How Toxic Personalities In Your Family Tree Can Affect Your Future Relationships
When you've grown up with a narcissistic, psychopathic, or manipulative parent—what psychologists refer to as the three "dark triad" personality types—you're susceptible to replicating those behaviors in future relationships. Chances are you become like them or get involved with people like them.
My friend and fellow psychologist Jonathan Marshall, Ph.D., explains that when you grow up without security, you don't know your value. So you lack the skills to select a good partner, or you simply accept abusive behaviors because you believe it's OK to clean up your partner's mess.
But what if your parents are sane, loving people, and you weren't abused? That's what happened to me, and like anyone else in this situation, I scratched my head and puzzled over what made me bait for abuse.
Your parents are not the only people in your family tree that can affect your relationships.
On our first morning together, I realized my then-boyfriend Cain* resembled a relative of mine named Lucius* from the back. I buried that thought immediately.
Six years later at my first therapy session, Lucius came up somehow. "So he's dark, maverick, and a jester archetype. Who does he remind you of?" my therapist asked. I felt nauseated.
A year after that, I left Cain and sought out multiple ways of healing. My shaman howled in great sadness during one ceremony we had together and then asked me, who entered my life at this specific time when I was young? I froze. Lucius again.
It was time to stop running.
Lucius was artistic, dynamic, and charming. He taught me about Lucifer, gambling, riding buses without paying, and jaywalking—riveting a young girl from a conservative Singaporean-Chinese, Catholic family. With him, I didn't need to trade demure behavior and excellent grades for affection. Very quickly, Lucius became my favorite person.
But I witnessed fractures and tension in the family. He was emotionally excluded from the rest of us, which I sensed early on. I asked different people for pieces of the puzzle, and slowly I unearthed a Pandora's box of family secrets. I discovered terrifying stories of Lucius being abusive to members of my family, both physically and emotionally.
And yet I felt I had to be loyal to him. I convinced myself he'd changed and found myself furious with his victims. "Then is not now. Just get over it!" my 8-year-old self reasoned.
A decade and a half later, I left my home in Singapore for graduate school in Cambridge, ostensibly leaving behind my family's complicated dynamics. Little did I know, my 23-year-old self was leaping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the embers of hell. There in grad school, I met someone who I now realize was merely the English version of Lucius: Cain.
My younger self thought I wasn't attracted to the "bad boy" type, a glaringly obvious breed of psychopath. In reality, I had a soft spot for those who claimed to have reformed their ways—people like Lucius. Just like with him, I thought it was my duty to stand by Cain whenever he slipped. So I rationalized all his horrifying misdeeds, of which there were many. Even though I knew all the signs and stages of an abusive relationship, my ethos remained: All people can change; love is enough.
Every time I gulped up Cain's promises he'd changed, I affirmed my subconscious belief that Lucius had repented. It took me being driven to the precipice of homicidal risk to acknowledge that some people simply can't change—neither my psychologically psychopathic boyfriend nor my eerily similar relative.
How your ancestry affects your relationships.
As I accepted Lucius as the first psychopath I've known, I was torn—the man had never hurt me specifically. He had made my life fun. How could his dark past with the rest of my relatives still be affecting me? No longer willing to accept my naiveté—which was not only hurting me but also invalidating the experiences of my other family members—I began to explore the field of what's known as inherited trauma to find absolution.
"Traumas do not sleep, even with death, but rather continue to look for the fertile ground of resolution in the children of the following generations," says neuroscientist Norman Diodge, M.D., in his book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science.
It was previously believed that although we inherit our ancestors' genes, which are present at the time of their conception, their experiences do not affect us at a molecular level. However, epigenetic studies show that experiences alter our genes and their expression, and these changes are passed on. For instance, researchers have found that a mother's adverse experiences may lead to her child being less able to adapt to stress.
On an energetic level, traumas are inherited "even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died, even if his or her story lies submerged in years of silence," writes family therapist Mark Wolynn in his book It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. "Fragments of life experience, memory, and body sensation can live on, as if reaching out from the past to find resolution in the minds and bodies of those living in the present."
Wolynn says that the firstborn daughter, in particular, is likely to carry what her mother hasn't resolved. A descendant could be atoning for an ancestor's misdeeds without realizing.
I explored this further in family constellations circles, a therapeutic field Wolynn drew from. This considers an individual as part of a larger constellation of their family members, even ancestors from many generations before, meaning that their behaviors, feelings, and attitudes must be understood within this context. Every family operates with its own unspoken rules, and family constellation circles can uncover hidden dynamics and entanglements that are repeated across generations. Through these sessions, I learned that trauma can be inherited even if we've never met or heard of the dark triad relative.
