In my family, we learned that blood is thicker than water. Our relationships with each other were to be prized, no matter the cost. So years ago, when I saw an Instagram post by another therapist I follow, a white one, suggesting that if you have a harmful family member, you should cut them out just like you would a malignant tumor, I was shocked! This seemed to challenge the core values my immigrant family instilled in me.
I spent years processing this concept, considering how different theoretical lenses and different cultures might conceptualize this idea. I thought about how in many Western countries, the individual is often prioritized over the community and how this is not the case in other cultures and countries. I thought about my own family relationships, including those that had caused me pain and where I had purposefully created distance. While I never stated it explicitly, there were relationships that I invested in and those that I allowed to fall by the wayside. Some of the relationships I have cultivated are with given family members, but many of my closest relationships are now with my chosen family. I also have family members who live 10 miles from me but wouldn’t recognize me if I walked past them on the street. Whether or not I wanted to admit it to myself, I have been navigating some toxic relationships within my family for years, and unfortunately, it’s not always easy.
The relationship one has with their family can be such a formative and instructive force throughout their life. Families can guide, nurture, and support us, but they can also be a source of great pain and abuse, and in some instances, they can do all of those things at once. In those more complicated family dynamics, figuring out how to engage safely and healthily can often be challenging. Conversely, it can sometimes be just as difficult to cut ties completely and let go of the hope for a family which will love and understand us in the ways we need. However, many people feel unable to choose either option and find themselves stuck in a toxic cycle with their families. This toxic cycle can be incredibly detrimental to their mental and emotional health.
How do I know if a family member is toxic?
According to John Bowlby’s concept of attachment theory, humans instinctively form attachments to their primary caregivers for survival and security. These bonds influence a person’s development, shaping how they understand relationships and impacting how they engage with their world. Therefore, when one is raised in what would be considered a dysfunctional household or by caregivers who are unable to provide a sense of safety and security, that type of familial dynamic becomes normalized for them. Additionally, this experience and normalization to a dysfunctional dynamic can often negatively impact their overall well-being.
While all families have conflict, toxic family systems use unhealthy ways of interacting with each other and resolving conflict. Disagreements and differences are inevitable in any family, but how the conflict is handled differentiates a healthy family system from a toxic one.
Toxic family members are, at the core, abusive family members. Abuse can take many forms, including physical, sexual, and emotional. These family members are harmful, either intentionally or unintentionally. While anyone can cause harm from time to time, especially when they themselves are hurt, with a toxic family member, this is likely the norm and not the exception. Typically, a toxic person is the product of a toxic environment—so they often don’t recognize their own harmful patterns. Their behaviors, however, and the harm they cause can be far-reaching.
One type of emotional abuse by a toxic family member is frequently being painfully critical of others. Inappropriate and harmful comments on topics ranging from appearance and relationship status to financial challenges are all signs of toxicity. Even under the guise of teasing or “constructive criticism” (read: “I say this with love”), when these statements cut you down and are disrespectful, they can be a sign of something more insidious.
Using the silent treatment to punish others is another behavior displayed by toxic family members. While everyone may need a break from others sometimes, purposefully withdrawing care to manipulate another’s behavior is harmful and can serve as a warning that a family member may not be able to engage healthfully.
The silent treatment is not the only form of manipulation that may be toxic. Moving the goalpost, gaslighting, pinning family members against each other, and blaming instead of accepting (or even considering) guilt can also be signs that a family member is toxic.
And while this is not a comprehensive list, the common denominator is that the behaviors of a toxic family member leave you feeling hurt, angry, and/or exhausted.
What are the impacts of growing up with toxic family members?
