthless,” “You can’t even take care of your children,” “You’re a terrible wife,”—I can tell you, about every despicable lie that the devil could spew out to me, I believed.
On the external shell, I’ve got this great family—my beautiful children, the whole deal—you know, whole family. Here I am, kind of living the facade—that we were kind of living and growing up as a child—and I’m doing it, again, as an adult. I’m not dealing with the stuff until my second year after being estranged. It took 16 months in counseling for me to say, “Okay; I need to unravel the lies,”—the biggest lie: “Your mother doesn’t even love you,”—fairly hard.
Ann: I think, when people have an ongoing dialogue in their head of self-hatred/of those lies—that you’re not good enough, you’re not pretty enough, you’re not adept enough, you’re not smart enough—I think, if we have that kind of onslaught, that we need to think, “What is really going on?” and just to trace it back.
I’ll never forget—after some abusive situations/sexual abuse—I was probably six years old, thinking, “Something must be wrong with me.” It wasn’t what had happened to me; it wasn’t who had done things to me, it was me. I’m guessing that you felt some of those same things by what you’re saying.
Julie: I did. Dave, you asked me how I combatted the lies. I started putting Scriptures down on notecards, and I started saying them out loud every day. If you start this, just know—you’re not going to believe it. It’s going to take a really long time. So, don’t call me, and go, “This isn’t working.” It takes a couple months to even start going, “Oh; okay, I might start believing this.”
Ann: Or even becoming aware of the lies that have been filtering through your mind, as a child, that have come up with you.
Julie: It did. You’ve got 40 years of trenching in your brain. Those neuropathways have been trenched. You have to retrench new pathways. You can’t go back and undo the stuff that’s there; you have to retrench new thinking.
Dave: You’re literally saying, out loud, Scripture—daily.
Julie: Yes; daily. What I did—I was breaking strongholds. This is where I really went with this: 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, “The weapons we fight are not weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
That’s what I was doing; I had to really put a stop sign in my head every time the garbage started coming through. I really worked on taking captive my thought life and aligning it with God.
Bob: Your colon was getting better?
Julie: It was! I’m telling you—after the first year, I could eat; I was eating brownies. I hadn’t been eating sugar. I got off of sugar for almost eight years. I was eating brownies after the first year.
Bob: So, anybody, who’s—[Laughter]
Ann: I know where you’re going with this. [Laughter]
Bob: Anybody, who’s listening, who’s wondering: “Crohn’s disease; you’re going to have a colostomy bag for the rest of your life,”—they need to know that’s not what happened.
Julie: No; it didn’t. I did not have a colostomy. I’m not going to tell you, right here, that this is everybody’s cure for colon disease. This is just what happened with me. I’m just telling you—this was a miracle. There was a lot of miraculous intervention that happened in this.
I want to give hope to those that are dealing with some sort of chronic illness. I can’t tell you what is causing it, but it is good to take inventory of what is going on in your head; because it really is connected to your body.
Bob: I think we sometimes lose sight of that. I remember going to the doctor one time with something. He said, “Is there stress in your life?” I going: “What does that matter? This is plumbing we’re dealing with”; right? [Laughter] He was right; there was stress in my life. When the stress diminished, so did the health issues. There is a connection between body and soul.
We ought to take inventory in those times, when we’re experiencing physical issues, and go: “Are there other factors? Is there bitterness? Is there anger? Am I hanging on to something I shouldn’t be hanging on to? Are there relationships that are toxic that are affecting my physical health?”
When you cut off your relationship with your family and said, “We’re not going to do this,” that was hard; but you started to heal.
Julie: I did. It’s the most un-Christian-looking thing to do. It’s very embarrassing and a lot of shame. This is why there are no books about this. When I was estranged, I looked for every book on the market I could find that talked about family estrangement, from a Christian point of view. There is no book out there—I’m telling you, even now.
Ann: It’s difficult to talk about; isn’t it?
Julie: It is; who wants to talk about their family mess?—and then get reconciled and, then, write about it? [Laughter] Yes, that’s going to work out well.
Bob: It’s important for us to dig in here. Are you saying to people: “If you’re in a bad family situation, and it’s affecting your health, the best thing to do is cut off your relationship with your extended family”?
Julie: No; I would say that’s a last resort. In my book, I talk about the effects of estrangement. I traded one set of problems in for another. You are going to have another mess. You don’t get to “Pass Go and collect $200.” There are some real liabilities. My children lost their grandparents; I lost my mother. I couldn’t call when my kids were going through things. I had my own family issues; I couldn’t call my mother.
There was nobody I could call. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to call my mom. It was empty; the holidays were terrible. I had one side of my family, but I didn’t have the other. The depression started in October because I knew I was about to hit all the holidays, from October all the way through to January. It was terrible.
You really have to consider your steps and pray before you decide to break off a relationship, because it is not God’s best. For me, it was. You have to pray and see if that’s God’s best for you. I can tell you—His original design was not for families to be broken.
Bob: Did your parents try to pursue you in the midst of the estrangement?
Julie: Initially, when we did break off, we had a counselor get involved. Yes, there was some: “Let’s try family counseling,” “Let’s do this…see if we can work things out.” All of us came out angrier than when we started; I wish that weren’t so. I guess our family was stubborn.
Ann: It sounds like you guys had stuffed a lot of things for a lot of years, so the counselor brought some things to the surface that had never been dealt with. It can be volatile when it first comes out.
Julie: It was; it just was volatile. You’ve got 40 years of baggage. How can you untangle all that in a couple of sessions?—you just can’t. We all needed to separate and for the Holy Spirit to work on us. That’s what had to happen; the Holy Spirit really worked on all of us.
