Do You Have Toxic Family Members? Here's How To Deal With Them

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Family relationships can be complicated, and sometimes they reach a point where we may need to separate ourselves from a certain family member. This is by no means easy and takes serious consideration about the health of you and the other family member involved. Sherrie Campbell, clinical psychologist and author of the new book But It's Your Family...Cutting Ties With Toxic Family Members offers advice on how to know if you're in a toxic relationship and what to do about it. In this excerpt from her new book, Campbell shares a few options for limiting contact with family members that you may need some space from. She reminds us that every situation is different, and this may not be what's best for you at this time.

When it comes to letting go of relationships with our toxic family members, we have some options available to us. I know from experience and from treating others that it is essential to try all of these options. When we try everything, it makes our final decision to go no contact more comfortable as we come to see the toxic people in our lives leave us with no other choice.

Cordial contact

The first step to setting limits on these toxic relationships is the option of cordial contact. Through this option, we fake it till we make it when in the presence of our toxic family members. With cordial contact we are mindful not to be too self-revealing. We make sure to keep conversations and emotions superficial, positive, and pleasant, and largely about our toxic family members. Because they love feeling as if everything is about them, we can use this as a workable strategy, knowing we're doing it on purpose as a way to keep ourselves safe from unwanted drama, at least to the best of our ability. Knowing we're doing this on purpose helps us to avoid beating ourselves up for always acquiescing our needs to our toxic family members as a way to make them happy. Cordial contact can work, at least in the short term. The problem is that our manipulative family members do not like it when things are peaceful or cordial, so they are likely to get under our skin in one way or another, striving to cause us to lose control of our objective and end up back in their web of destruction.

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Low contact

Another option is initiating a relationship of low contact with our toxic family members. In this option, we choose only to see or talk to them at family gatherings or other major holidays or events. Outside of this, we do all we can to avoid them. This option also may work for a while, but our toxic family members will catch on quickly and do all they can to force their way fully back into our lives.

I tried both of these options with my toxic family members, and as long as we weren't living in the same state, it worked. But the minute we would be together in person, their manipulations would begin, and before I knew it, I would be defending myself, and they would be acting as if I were the worst, most horrid human being to ever exist.

The bottom line is this. When our toxic family members sense we've pulled away or are pulling back, they escalate their manipulations because they do not respect any of our needs for space. They do not want us having the space or time to think rationally about our relationship with them because once we do, they get exposed and lose. For this reason, the middle ground is the worst place to be with our toxic family members. They have no idea how to function in that arena. They prefer to be all in or all out. When our toxic family members feel the gray area between us, what they usually do is cut ties with us.

No contact

When we finally reach the point with our toxic family members where we decide the only healthy option for us is to go no contact, we have arrived on the front lines of a very challenging, freeing, and yet deeply painful decision. If we are at this place, we can trust that we more than likely took more abuse than we ever deserved—assuming we ever deserved any of it. If we have reached this point, we can trust that we were pushed to it by our toxic family members. We must never feel guilty for protecting ourselves with the no-contact option.

We have every right to protect ourselves from those who manipulate and emotionally abuse us. At one point we loved our toxic family members and wanted them in our lives more than anything else. Yet at too many points in time, we sacrificed our happiness to serve theirs, shut our mouth when we desperately wanted to speak up, and did what they wanted because doing that was easier than dealing with their drama. We must understand that our toxic family members have simply walked us to the door we're now choosing to shut.

Important questions to ask before going no contact:

  • Does this person ever admit wrong?
  • Does this person ever genuinely apologize and change his or her behavior?
  • Does this person show remorse for what he or she has done?
  • Has this person ever validated your perception as right?
  • Does this person respect the limits or boundaries that you've set?
  • Is this person willing to do anything and everything to make a relationship with you work?

If the answers to these questions are undoubtedly no, then you need to consider cutting ties.

This decision is more forced upon us than it is voluntary, and it's confusing because we're conditioned to believe that terminating relationships with family is morally wrong. However, our toxic family members are just people and not always healthy people. In reality, if these individuals were not our family members, we would never choose them to be part of our lives. Under the ideal of family, we spend years sacrificing our mental and emotional health under the notion that we have to make this sacrifice because these people are family. We are conditioned to believe that if we end relationships with them, we are bad people. No one wants to feel that they are inherently bad.

Nevertheless, here is what I know for sure. It is far better to make the decision to go no contact and break our own heart than it is to stay in a relationship in which our toxic family members break our heart over and over.

In an article I wrote for the Huffington Post in 2016, I discussed the hard truth about when and why we may need to cut ties with our toxic family members in order to save ourselves. You need to go no contact...

  • When the relationship is based in any type of abuse: mentally, physically, sexually, verbally, or emotionally.
  • When the only contact you have with them is negative.
  • When the relationship creates so much stress that it affects the important areas of your life at work or home.
  • When you find yourself obsessed with the gossip about you and trying to right wrong information and constantly being ostracized to the point you are losing sleep over it.
  • When the relationship is all about the other person, and there is no real reason why the other person cannot make any effort toward the health and maintenance of the relationship with you.
  • When crazy-making, no-win games dominate the relationship—such as the silent treatment, blame games, and no-win arguments that spin around on you.

As these characteristics mount up in a given relationship, you need to pay them heed and consider breaking away from the relationship.

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Secure a support system.

Before you choose to go no contact, I highly recommend that you have a loving support system in place to reassure yourself that you will not be alone once you make this change. What you have to be prepared for is the response of your toxic family members. They will likely do all they can to isolate you by targeting your key supports to do what they can to turn them against you. Once you see the smear campaign is in full effect, you must come to trust that you need to stay quiet and not engage. Just let it happen and let it pass. The more you fight the smearing, the bigger the gossip and lies become and the crazier you will look to others. Our toxic family members smear us for the sole purpose of trying to rob us of the very support system we need and deserve to have in place. They want to ensure we are robbed of having a soft place to fall and that we do not have people on our side supporting our decision.

If we want to be healthy, we must prepare for the fact that when we leave our toxic family members, we will likely also be forced to leave behind many others who connect us to them. We must be OK with this, embracing it as an acceptable loss. I have experienced in my own life and watched others who have also been in a similar position have things turn out better than fine when they make these decisions. In some ways this is a blind journey, to be sure. We cannot predict all that will happen. But I believe whenever we activate positively for our mental and emotional health, we find that what has been left gaping and empty in our lives will eventually be replaced by situations and people that are better and healthier for us.

Based on excerpts from But It’s Your Family…Cutting Ties With Toxic Family Members by Sherrie Campbell with the permission of Morgan James. Copyright © 2019.

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