Toxic Families and Adult Children Part 1

Here at the Hope Blog, I have talked about things like counting our blessings, looking to Christ instead of the ugly realities we sometimes face in this world, and how the truest creeds are those said in the dark.

For those who face years of unrelenting, grinding discouragement in their lives, I know a lot of this sounds like saccharine fantasy. I will agree that there are some situations in life that are so bad, so difficult and so protracted, that doing the above is very difficult. One such area I hear talked about a lot by women is toxic relationships within their family of origin. That can be a never ending source of discouragement.

As adults, we know we should mature past some of the unhealthy dynamics in our families. It doesn’t always happen. I have often thought of the roles we play in our families as being like a dance on a stage. I could easily choreograph the dynamics in the family where I originated. You probably could as well. For some, it might look like a beautiful scene from Swan Lake. For others, it would look more like the sword fight between the Montagues and the Capulets in the ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe some  contortionist modern dance would be a better adaptation of what your family dynamics look like.

While minor disagreements and misunderstandings can happen in any healthy family, a truly toxic family is where a poisonous undercurrent of resentment brought about by years of unresolved issues is the major influence. It always, of course, begins in the marriage and in a parent/parents who have a messed up relationship. When the leaders of a family don’t provide a healthy environment, everything else follows. Children develop compensatory ways of dealing with the emotional burden given them by their parents. A lot of it depends on their personalities as to which role they take.

Some children just escape and avoid. Others confront and challenge and play family therapist. Some become co-dependents and spend the rest of their lives trying to get their needs met by equally dysfunctional people. Family members can triangulate, trying to get support for their viewpoint from sympathetic members. Backs are stabbed at times. Petty things become big things. Angry phone calls are made. Feelings are hurt. And the beat goes on.

Someone posed a question to me recently about how to function as a Christian in the middle of a family like this…when the family involved is supposedly Christian. That’s the amazing thing about ugly family dynamics. They exist in families where the individuals would all identify as Christian people, yet the relationships are completely shattered. The Christ they trust for eternal salvation is somehow incapable of fixing what’s wrong in their families.

I don’t claim to have a lot of answers, but when contact with your family of origin, whatever religion they claim, means a constant stream of emotional toxins coming your way, it’s time to stop adding to it. If family members have demonstrated a complete unwillingness to handle things in an adult manner by open communication, forgiveness and love, then you need to stay as far removed from it all as possible. Sometimes conflict can be traced to too much contact in the first place. While it would be nice if Walton-esque families could be the norm for Christians, it isn’t always that way. Space and distance can be a great sanitizer. Granting each other more space may be viewed as “cutting off” people, but Scripture tells us we are called to peace. To participate in ongoing warring is simply sinful.

When elderly parents need care, some of the toxic undercurrents can flare up, big time. In those situations, it takes a lot of prayer and diplomacy to work these situations out. Sometimes, all you can do in a situation is survive the best you can with the Lord’s help. You can only be responsible for your own attitude and conduct, but it is not wrong to remove yourself as chief punching bag if that is what you have become in your family situation.

Probably nothing short of a difficult marriage has the potential to be a source of constant discouragement like negative extended family relationships. I would be interested to hear how readers deal with that sort of thing in their own lives. It seems to effect so many.

40 thoughts on “Toxic Families and Adult Children Part 1

  1. I just heard someone talking this past week about “you can
    forgive, but you can’t forget”. There are things in life that
    happen. You don’t like what those things are and it certainly isn’t healthy for a family or individual. I totally agree Ing about distancing yourself. We don’t need additional negativity in our lives. Sometimes it is very hard. There is a friend (or might I say was friends of ours) and for whatever reason, will not speak to us at all. We have absolutely NO idea of what we did. One day we were
    e-mailing each other, the next “poof” the friendship was over. We are saddened by it, but they will not give any explanation for not corresponding. Obviously, it wasn’t
    a true friendship to begin with. I know this is a small thing,
    but you HAVE to talk things out…communicate. If the other
    side is not willing to do that, than you just let it go and
    pray for them. If you carry that baggage around, you will
    make yourself miserable. It is very sad, but they must
    figure it out and hopefully it will not be too late for that
    party or parties to open up and talk it out. We wonder
    why countries are against each other when those of us in
    our own relationships can’t see eye to eye or at least
    communicate with one another. We can always talk to God about it to open up our lines of communication, but somehow that is often forgotten. I pray that everyone,
    including myself, keeps out the negative, and allows the
    positive in your life…God. Thanks for the great post…Kris

