What Happens When Your Toxic Relationship Is With Your Family?

2/4/2018

istock/GeorgeRudy

Parents can be a hard topic for anyone who’s been the victim of toxic parenting and now spend their lives trying to unlearn reactionary behaviors. For members of the queer community this can lead to internalized homophobia, depression, anxiety disorders, and can even trigger/contribute to more serious mental illnesses. I’m sure that most of us have attempted, or even succeeded, in removing toxic people from our lives as a resolution, but often family members are exempt from these efforts.

This is a topic that needs to be addressed in the bi community. After all, we have the highest reported rates of mental illness and suicide/suicidal thoughts (specifically for bi women) of the queer community.

There is a misconception held by our society that family deserves a place in your life just because they are family. This means that they should magically be held to a different standard than everyone else you socialize with. But why?

I, personally, love the sentiment that your friends are the family you chose, and I like to believe that we should be holding our family, especially our parents, to the same standard we hold our friends and partners to. I see so many articles warning of abuse from intimate partners; we’ve long been aware of how we’re likely to date partners that reflect our parents in one way or another. However, we don’t often discuss the emotional abuse that parents and family can perpetrate against us as adults. From what I’ve experienced (and I assume I’m not alone), victims of childhood psychological abuse will continue to allow that behavior in your life.

I’m not saying that every person who ends up in an abusive relationship as adults has suffered abuse at home as children, but that does seem to be a contributing factor.

Persons that have built healthy adult relationships with their parents are unaware of how this misconception of your parents deserving a place in your life can lead to well-intentioned people giving others harmful advice. They were fortunate and didn’t suffer abuse from the people they were supposed to feel safe with, and will encourage those of us who did not have the good fortune to try to keep up a steady relationship with our parents. Please, don’t.

There are situations that go beyond what is expected when it comes to parental figures, and encouraging a person to respect their parents or be understanding of their parents’ (sometimes highly damaging) behavior after they’ve experienced abuse is not healthy or helpful.

An article in Psychology Today, Forms of Emotional and Verbal Abuse You May Be Overlooking, highlights some of the ways that our close relationships can be abusive. Normally we think of these terms when we talk about romantic partners, but they apply just as much to other people we are close to in our lives. Even as an adult, family can be a huge part of this group and it can be hard to recognize these behaviors in a parent, sibling, or other family member.

Opposing: The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.

Blocking: This is another tactic used to abort conversation. The abuser may switch topics, accuse you, or use words that in effect say, “Shut Up.”

Discounting & Belittling: This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong.

Undermining & Interrupting: These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.

Denying: An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made, or that a conversation or other events took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring. This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gaslighting, named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. In it, a husband used denial in a plot to make his wife believe she was losing her grip on reality.

So what I’m trying to drive home here is this: Just because they’re family, just because they’re your parents, no one has the right to treat you poorly. This behavior shouldn’t be accepted in your romantic relationships, nor should it be accepted in your familial relationships.

I’ve watched my friends – most of whom are bi and poly – go back to their abusive parents over and over again thinking that if they do better that their parents’ behavior will change. Even if the person manipulating you is a family member, you are still allowed to walk away from that treatment. Sometimes doing what’s best for you means walking away from toxic relationships and realizing that no one gets a free pass to treat you like you’re worthless.

In the words of Dylan McKay, “May the bridges I burn light the way.”

Natasha McCracken
Natasha is bi, polyamorous, a proud feminist, and an animal lover. New to the writing business, and eager to have her voice heard. She is a member of amBi in Southern Oregon, and spends her time attending events, creating art, and taking care of her rescue animals with her partner.