Studies show that individuals exposed to toxic family environments are at increased risk of developing mental health issues, such as anxiety, low self-worth/self-esteem, and depression. Growing up with toxic family members may make it difficult to access a strong familial support system that helps you gain confidence and resilience. Having been exposed to harmful family dynamics, individuals from toxic family environments might have difficulty recognizing the impact of their home life experience on their mental health. Reaching adulthood, gaining more independence, and experiencing new ways of being can finally shed light on the dysfunction they’ve endured and how it has caused harm. That said, even those who understand their family dynamic to be unhealthy from a young age might still have difficulty distancing themselves from it. This could be attributed to various factors like age and resources, but it’s also often related to the fact that it can be hard to let go of the complex feelings of love that one holds for their family.
Given that we’re socially conditioned (and, according to attachment theory, neurobiologically programmed) to form deep bonds with our family members from a young age, it is very natural to struggle with breaking those bonds. This can be the case even when the relationship is harmful. As social beings, our family structures can also make up a significant piece of our sense of identity and community, so divorcing yourself from that for any reason is rarely a simple, straightforward process.
However, toxic or dysfunctional family structures can take an immense mental and emotional toll. A toxic individual or family can generally be associated with regular and consistent behavior intended to cause harm or distress to others. When we live with difficult or toxic family members, and even when we only see them occasionally, the complexities of navigating those relationships can be a significant source of anxiety and unease. For some, even just the thought of engaging with their family can bring about dread because they understand that any interaction can lead to harassment, mistreatment, verbal, and in some cases, physical abuse. And yet, even as dysregulating and traumatizing as these experiences can be, far too often, people are made to feel like they must engage with these family members to ‘keep the peace.’ In some circumstances, folks might be overwhelmed by societal and cultural pressures that lead them to maintain these painful relationships. The pull of familial expectation can be powerful around this time of year when we are bombarded with messaging which tells us that the holiday season is meant to be spent with family.
So how do we care for our emotional well-being while navigating these complex family dynamics and when, if ever, is the right time to stop engaging completely?
How can I navigate a toxic relationship in my family?
If the thought of spending the holidays with your family causes stress and anxiety, but you know that you want to stay connected, here are a few ideas on navigating complex family relationships.
- Attempt to create healthy boundaries: The idea of a healthy boundary will vary significantly from person to person, but a common place to start is through the ways your family members engage with you and how you engage with them. It could be something broader, like establishing rules for communication, or you could tailor your request to a specific subject you want to avoid while spending time together. You can also limit how often you engage with them, where, and when. It can be quite the uphill battle to assert boundaries, though, especially in toxic family dynamics. Difficult family members might feel personally antagonized by your boundaries and choose to employ manipulative tactics like guilt to make you feel like you are being selfish and hurtful by setting them. They might even ignore your boundary altogether and completely invalidate your needs. But the commonly held belief that we should accept how family members treat us simply because they are family can lead to real harm. Rather than be pressured into relegating your needs, it can be worthwhile to continue communicating and reasserting your boundaries to protect yourself.
- Try to approach the situation with compassion and understanding: If you were raised in a toxic household, it’s likely that your caregivers were as well. And while that is not an excuse, it provides much-needed context to help explain where some of their more harmful tendencies might originate. This context might also give you guidelines for approaching them about their challenging behavior. Having compassion and understanding for your toxic family member doesn’t mean that you excuse or forgive their behavior, but that you can understand how they came to be how they are. Remember to offer yourself compassion and understanding, too, as you’ll likely need it.
- Pay attention to your own emotions and reactivity to their behavior: People who engage in toxic behavior may be aware of how their actions are impacting those around them, and in some instances, the ability to affect someone is part of what’s motivating their conduct. While their actions may be incredibly hurtful, by showing a reaction or engaging in an argument with them about their behavior, you are not only validating them, you may also prolong the situation. While it’s far easier said than done, walking away while actively ignoring the manipulative statements may offer you an out while not reinforcing the toxic family member. Alternatively, having a boundary internally of what you’re willing to accept and internalize is another way of caring for yourself in these situations. Detaching during interactions can allow you to physically be with family while not allowing them to have access to your inner world and emotions.
