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The Source of Toxic Family Relations

Research suggests that "toxic" people may be suffering from mental illness.

How do you know you have a toxic family or family member? You may feel anxious or nervous when you have to interact with them. You may feel drained after interacting with them or hearing them gossip.

They may be addicted to “drama," tend to overreact emotionally and create scenes in public or within a family. They may share personal things you said to them in confidence with other people to harm you. Worse, you may feel confused, manipulated, and emotionally harmed after interacting with them or asserting your boundaries.

While all families have disagreements and conflict, toxic family systems use extremely unhealthy ways of interacting with each other and resolving conflict. While disagreements and tension are inevitable in any family, the manner in which the conflict is handled is what differentiates a healthy family system from a toxic family system.

Family Emotional Violence

Research supports the idea that a certain level of “aggression” is a “normal” part of family life. These levels are usually culturally-approved (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 2011). For example, in Western cultures, many healthy families and couples may lose their tempers or say hurtful things to each other on occasion.

However, if these harmful tactics—combined with conflict avoidance (gossiping, criticism, pitting, splitting)—become consistent ways of resolving problems, a toxic family dynamic may occur. Unfortunately, one toxic family member or “bad apple” can cause significant damage to an entire family system.

Psychological Bullying

While physical violence causes bodily injury, emotional or interpersonal violence can cause psychological harm, stress, and mental injury. In dysfunctional families, these behaviors have been coined as “toxic” because they can cause relational harm to a group. A hallmark of a toxic person is the severe harm she/he can cause to a group: workplace, family, or even government.

For instance, in a family, a toxic sister, aunt, mother, or cousin can cause relationship harm between family members. They may split and pit family members against each other (toxic behavior), usually by lying for their own personal gain. This form of psychological bullying is quite harmful to family members and may manifest in depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, or post-traumatic stress symptoms in many family members.

Sometimes, these family members causing destruction are suffering from their own mental health problems, often undiagnosed. According to Dr. George Simon, these may be disturbances of character. In medical terms, perpetrators may be suffering from a diagnosis on the personality disorder spectrum (American Psychiatric Association, 2014).

Dangerous Family Members: Pathological Personality

The connection between psychopathic traits and crime is well-researched, but the rate of victimization within families relatives is lacking research and is not fully understood (Leedom, 2017). However, psychologists find the clinical problem of personality disorders is increasingly prevalent among patients who create toxic family dynamics.

A personality disorder is a pervasive lifelong pattern of behavior that leads to distress or impairment. They can have significant impairment in ways of seeing other people, themselves, and events. In addition, they can have affective problems, such as an inability to regulate their emotional responses.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), these include diagnoses such as Narcissistic, Antisocial, and Borderline Personality Disorders. Sociopathy and psychopathy are used in popular culture to describe personalities and behaviors on this spectrum, but these are not actual diagnoses found in the DSM-5. It can be very confusing to the public and clinicians alike because there is so much comorbidity or overlap between symptoms and behaviors of personality disorders.

Is the Specific Diagnosis Important?

Experts agree that there is significant overlap among the many personality disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (2013) has proposed an alternative model for conceptualizing personality disorders in the future because of this problem with comorbidity across personality disorders. For example, there are similar traits and behaviors between Narcissistic, Borderline, and Antisocial personality disorders. The alternative DSM-5 model includes general criteria for a personality disorder, a person who has impairments in personality functioning, one or more pathological personality traits.

Within the family system context, however, an actual diagnosis is not as important as recognizing patterns of those who suffer from personality disorders and how they may affect your family.

Are They “Treatable”?

Personality disorders are far more serious than many other mental health disorders because they are difficult to treat. This is for two reasons:

1. Treatment resistance—i.e., those with personality disorders don’t understand they have the problem and blame others.

2. It is difficult to treat a personality because they are ingrained personality traits—unlike, for example, a mood disorder.

Whether or not they seek (or respond to) treatment, what you can do is recognize and understand these “clinically disturbed” people in your life, regardless of specific diagnostic labels. According to George Simon, Ph.D., author of In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People in Your Life, it is important to recognize certain behaviors to mitigate the damage of interacting with these types of “clinically disturbed” people.

Toxic Family Dynamics

Unsure if you're dealing with a toxic family member or toxic family dynamics? These behaviors may indicate that things have turned toxic:

  • Splitting: Planting seeds where jealousy, resentment, and anger will flourish.
  • Pitting: Setting family members against each other, usually through dishonesty.
  • Triangulation: Do not confront each other directly and triangulate another family member.
  • Smear Campaigns: Premediated efforts to tarnish another person's reputation and character usually by lying and deceit, often delusional in nature.
  • Chronic disrespect and contempt.
  • Pathological lying
  • Becomes angry and protests when you assert boundaries.
  • Refusal to apologize.
  • Takes no responsibility, blames others.
  • Controlling.
  • Verbal assaults (overt and covert).

Unfortunately, many families with a history of adverse childhood experiences or adult children of alcoholics may think these family dynamics are “normal.” And they may be normal—but are they healthy? If they are chronically causing you distress and impairment, including anxiety and depression, you may need to re-assess your exposure.

The issue of distancing and estrangement from toxic family members is a very complicated and personal one. This is one of the most asked questions in my private practice. The next series of articles will cover the issue of emotional distancing strategies, estrangement, and resolution.

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Afifi, T. D., Olson, L. N., Armstrong, C. (2005). The chilling effect and family secrets: Examining the role of self-protection, other protection, and communication efficacy. Human Communication Research, 31, 564-598.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Barnett, O., Miller-Perrin, C., & Perrin, R. (2011). Family violence across the life span. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Conti, R.P. (2015). Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology & Behavioral Science, 3, 28-35.

Gladding, S. (2018). Family therapy: History, theory, and practice. Pearson: New York.

Leedom. L. J. (2017). The Impact of Psychopathy on the Family, Psychopathy - New Updates on an Old Phenomenon, Federico Durbano, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.70227. Available from:…

Roth, K, Friedman, F. (2003). Surviving a borderline parent: How to heal your childhood wounds & build trust, boundaries, and self-esteem. CA: New Harbinger.

Simon, G. (2011) Character Disturbance: The phenomenon of our age. Parkhurst Brothers: AR.

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