The last time I wrote about ending harmful family relationships, I received a lot of negative mail from people who felt that one should stay close to family members no matter how abusive, violent, depleting, or toxic they are. Three years (and a ton of conversations and connections with women in destructive family relationships) later, I am stronger in my position and resolve:
Biology does not make a relationship. Behavior does.
Most of us were taught that titles like “mother,” “father,” “sister,” etc. automatically call us to be obligated, emotionally intertwined, and unconditionally loyal.
In healthy relationships, no problems arise from this teaching, but for the masses who are biologically or legally related to people who don’t love them, tear them down, or cause them harm, it can lead to a lifetime of suffering.
We attach tremendous meaning to relationship titles, and consequently, many suffer intense upset when people fail to live up to expectations. Bound by obligation, expectation, and guilt, many remain in unsatisfying relationships, tolerate unspeakable behavior, and endure consistently poor treatment.
Marriages, bloodlines, and familial or professional associations do not, on their own, create healthy or positive relationships. And the real value of a relationship is in its quality, not its title.
I have lay-down-your-life-for-sisters with whom I share no biological link and blood relatives that I haven’t spoken with in more than a decade.
It’s a blessing to be born to a family that actively loves and cares for its members, but many families don’t function this way.
I was born into a family with a few racially prejudiced members. As a child, I struggled with the conflict between society’s familial images and my reality.
It shouldn’t shock us when we fail to meet the image of familial bliss. Families are an amalgamation of assorted personalities, capacities, and values. It’s natural that the full spectrum of wonders, maladies, and challenges are represented.
As the primary advocate, protector, and caregiver for you, you must make a choice when entrenched in a soul-sapping family situation:
1) work with the relative to improve the relationship (they have to want to work with you) or,
2) where the former isn’t possible, remove yourself from harm.
As I grew older, I realized that I didn’t have to remain in unhappy, or harmful situations. I didn’t have to keep trying to live up to expectations that came attached to the titles I had. I didn’t have to sit tensely at the holiday table wondering when someone would erupt. I didn’t have to feel guilty for not spending the day doing what someone else wanted while my heart ached. I didn’t have to feel inadequate for not being what someone else wanted.
I didn’t need to cause a firestorm of upset either. I could release myself and the label-wearer of all obligations, free myself from the upset, and let go in peace.
I went on to create a new family, brimming with people who have one thing in common, genuine love and regard for each other. Words can’t adequately convey my feelings for them.
Choosing to move away from harmful, unhappy relationships creates space for real, substantive connections. It improves one’s self-image and garners self-respect and trust. This confidence effortlessly attracts others with similar mindsets. As a result, all of life changes.
Surrendering and releasing my biological family members also cleared a lot of the past struggles and negativity. In time, some relationships were reborn—on new and voluntary foundations.
There are situations where you may choose to compromise your peace and comfort to bring happiness to another (an elderly or dying relative, or a child, for example). If you make this choice, be sure to understand your motivation and do no harm to anyone—including you.
Thank you for the wonderful reminder to practice healthy selfcare. I sometimes confuse conforming to others idea of what’s right with doing the “right thing.”
Katie B – The rightest (yes I made that word up) thing to do is ALWAYS to take care of yourself. If you don’t no one else will, not because others don’t want to, but because only you can.
Love to you.
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Boy, what a tricky subject! Personally, this has been a huge struggle. I was married for 10 plus years and I gave birth to a wonderful little boy named Chandler. The trouble was I was a gay girl trying to live a straight life. Long story short, I came out and subsequently divorced. My ex husband and his family were adamant about keeping my 11 yr old son from me. I was the bad, lesbian and completely disqualified as a mother. My son is now 28 and shows me no respect. I try and try and he tramples my heart every time. We have talked heart to heart, I have had him live with me and my partner of 18 years. He uses everyone and thinks of no one but himself. I tried to co-parent with my ex…..no way was that going to occur. I told him (Ex) we both deserved happiness in our lives and that I was sorry for my poor choices. I was not forgiven. I was going to burn in hell. Anyway, I think of my son a lot. He is just minutes away from me, I love him so, but he pretty much treats me like crap. No respect. He seems so angry, sad and lost. I want him to experience true awareness of the beauty and wonder of life and all of its vast potential. At times I feel like such a bad mother.