- Remind yourself that you can’t control or fix anyone: It makes sense that you might still wish that your family member and your dynamics with them would change. We are designed to crave connection. Imagining that we can fix or alter our family can make us feel less hopeless and like we have some power in the situation. While almost anyone can change, that change will likely take hard work and intention and must come from your family member’s own desire. Accepting that you can’t change or control the toxic dynamics within your family can be painful and disappointing, but it can also set you free to care for and invest in yourself and the relationships that do nourish you.
- Allow yourself to say no: One possible outcome of engaging with a toxic family member is that you’ve learned to put others’ feelings above your own and set aside your own needs and wants. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean things will change in your favor, but it does leave you vulnerable to continued abuse and harm. Giving yourself permission to say no when that’s what you want to say and when it would be in your best interest may be hard to imagine, but know that it’s an option. It may take a while (and possibly support from trusted allies) to assert your rights this way, and that’s okay. Start with just considering it as a possibility, and ask yourself what you’d need to actually say no when you want to.
- Take space when you need it: Scheduling time away and taking breaks when you need them (or before you need them) can help you stay connected to your own inner state and your needs while navigating the challenges with your family. This space may include stepping away or leaving when things are escalating. No one has the right to hurt you, and if you need to physically remove yourself to keep yourself safe, that is more than appropriate. If you are traveling to see family and want to limit interactions with certain family members, you may want to stay at another place (e.g., a friend’s couch or guest bedroom).
How do I end a relationship with toxic family members who can’t seem to change?
- Deciding to end a relationship with a family member is not an easy conclusion, and for some, it may be even more challenging to execute. The grief associated with cutting off a family member who is still living is complex. If you’ve reached a point where you know that it’s no longer sustainable to continue engaging with certain family members and know that the harm is too great to endure, then setting these firm limits may be precisely what you need to do.
- Trust your instincts: Many of us maintain toxic relationships with family because it’s all we’ve known. It can be hard to recognize when something is unhealthy if your entire worldview is framed within that context. We also face a lot of societal pressure to stay close to family no matter what, but if you recognize that it’s harmful and you don’t see an avenue for change, pay attention to that feeling. Imagine what it could look like to put your own needs and well-being first.
- Offer yourself some compassion: Prioritizing your needs and well-being is by no means easy. You will likely experience harsh criticism and judgment from your family and others for choosing to distance yourself. For many, choosing to cut off communication with family is the ultimate betrayal, and you may be called selfish for putting yourself first. Remind yourself that your life belongs to you alone. No one is entitled to have access to you, especially if they have been harmful to you in the past. By choosing to stop engaging with toxic family members, you are deciding to engage in self-love.
- Lean on your support system and chosen family for help as you work to separate yourself from the toxic family member or members: Contrary to popular belief, your given family is not the only place from which you can draw unconditional support and positive regard. There are people out there who will love you fiercely, and their support can be crucial as you process the impact of your past and forge a new path forward.
- Let yourself grieve: Letting go of the fantasy of a perfect family and coming to terms with the reality of your situation can be so painful and involve so much loss. Acknowledging all the hurt you’ve endured and that your family is the cause is difficult. Saying goodbye to family members and the idea that things will change can be heartbreaking, even when you know it’s what’s best for you. Grieve all that was and all that will never be. Given how complex this process is, you may decide that you want to access the guidance and support of a therapist. Regardless, be gentle with yourself in the process and allow yourself to feel whatever needs to be felt.
Of course, there is always more to say about the impacts of harmful and toxic family dynamics and how we cope with them. There is no one size fits all approach. Most often, how each person chooses to engage (or not engage) will be influenced by countless variables and may change over time and then change again. We hope that this article has helped you start to consider how you want to navigate any relationships that may be toxic within your family, and we also hope that it reminds you that you’re not alone if you’re struggling with this.
Please reach out if you need help making sense of your family dynamics or making choices about how you want to engage with harmful family members. We would be honored to support you in this process.