Ann: I was going to ask—here you are: you’re healing physically; you’re healing spiritually; you’re healing in a lot of different areas—“Were you praying for reconciliation at that point? Were you praying for your parents?”
Julie: I was so angry at them; it took a long time before. But about in the third year, my dad had a heart attack. My sister/the middle sister, which was the only one who had not left—she called and said: “Dad may not live. You need to go see him.” So, my husband and I prayed about it. I had been praying for relationship, but I had not gotten to the point where I could pray for my parents.
Ann: You weren’t ready to forgive.
Julie: No; I wasn’t; I was trying. I went and visited my dad. That really was the halfway point for me; because there was a total of seven years of estrangement. When I went to visit my dad, something broke. I knew that I could see my dad without all the fear. He was wired up, and he was drugged up.
Ann: You weren’t the little girl anymore.
Julie: I wasn’t the little girl anymore. I was starting to, mentally, be an adult with him. He was really nice. I thought, after that, they would call and say, “I’m sorry.” I kept expecting an apology—nothing.
Julie: Nothing; it just went back to silence.
Bob: Julie, what did you learn about you during this period of estrangement? We’ve talked about your anger and your bitterness toward your parents, and about how you felt you’d been wronged. I have to believe God, in this period of seven years, was not only healing your physical body, but He was bringing some stuff to the surface/skimming it. The refiner’s fire is causing the impurities to rise. You’ve got to deal with some of your own junk; don’t you?
Julie: Yes; I realized how unforgiving I was. It was playing itself in other areas—in my marriage; with my children, even. I had to deal with my stuff. That’s the first thing you need to pray for—is the truth. The lies are what can entangle so much of your family estrangement or family brokenness. Even if you’re not estranged—you just have problems—lies play a huge part.
I had to deal with me. I had to try to stop pointing the finger at anyone else, and saying, “If they did this, and that...”—no; it had to come down to what’s going on in my heart. Unforgiveness was something I really worked on.
People-pleasing was another one; I was a performer to the core. I didn’t like it when anybody didn’t like me. I had to work on pleasing God first and deal with that issue. People-pleasing is very tricky, because you’re trying to be a good Christian; and then you’re also trying to do what God’s telling you, and to stand up, and to be the woman of God that God called you to be.
Ann: Did these things spill into your marriage?
Julie: Yes; Andy and I were butting heads, and it spilled into my children. That’s what happened in year six. We had a really difficult child issue with one of our kids. That brought me to my knees. Here we go—next generation—I’ve got a child that’s not really excited about the faith of God. Here I am, really trying to live it out, with an estrangement. My child’s thinking, “I don’t know about this whole Christianity thing.” The roles got reversed: “Here, I’m the parent; and there’s the kid.”
Dave: Were you, at any point/at that point, even yourself, wondering about your faith?—wondering about God?—“Where is He?” “What’s He doing?” “Why isn’t He reconciling this thing?”
Julie: You’re just going there; aren’t you? [Laughter]
Dave: I don’t know; I just want to know. I know what I would feel like.
Julie: Yes; I decided God didn’t live. For about a week, I decided that He didn’t exist. I really decided: “You’re not there, God. You work for everybody else, but You don’t even exist.”
Dave: I’m imagining, when you went and saw your dad, and there was a glimmer of hope, from what I heard you say, and then nothing—that’s worse than no hope.
Dave: You get this “Oh!”—that’s where it’s easy to go, “Okay, God; You just dangled something out in front of me, and You’re not real.” Is that what you’re feeling?
Julie: Where it happened: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” I thought for sure that was it; we were going to have this great reconciliation—everybody was going to be happy and sing “Kum Ba Yah.” No such luck—more silence and, then, pain/more pain.
Bob: Listening to your story—and listening to the impact that severed relationships—it’s not how it’s supposed to be; right? We’re not supposed to be estranged from one another. We’re supposed to love one another, especially in a family situation. We’re supposed to be loyal to one another, and devoted to one another, and kind to one another. We know what all the “one another’s” are; when that doesn’t happen, I think most of us don’t recognize how profound that is—what a scar that leaves on our soul—and how we need to address that.
Dave: Yes; family breakdowns are the deepest wounds of our soul; I really think so. A friendship breaking down is hard—but man oh man, when it’s a soul union with your mom, your dad, your siblings; and it breaks down—I was thinking, as I was listening today, I was thinking, “I wonder how many people, that we sit beside at church, are going through some of the same stuff?”
You [Julie] go to church. I bet people looked at you and thought you were the perfect little family; because you had it all together. We all think the same thing: “All these people sitting around us—nobody’s in as much pain as I am.” I think we’d be surprised. There’s a lot of pain sitting around us. Yet, there’s a God sitting there, as well, that wants to meet us in the pain; but sometimes it’s hard to find Him there.
Ann: I think, too, because we go to church, so many times we put on masks; because we think this is what people want to see. Isn’t it beautiful when we can take down the mask and still be seen, and loved, and accepted as we are? I think maybe we’re afraid to do that, because we haven’t been accepted in the past. Maybe we don’t give each other enough credit; maybe we could be accepted.
Bob: You mentioned, Julie, that holidays were a particularly difficult part of the year. I’m thinking, as we head into the holidays, it may be helpful for listeners, who look and say: “Our family situation is not good—the extended family. We won’t be seeing extended family members, again, this year,”—maybe get a copy of Julie’s book and read about the journey that God took her on in bringing healing and fresh hope to her family situation.
The book is called Estranged: Finding Hope When Your Family Falls Apart. We have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. Again, the title of the book is Estranged by Julie Plagens. Call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order—that’s 1-800-358-6329—
1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”; or order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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We hope you can be back with us, again, tomorrow when Julie Plagens will share about what eventually brought the healing that she had been praying for in her relationship with her parents and how God worked in the midst of all of that. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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