I’ll be totally honest here. I probably have no right to even attempt to give advice on how to deal with toxic families, since I have had a hard time figuring out how to deal with my own family. But I’m hoping that my own experiences will help you to find the right course of action in your own situation. Or, at the very least, make you feel like you’re not alone. Because you’re definitely not alone.
Every family has drama. But you can have drama and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are surrounded by toxic family members. The way I would define a toxic family member is someone that is repeatedly bringing negativity, drama, or complication into your life. So even though family drama sucks and it’s easy to point fingers, don’t eliminate someone from your family circle because of one or two small issues. Our families are usually very close to us, so we try harder to work through problems with them because we know that we’re still going to have to see them at the next birthday party even though we’re super pissed off that Aunt Karen is currently on some pro-NRA agenda and is lashing out at everyone else for being too liberal (this is not a real-life example by the way – I don’t have an Aunt Karen).
There are three things that have helped me deal with toxicity amongst my own family members.
The first is open communication. I know, weird right? Who would have thought that just communicating openly with people could help resolve issues? Pardon my sarcastic tone, but it’s a really simple thing that would solve a lot of problems and misunderstandings if people actually did it.
The second is understanding that everyone has their own truth. This is a hard one, especially if you’re one of those people who sees things in black and white and thinks you’re right most of the time (like me). The thing is, you only see things from your lens, your perspective, your view of the world, no matter how progressive or open-minded you think you are. Everyone else still sees things through a different lens than you do. But that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong and you’re right. It just means that their truth is different than yours.
Acknowledging that someone else has their own truth does not mean you are justifying it or agreeing with them.
It just means that you are acknowledging that they believe what they are saying. You don’t have to think they are right. In fact, you can think they are utterly and completely wrong. But you can’t really tell them that their truth doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist, because it does.
It has nothing to do with being right or wrong.
The third thing is realizing that you can still love someone despite all of this. You can still love a toxic family member. You can still love a family member who has an extremely different truth than you do. You can still love a family member who is really just a pain in your ass. Trust me. Your parents loved you even when you drove them crazy, didn’t they?
There is a consequence for every action, right? That consequence could either be positive or negative, depending on the situation. When dealing with toxic family situations, everyone involved needs to understand that there are going to be consequences for their actions. It’s one of the most basic principles we teach our children, so it shouldn’t be that hard for adults to understand.
For example, if Aunt Karen thinks it’s okay to make openly racist remarks at the Thanksgiving dinner table, the consequence might be that you don’t take your kids to see Aunt Karen anymore. The consequence also might be that you teach your kids about racism and they call Aunt Karen out the next time they hear her saying something inappropriate.
Aunt Karen isn’t going to know about these consequences unless you say something. No, it’s not your job to say something and you’re right, she probably should be able to figure it out on her own. But let’s go back to that idea of open communication. Let Aunt Karen know your feelings on her racist comments. Let her tell you about how back in her day everyone said those things and it was fine.
Then you can say, “Well Aunt Karen, I understand that you don’t believe there is anything wrong with being racist because that’s how you grew up, and that’s fine if you don’t want to change that, but I have already told the kids that I don’t find your behavior appropriate and if it continues, we won’t be coming to see you anymore.”
Now it’s Aunt Karen’s choice. You’ve acknowledged her truth and you’ve let her know the potential consequences. It’s up to her to decide what she wants to do in response.
This is not an ultimatum. You have every right to decide who you spend time with and who your kids spend time with. You are under no obligation to spend time with someone just because they’re related to you. Don’t let anyone try and tell you otherwise.
One of the most freeing things my family has ever done is we started spending Christmas at home. Just my parents, my brothers, and me (and now my husband and my brother’s girlfriend). We used to wake up early (around 7) and open presents, then my grandpa would come by for brunch, then we’d get dressed and drive to Hillsboro to spend the rest of the day at my grandma’s house with aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was exhausting and by about 2:00pm we all just wanted to take a nap.
Now, we have no schedule for the day. We wake up when we want to and we take however long we want to open presents. We eat whatever delicious breakfast my mom has prepared for us. We take naps in the middle of the day. We go out and deliver presents to friends. We play games. We eat pizza for dinner. And we love it.
Does this mean I don’t love my extended family? Of course not. I do see them at other times throughout the year. Now that I live in another state, I really value the time I get to spend with my immediate family. And realistically, it would be impossible to see everyone during the short time I am back in Oregon so I do have to prioritize.
The point is, you are not obligated to spend time with family just because they’re family. You are not obligated to do things the way that they’ve always been done. You are not obligated to tolerate someone’s shitty behavior because they’re family and that’s just who they are. Side note: there will be a follow-up post on this because I think it’s such an important topic.
I cannot stress this enough. If anything, I think we should hold our family members to higher standards than we hold other people. After all, these are the people in our closest circle. The people that we have listed as emergency contacts. The people that can pick our kids up from school or watch our pets while we’re on vacation. The people that we spend holidays and birthdays with. It seems ridiculous that we wouldn’t hold them to higher standards.
But we let a lot of things slide with family and I think that’s a mistake. Because we don’t really let things slide. We just don’t mention them and we keep a running list in our head of all the things we let slide, until one day Aunt Karen does something and it’s the last straw and we just lose it.
So if you’re dealing with a toxic family situation or a toxic family member, don’t let it slide:
- Communicate openly with all parties involved.
- Acknowledge each person’s truth.
- Be transparent about the potential consequences, but let each person decide their own path forward.
- Remember that your love for this person isn’t contingent upon whether they make the “right” choice. You can still love them, even if your relationship changes going forward.
If you decide to cut ties with a toxic family member, you do not have to justify this decision to anyone. That decision is yours and yours alone.