Dealing With Toxic Family Relationships

My experience navigating unhealthy family relationships and how to live your own life despite these relationships

Dealing with toxic family relationships

To a lot of us, family means everything. We are expected to accept social gathering invitations, to do favors, to watch children, to offer support, and to be there when a family member is in need. But what happens when the family members that expect to receive these things are toxic, manipulative or abusive? What if doing these things puts you in an emotionally unhealthy and potentially dangerous situation?

I don’t know about you, but all my life I’ve been told it doesn’t matter how horribly a family member treats you. Their relation to you means you should be there for them when they need someone, no matter what it costs you. As an adolescent, I lived with my extended family for ten years. I was insulted, belittled, bullied, physically abused, and, at the most extreme, told that I was “a waste of space that did not deserve to live.” This abuse had a lasting effect on me.

According to experts, children and teens who experience verbal and emotional abuse are at a higher risk for mental issues such as anxiety and depression, suicide attempts, drug use, and risky sexual behaviors (Norman et al., 2012). This makes it all the more important to do as much as you can to distance yourself from such relatives. However, it can be harder to end toxic relationships with family members than it is with friends or significant others. There is no easy way to do this, nor is there a one-size-fits-all approach.

What Can You Do?

Physical Distancing

The most straightforward way to deal with toxic family members is to create distance between you and these individuals. This can be literal distance, which can be achieved by moving out, not visiting them as often, or not offering to babysit their children if you’re already moved out. Cutting people out directly can be challenging, because with family there are always connections. Even if you decide to distance yourself from toxic family members, you might be on the receiving end from one (or several) other family members unhappy with your decision. There can be repercussions from other family members who disagree with your choices, as I have experienced. Even though I moved away from my toxic relatives and distanced myself from seeing them often, I still attend a few holiday gatherings each year - my mother believes ignoring them is wrong. They do not realize that when I create distance between myself and a toxic family member, I am respecting myself and my emotional state. I am prioritizing my wellbeing, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Toxic people are manipulative. In my family, toxic people tend to use back channels to persuade someone to “volunteer” to do something because they don’t want to ask for it. This is very frustrating for me. A toxic family member will call their mom to complain about something they need, and that person will call my mom to tell me I should offer to do it. This leads to my mom, who will call me to say that I’m wrong for not offering to help. I find this highly manipulative and immature. I’m not a mind reader (I wish!). I think that if someone wants something from a person, they should be a grown-up and ask for it.

A relationship with a toxic person only serves them. They tend to focus on the negative in relationships. In my family, this often turns into a contest of “whose life is worse” that I refuse to participate in. Toxic people bully. They make you feel like you are to blame when they do something wrong.

Emotional Distancing

This is why emotional distance is just as important as physical distance. When it comes to family, it can be impossible to cut someone out entirely. According to AJ Harbinger, emotional distance means that while you may be physically close to a family member, you don’t have to let them drag you into their toxic spiral. For me, this means not letting my family manipulate me, not feeling blamed when they’re wrong, and knowing that the value I give to myself is worth much, much more than any value they could ascribe to me.

When I do have to attend holiday gatherings, I spend my time talking to as many non-toxic people as I can. I find myself playing with children a lot. Not only are they so pure, happy and fun to be around; it gets me out of having unpleasant conversations. When my toxic family members make me feel guilty for not coming around more, I make vague comments about being busy with work and move on. When someone insults my clothing or makeup, I think about how their insult speaks volumes about the person it came from and not the person it was aimed at. Then I leave as soon as possible and go home to my dog and a good book, or call a friend to vent.

How I’ve Moved Forward

After ten years of living with toxic family members, I felt worthless. I felt like I had to do everything they asked. I felt guilty all the time, and I was depressed. Moving away from them was one of the best things I could have done. Eight years later, I have a real support system, good friends, fulfilling work and social life; and I spend time with people who are good for me. I’ve reached a point in my life where my relationships (yes, all of them!) need to be mutually supportive. If a person can’t treat me with respect or be kind and supportive, I don’t need them in my life. This has been a hard step to reach, but it was worth it. It means that everyone in my life has a positive influence instead of a negative one. It means instead of being torn down, we build each other up. And that’s what a real family is.

For more support, join our empathetic community, chat with a free, trained listener, or start affordable online therapy today.


Posted: 12 August 2019

Indigo Alba

Indigo works in social services to help guide people to their best life.

Related Articles

Caring for the Caregivers

Lara Gregorio LCSW

Real-life tips on how to avoid caregiver burnout

3 Ways to Be a Better Listener

Lara Gregorio LCSW

Learn the three tactics 7 Cups has used to train thousands of active listeners