Two weeks ago, I wrote a Friday Forward called Fighting Words about lessons I learned from engaging with toxic people. Although the situations I shared were related to people who were strangers, I received many heartfelt responses from readers who experienced the same septic characteristics in people they knew well: their family members.

Many shared that they had come to realize they needed to move away from – or even completely sever— the relationship with a member (or members) of their family. Here are a few examples.

“I recently had to face the fact that my Dad is a hammer (everything else is a nail).  At 70, that’s not going to change. I’ve had to completely disengage with him. Which means he’s also lost regular contact with his granddaughters. It’s sad, but I do not miss the toxic energy.”

This is a lesson I learned 5 years ago and keep re-learning to some degree. When the toxic people in your life are family, it’s hard to disengage, but walking away was the best decision I ever made.”

Well, my dad is one such person. Having had a very tough childhood from his hands, I grew up hating him, then matured to not contest. He is 76, and exactly the same.”

For most of us, including me, family is one of the most important things in our life. I feel very fortunate to have healthy family relationships and not be faced with these incredibly difficult decisions. However, that doesn’t mean I think family should be an absolute.

Yes, family is important. That said, if someone in your family makes you miserable, and cannot or will not change, then I am of the belief that the only real choices are:

  1. Change your reaction to their behavior or
  2. Walk away from the relationship

Ironically, when you take the “walk away” option off the table because they are “family,” you are essentially giving the person permission to continue their behavior without consequences. What’s more is that this behavior – and your permission of it – will be recognized (consciously and unconsciously) by others, including your children.

What kind of message do you think that sends? And is it one you feel good about?

One of the biggest frustrations I hear repeatedly from people is that they consistently receive unsolicited feedback and opinions from their family members. From my perspective, what constitutes a valuable opinion should ideally meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • It was requested
  • It has relevance or a direct impact on the giver
  • It’s given out of genuine concern for the receiver

If these criteria are not met, chances are that such feedback falls into the unsolicited advice or judgment category. Often, the true intention behind this “advice” is to make the giver feel better about themselves and their own decisions or to make the receiver feel worse.

Just as it’s unhealthy to stay in an emotionally or physically abusive romantic relationship, toxic family relationships can cause a great deal of harm. The key to a happy, healthy life, according to a 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development, is good relationships. And that may mean making some hard decisions.

In the end, who we consider family should be determined more by behavior than by our genes.


Quote of The Week  

“Family is supposed to be our safe haven. Very often, it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache.”

Iyanla Vanzant