If you’ve ever been in a toxic relationship, you know how difficult it might be to leave.
It might even take us years to finally get rid of (and move on from) someone who has caused us so much discomfort and pain.
But we eventually do (unless we choose to stay, of course). We leave; we move on; we meet someone new; we learn from past mistakes.
Toxic relationships are present in most people’s life, and while breaking off contact with a lover, coworker, or friend is somehow manageable, breaking off contact with a family member is sometimes impossible.
That is why toxic relationships with family members are yet the hardest to manage and the most difficult to end. We can’t simply walk away, and we can’t replace them. We can replace a partner, but we can never replace a father, a mother, a sibling, an uncle, or a cousin. We will always be related to them, and we will most likely cross paths with them on many different occasions.
So what to do? There are people who choose to break off contact once and for all, and they never look back, even if it weighs on them long afterward. For the rest of us, though, we choose to cope. We might recognize the toxicity but know deep inside that we can never cut them off.
The toxicity includes (but is not limited to) manipulation, victimization, lying, blaming, gaslighting, controlling, name-calling, anger, yelling, and so on. Even if we don’t see the toxic patterns, when we are in the presence of that family member, we feel awkward. We sense that something is utterly wrong, but we can’t quite put our finger on it. All we know is that we want to avoid them and not be involved with them.
Although we might want to sever ties with them, we need to understand that trauma plays a big role in toxic family dynamics. Our upbringing impacts our adulthood, so even if we know them closely, we can never know what they went through in the first five years of life. We know them as adults—not as children.
I’m not glossing over toxicity; I’m stating the fact that acknowledging the presence of trauma helps us to understand that no one is inherently bad. No one is cruel, controlling, or selfish on purpose. We’re just people who have experienced trauma differently and who might always carry baggage without ever knowing how to unpack it.
For those who never learn how to unpack it or heal, they will eventually take it out on someone. Unfortunately, that “someone” might be another family member.
If you are that person, here are six ways to cope:
1. Limit contact.
If you want to protect your mental health, it’s best to set up minimal contact, especially if that family member constantly triggers you. Avoid attending family gatherings and don’t feel obligated to respond to their texts and calls.
2. Set clear and firm boundaries.
And don’t apologize for it. Be assertive about your values and don’t accept less than you deserve. Other members of your family might not understand your boundaries, and that’s fine. What matters is your own peace of mind.
3. Determine what you dislike about them.
Acknowledging what upsets you about someone makes it easier for you to understand your feelings. It will also help you out with setting your boundaries.
4. Offer help, but know when to stop.
If helping out people brings you joy, you might feel compelled to “fix” them. Please know there’s a difference between helping someone and wanting to fix them. You’re not obligated to fix anyone.
5. Prioritize your mental health and well-being.
When you do, you’ll automatically know how to behave with those who bring you unhappiness and discomfort.
6. Set a different path for your own family.
When it comes to your own children, establish new, healthy family practices. We can’t change someone’s past or fix them, but we can definitely break the cycle of generational trauma.