Liz Sleeper, a family constellations facilitator and a colleague of mine, says that if someone is excluded from the family story, descendants find a way to "remember" them by assuming the problem as their own. Dark triad personality types distort the family field's vibration across generations, so it feels like part of the mental furniture that's destined to be repeated, even if these memories and patterns are not ours.
Looking your demons in the eye.
Carl Jung once said, "Who looks inside, awakens."
If you find yourself constantly attracted to toxic people, look toward your family. Even if you can't identify a toxic parent or primary caregiver, you might have a "dark triad" relative somewhere in your family tree. Here's what you can do to investigate further, in tandem with a trained professional:
1. Start investigating your family relationships.
Examine the dynamics of your wider family, even if you haven't spent a lot of time with them. Is there someone who has the flavor of a dark triad personality type? This might give you the first clues. A common reflection of my clients often revolves around a certain relative being manipulative or entitled. Then you can examine your own parents' or caregivers' relationship with this person, perhaps from your observations or by asking questions, and consider how you may have modeled yourself after these dynamics. You can also engage a professional to guide you with specific prompts or participate in a family constellations session, or you can just ask an elder relative a simple question: "Can you tell me about the most interesting family member you've heard about in our family line?" They might tell you about someone incredibly charming with a larger-than-life character, but listen closely even so: That person might have had toxic behaviors that make for an entertaining story even if it might have hurt the people in their life.
2. Connect the dots.
We remember stories, not facts, because the hormones oxytocin and cortisol are released when we hear stories. This has implications for healing from trauma, because when we understand the root of the trauma, we have a coherent story behind the toxic relationships we keep finding ourselves in. This allows us to have empathy for ourselves and gives our brains a sense of closure. We stop blaming ourselves for being attracted to these personality types and stop seeing ourselves as stupid or naive. Those thoughts are dangerous: Self-blame can fuel anxiety and hopelessness. Only closure and forgiveness can help us stop repeating negative patterns.
3. Dissect what's familiar about the relationship dynamics.
Dr. Marshall recommends rewiring the familiarity. He proposes the analogy that even though your old shoes don't grip, you use them because they are comfortable, even though they endanger you. So, see toxic relationships as the seductive comfort zone that really is quicksand.
The simplest way to detect a toxic person you've been drawn to because of your past is to develop an awareness of how such relationships make you feel in your body. Every client tells me a part of them knew that their toxic partner was trouble, except that they intellectualized it away. So I ask them, "Where in your body did you feel these warning signs?" These physiological red flags often manifest as bodily sensations, and those sensations are consistent with the other dark triad types you'll meet in the future. When you can tune into your body's wisdom, the next step is for you to commit to trusting it.
4. Change the story.
Awareness breaks family karma and rewrites old stories that no longer serve us. The next step is to script a new story for yourself. For instance, "I deserve to have loving, healthy people in my life." Be very clear about what your expectations and boundaries are. With every person you meet, adhere to these rules. If something about them feels familiar or reminds you about your old scripts, then you must commit to allowing yourself to exit without feeling guilty. When we can commit to new patterns of behaviors, we rewire our brains on what's acceptable and what's not. Over time, it becomes an ingrained new habit.
5. Release the trauma.
Most people oscillate between getting caught up in the throes of flashbacks and nightmares and then pretending they don't exist when they feel OK. Trauma, however, is something you cannot intellectualize away. If your past affects you during your most vulnerable moments, then it owns you. It stops you from fully trusting life and yourself, even if you've found a loving, supportive partner.
Confronting any challenge we have—be it a difficult relationship, trauma, or anxiety—is scary. We're happier to manage the problem, convincing ourselves we're already doing everything we can to keep the situation under control. But when we don't confront the root, these emotional management routines become nothing but Band-Aids. We become more helpless the longer our problems persist. When we actually release trauma, then these same actions can accelerate your healing and flourishing.
One popular method for releasing trauma is to sit on a therapist's couch and analyze your past for years—but importantly, simply obsessing over the nitty-gritty is not what will help you. It's about understanding the past, processing it, and finding closure.
Secrets poison the family lineage when ignored, but when confronted, we're liberated.
One of my biggest motivations was knowing my future generations wouldn't inherit this. Know that if you have a toxic personality in your family tree, they're not your burden to bear—you can exorcise these demons and secrets and eventually find a resilient sense of peace that might just trickle down to those who come after you.
*Names have been changed.
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Perpetua Neo is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.