Kim – I have no idea what impact if any this will have, but it came with such a strong hit that I’m sharing it. Set and uphold your boundaries, yes – self-love and write him a love letter. Let him know, without referencing facts or failures, that you LOVE him, care about him, wish him well, and are there if the two of you ever find a way.
The time may come when he takes you up on it and on an energy level LOVE is our truest language. I feel the love in your heart and want to tell you that it isn’t lost on me. I’m sending you love too.
Your comment reminded me of this:
Thank you so much Cynthia for your support, love and inspired words. As it stands right now I plan on dedicating by first book to him. A love letter is a fabulous idea. You have confirmed to me to do something I have often felt but not acted on. Giving you a hug right now! Nothing but tons of love and success to you and yours. xo
Hugs to you Kim.
Being an only child with both parents, grandparents, and all aunts and uncles deceased I have constructed my own ‘family’ to share with my 2 daughters. One very close friend has been in an extremely toxic relationship with her male friend for many, many years and I have finally chosen to remove our presence from her home for holiday gatherings. She refuses to understand why I refuse to subject me and my family to her home environment. I am adamant not to insert that energy into our psyches. It is a choice…albeit a difficult one…whether it’s a biological family or a social one. Time is too precious to waste and some people don’t want to or can’t heal their wounds.
I love moms who protect their children (dads too). I’m a mamabear too <3
This is exactly how I feel about it. Nice to have this perspective confirmed by a wise being.
Thank you Cynthia for reminding me that the reality of ‘family’ is love and respect, not DNA. :).
My husband lost his father 2 1/2 years ago. My mother in law was going to be alone in the childhood home and invited him to bring us into the house to live with her. I accepted because I felt that my husband needed to be there for her (out of 4 brothers, he is the only one who would commit-the others were single. In the past 2 1/2 years me and My family have endured criticisms, chaos (other people coming in and out of the home living there as if it were a hotel), constant demeaning and being told that it’s her House. Well, I am a grown woman & fully understand that the I was in someone else’s house, but to me, when someone changes their life to assist you & you invited them in, then at least try and make them feel welcomed. I’m sure you get the jist…because that’s only the tip of the iceberg 😉 Just last week there was an incident in which led us to pack up & move out within a couple of days. Financially, it is extremely difficult during these holidays but I feel so grateful, so free. How do I help my husband not feel guilt or further obligation?
Hi Michelle – the ties that bind us to familial relationships run deep and can have a profound impact on us throughout our lives. We can only help and heal ourselves. Your husband, I’m afraid, is the only one who can do the work required to pull back and get clear on the relationship and the best choices for himself and his family. All you can do is love him through it and be willing to listen when he expresses his feelings. I can imagine how hard this is to witness. He may also have further work to do, things to heal, or release, with his family. The best channel for your energy is into your own life, future, and self-reliance. We teach the most by modeling healthy behavior. Love to you. C
Loved reading this – very freeing. I had my brother and sister pull out of a relationship with me because of my divorce – they didn’t agree due to their religious beliefs. I have worked hard this year to restore where I can even though my sister, who was my best friend, hurt me terribly. She has chosen at this point to not have me be a part of her life, my brother and I are beginning a relationship again. I did have to wonder however, do I really want them in my world? My brother is not encouraging and a very negative person. Definitely struggle with the guilt of continuing a relationship with them because of blood. Great read 🙂
Hugs and love to you Sheri. Your “people” are out there and they want you just as much as you want them. In time, you and your sister may be able to come together again, too. Bless it all and be open for is actually good for you. Happy New Year!