Trying to Manage Your Toxic Family? What You Need to Know

Dealing with the inevitable losses that come with taking action

Posted Nov 12, 2020

Photograph by Jude Beck. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Jude Beck. Copyright free. Unsplash

When readers submitted questions for my last book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book, one that came in again and again was “Can you get over the loss of family ties?” or variations on the theme, such as “What happens if the smear campaign continues and convinces everyone?” or “Can you be okay if you don’t have a family of origin?” Questions about siblings having a very different view of the very same family came in by the dozens: “Can adult sibling relationships be healed?” or “How is it possible that my siblings see a totally different woman and mother?”

As unloved daughters (and sons) work to manage their relationships to their parents in adulthood—by setting boundaries, going low contact, or ultimately severing ties entirely—these are questions that reflect very real worries and struggles. Often, the adult child’s first efforts to establish boundaries run into terrific pushback not just from their mothers or fathers but from siblings and other family members. This adds another level of stress to the enterprise, as Trisha, 37, discovered:

“When I told my mother she couldn’t bad-mouth me to my kids, ages 10 and 12, World War III broke out. She’s been picking on me my whole life but she was undercutting me and upsetting my kids, who felt she was asking them to take sides, which, of course, she was. She became enraged and co-opted my sister and brother to her side, declaring that I was persona non grata unless I offered her a very public apology. Above all, I owed her respect and she owed me nothing. Well, I wasn’t about to do that and things escalated from there. All of them—my mother, my father, my sister, my brother—cut me off dead. What hurt most wasn’t my mother’s action—it wasn’t surprising—but that everyone went along.”

It’s not uncommon for these rifts to become set in stone, even long after the mother or father has passed on, as Donna, 66, recounted:

“I keep thinking that it’d be good to talk to my brothers and sisters about the past and then I have to force myself to stop fantasizing since my siblings appear to have grown up with very different parents than the ones I remember. Still, it’s a pity that my recall makes me a pariah in their eyes, the ungrateful sister who dishonors our mother’s memory. They inherited her possessions, which should have been enough, but they are compelled to pick up her megaphone.”

Some predictable patterns you should be aware of

Over the course of many interviews and aided and abetted by more recent research on dysfunctional families and patterns of estrangement, it becomes clear that if you find yourself trying to navigate managing problematic dynamics in your family of origin, you should be prepared for some common occurrences. Here are a few to help you on the way:

1. Escalation is sometimes inevitable. Parents who are high in control and always have been are unlikely to respond well to even the most diplomatic efforts to assert boundaries, since they’re likely to see it as an insult to their authority as a parent; it doesn’t really matter that you’re an adult or how old you are because that’s not how they see things. Even though research reveals that only about 12% of adult child-parent estrangements are initiated by parents, the parental response to any kind of criticism often makes escalation inevitable. A number of my readers, when queried, allowed that they weren’t really sure who actually initiated the estrangement; that was the case for Sarah, 48:

“I haven’t had contact with my mother or father or siblings in five years and, at the time, I would have said that I initiated the break. But, with the benefit of hindsight and therapy, I’d definitely say that wasn’t true. I was still on the fence, trying to work things out. But the response to the few rules I was trying to put in place—not putting me or my family down publicly, not spreading rumors about my husband’s having affairs—was so crazy and outsized that they actually increased all the gossip-mongering, even among extended family. I knew they were smearing me but I didn’t know they’d formally stopped talking to me until I saw a post on Facebook which was a photo of what my mom called ‘the whole family.’ Of course, I wasn’t in it and neither were my kids and husband. That was six months after my efforts to put rules in place.”

2. Much as you want your experiences validated, they might not be. Humans are tribal creatures, as they have been from their beginnings, and even with a dysfunctional and emotionally unreliable tribe of origin, our default position is still wanting to belong. It’s in that context that we need to see that even as we break away from dysfunctional ties, our impulse is to turn to others whom we believe shared our experiences to validate our own. The reality is that it rarely happens. There are many reasons a sibling might not see it your way, in fact; it can be relatively straightforward (she or he was treated relatively well compared to your being the family scapegoat, or he or she is invested in keeping the peace) or terrifically complicated (he or she is much more comfortable criticizing you than your parent or is opposed to what she or he calls “wallowing in the past”). For many adult children, this lack of support adds significantly to the losses already piled up.

3. Most people defend their own family narratives fiercely. Our stories about our families are, of course, stories about who we are and how we came to be the people we are. Is it any wonder that most individuals are loath to subject those stories to the editing of a sibling? Sometimes, the differences are in the details as it was for Tim and his brother Jon, who were born just two years apart. While they agree that their father was a bully and verbally abusive, they don’t see eye-to-eye on revisiting the past. Tim believes that discussing the past sets you free; Jon thinks it’s too painful to revisit and that there’s no point in talking about what was. Their opposite points of view make for tension between them. They see each other infrequently.

Other siblings don’t talk at all. Sides are taken, with each championing the “truth” of her or his version. Deidre, 62, wrote:

“I had to choose between my own mental health and my nasty family. I am lucky that I married a kind man and have a son who is finding his way in the world and is loving, but it remains a real loss. Their story is about demeaning me as the scapegoat. It took me a long time and tons of therapy to realize that playing a part in their story was hurting me and holding me back. But it still hurts.”

4. You may feel the loss keenly even if you initiated the action. One of the counterintuitive things about taking action—whether that’s trying to open up a discussion, setting boundaries, or lessening or ending contact—is that a deep sense of loss may accompany what you intellectually know to be a move in the right direction. Adult children are often surprised by the force of their emotions when they expected just a sense of relief. Why is that? Anyone who comes from a family where his or her emotional needs weren’t met really just wants one thing: That someone will wave a magic wand and that the family of origin will become good enough. That hope dies hard.

Dealing with a dysfunctional family is difficult and painful work, best accomplished with a gifted therapist. But you can also help yourself.

The ideas in this post are drawn from my books, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood.

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Copyright © 2020 by Peg Streep

Photograph by Jude Beck. Copyright free. Unsplash.com

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