The Ties That Bind

Many hours of television and radio programs have been dedicated to the topic of child abuse.  There are tons of books, magazine articles and psychologists that deal with children who have been abused.  Today I am addressing family ties and toxic relationships within families and the abuse of adult children.

With family we always set our tolerances higher than we do with the public at large.  We can tolerate more bad than good and still consider the relationship healthy and whole.  There is usually a trade off among family members.  They can drive you nuts, but you know they are there for you during the hard times.  Usually, if you come from a healthy family, your family members have seen you at your worst and love you anyway.  They accept you and their love is unconditionally there regardless of whatever mistakes you may have made.  To make the relationship work each party has to know that there is unconditional love and both parties have to agree to disagree at times.  There has to be mutual respect and members of the family cannot attempt to control other members through manipulation or passive aggressive acts.  Some families have never known this type of positive interaction. 

If you have reached a point where maintaining the relationship brings you more negative feelings than positive, it may be time to cut ties.  Dr. Richard A. Friedman writes an article for the NY Times called “When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate” that is an excellent read for those wondering if they should break ties with abusive parents.  Beware; cutting ties will bring on feelings of anger, abandonment, guilt, failure, grief and doubt.  No matter how abusive the relationship has been it is still your mother or father.  This may feel like a death so prepare to grieve. 

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior so if you’ve had these negative feelings for years and they remain constant, it is most likely not going to get any better.  The good news is, if you have been tortured by this person emotionally for years, the loss will be much easier to endure. 

One of the most difficult parts of cutting ties with one family member is that you will have other family members upset with you.  Toxic parents produce toxic siblings.  Ask yourself if the person you wish to cut ties with is so awful that it is worth upsetting the entire family.  I recently had a family member act as if I should be devastated that another family member wasn’t currently speaking to me.  I got the impression that she thought this person not speaking to me and still speaking to her was some sort of victory on her part.  During our conversation I felt guilt, the feeling of abandonment and the feeling of not being good enough creeping back in.  Then I remembered that repeating the same behavior and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity.  I feel as if a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

Every family, especially the ones with multiple children, has assigned roles within that family.  Usually we are assigned our role in childhood and it will follow us throughout our lives.  The idea that the person we become is partly defined by the order in which we come in our family was first proposed by Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler. Adler believed that sibling hierarchy has a profound effect on our personalities, and can influence everything from the career choices we make to the people we fall in love with.

For instance, you may be “the baby” of the family and everyone will enable you into adulthood and on.  No one will want to say no to you for fear of upsetting you.  This can be extremely frustrating for other siblings and for the person in the role of “the baby” because you are never seen as being able to handle your own responsibilities or taken seriously.  This becomes an excuse for bad behavior.  They know they will be excused for transgressions other family members will be held accountable for.  They are normally indulged and are good at getting their own way and usually have fewer responsibilities than the other siblings.  They often choose careers that are completely different from other members of the family.

Another common role in multiple child families is “the fixer”.  This is the member who lends money and keeps the peace at all costs.  This person may be seen as the enemy by some family members because of their need to be in control and take control of situations.  Normally this role was assigned in childhood and is the result of a child taking on adult responsibilities due to a lack of parental guidance or as a result of a parental death.  The child was made to feel responsible for the care of one of the parents in the home or for younger siblings.  They are usually perfectionists and worriers and put pressure on themselves to succeed at all costs.  They are most likely to mirror their parents’ beliefs and attitudes and normally choose to spend the most time with their chosen adult role model.

The third common role assigned in the family is “the scapegoat”.  This role is without respect and includes extra helpings of psychological abuse.  Every failure will be picked apart.  The mother or father labels one child as bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, most often imagined) to blame the child for.  There are different reasons one child is picked out to be the scapegoat.  Perhaps that child is vulnerable or reminds the parent of a family member they do not like.  Most often, it is because the child exhibits traits the parent(s) do not like in themselves or another family member.  Many times a parent will take out their sense of frustration for not doing well in life on the scapegoat and will belittle their accomplishments while emphasizing their weaknesses or failures.

Other siblings may join in picking on or taunting the scapegoat child.  In extremely dysfunctional families, the parent may actually goad the other siblings into taunting the scapegoat or may set up situation where they will have to choose sides.  The scapegoat learns that they are at the bottom of the pecking order in the family and often gravitates toward that role in school, work and other relationships.  They are insecure and will sometimes develop a victim mentality.  They often act out in socially unacceptable ways.  The role becomes a self fulfilling prophecy which allows the other family members to justify their bad behavior.

IWhatever you feel around your family is probably how they feel about you.  If you feel worthless, unloved, angry and resentful then that is probably what they are feeling toward you.  The truth of the relationship you share with your family member(s) may be hard to accept, but subtle cues can be a good indicator of the future of that relationship.  They may just show their feelings for you in passive aggressive ways.  Usually the problem family member is the one who completely disregards boundaries. 

As children we learn that we are powerless against the acts of our parents because we’re too young to speak our minds.  If the stress begins to affect your job, personal life, or your current family then it is probably time to cut ties at least temporarily.  The family you were born into is not more important than your current family.  Your wife/husband should now take precedence over your mother/father.  If old family members are hurting your current family then you must take action.  Many times, the role assigned to the parent is the role that will be assigned to the grandchild.

Don’t allow yourself to downplay the effects of long term mental abuse.  If the relationship you are trying to maintain is one sided when there is no valid reason why the other person is putting no effort into maintaining it then it is alright to say goodbye.  Therapists will generally tell you that talking to your parent and telling them how you feel is the solution.  Others will tell you that if you have better self esteem and feel better about yourself that your family’s abuse won’t affect you so much.  Sometimes these solutions may work.  In my particular case, however, trying to discuss how I felt with anyone in my family was responded to with a barrage of accusations and invective that was painful to endure.

If you have reached this point in your relationship with a family member or parent, remember that you are not alone.  Time really does heal all wounds.  The pain of estrangement will diminish with time and you will eventually realize that you are much happier without your “family” in your life. 

I have had every Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Easter and Fourth of July meal at my home for as long as I can remember.  I am looking forward to my first Thanksgiving with my husband, son, and friends without my old family.  I look forward to not having to hear that I didn’t cook something I should have or cooked something I shouldn’t have or cooked something the wrong way.  I’m looking forward to eating at the time I schedule our meal and not having someone show up an hour late with excuses and a complete disregard for my feelings.  I’m looking forward to not having someone tell me I’m being “ridiculous” for asking visitors to adhere to our family’s rules.  I’m looking forward to not being told that I owe someone money for the drinks and store bought pie they brought.  I’m looking forward to not having to hear how tired someone is and how they can’t wait to get home and take a nap as soon as they walk in my door.  I’m looking forward to not spending hours cleaning, decorating and making place cards only to hear someone say I’m trying to act like “Miss Rich Bitch”.  I’m looking forward to not having to go out the next day and buy new storage containers because someone took half the food home, but didn’t bring their own containers.  Most of all, I’m looking forward to not having my every action and reaction misunderstood and having guilt piled on me for resenting all of it.


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