  2. Appearance vs. reality – another applicable Shakespearian theme with regard to families. I found this to be true when I returned home from my honeymoon. It was one family that was displayed to the public and quite another when one was a part of it. There was a distinct change in my husbands family and I didn’t know until later that it was business as usual for their family dynamic. So much dysfunction – alcoholism, fierce rivalry, encouraged cut throat competitiveness, total lack of parental bonding, cold aggressive personalities devoid of compromise.
    My husband was chosen early in his life as his family punching bag. As an accomplished man and former Marine this became more and more difficult for him to accept and deal with as time went on. The lack of respect, even simple kindness and caring was not just absent it was decimated. These people seemed to thrive and work at ways to hurt both him and I for no reason we could possibly figure out. I have never been so confused and so frightened for my future in my life. No matter what I did to try to make it better, or how much I swallowed my pride, forgave every slight and unkindness it seemed to only emboldened them more. And for him, the pressure was unbearable, his father told him that he would control every aspect of our lives and if we didn’t like it, to leave now before he might get attached to our children! Five years almost to the day we had married we made a decision that changed our lives forever. After giving everything we had, trying every approach we could think of, pray for, and be advised of there was no change on the part of his family. In fact it grew worse. Long story short, we realized that if we couldn’t learn to live with this behavior we would never be happy and the stress may completely ruin our marriage. So we put our newly built dream home up for sale, he gave up the prestige and assurance of a nice living as the member of a respected family business and we moved an hour away to an unknown future to start our own business from nothing.
    Things were very difficult , yet with a lot of hard work, we were successful. We never looked back and we never felt we would fail since we had, in our minds, already been through hell. God does answer evil with good. We felt we had been under a spiritual attack the whole time because it was so unwarranted. As time went on we were able to develop a ‘working’ relationship with his mother for the sake of the children, but his siblings never changed and there was never an attempt by them to even ask why we moved, or even where. Unfortunately, his father died suddenly about 2 years after we moved. Even after, that one would think, that people would recognize what really matters but no one was willing to change anything. In fact his mother somehow had the presence of mind to draw up paperwork and had him sign his inheritance over to all the grandchildren. So there was no reconciliation which was horribly sad. Although it took a few years we were able to become sort of indifferent to them. We didn’t wish them ill, but we were able to forgive and move on with our lives. Although it doesn’t seem likely, I suppose there could one day be some sort of reconciliation, but we never think about it anymore. We rarely think of them at all. We still are able to maintain things with his mother however difficult and awkward it can be, for our kids sake. After we left town, we did find out that they spread horrible lies about us, particularly about me to cover for the embarrassment around the country club sect of their “perfect family” breaking apart.
    Years later, we realized that everything that happened after we moved validated our decision in so many good ways. We know how awful our lives now would have been had we stayed. And being that my son has special needs, we could not have been in a more perfect area to have gotten the help he needed. It all worked out for the good. I have so much respect for my husband to have had the courage to do what he did. He basically became an orphan by choice. Yet it was the only way to survive their attacks. Sometimes difficult personalities make it impossible not matter how much one party wants to get along for it to be so. One needs to recognize the facts of the situation with a calm manner and make the decision that will best suit them. Sorry for the length, it’s difficult to tell this story, I hardly think of it anymore, it’s been so long. But it is quite something.
    Funny you mention the “Waltons”, that was my favorite show growing up, and I looked forward to one day having a big family either through marriage or having children – didn’t happen. But I still do liken myself to Olivia and my oldest son to John-boy!

  3. Wow, Paula, what a situation to deal with. I like what you said about eventually developing an indifference – i.e. the ability to not let it continue to deeply affect you. It’s not coldness, but it’s the mature recognition that things are unlikely to change and that you’ve done the right thing for your immediate family and marriage. I do believe that reaching that is a real turning point. It takes two to reconcile anything. If there isn’t humility and willingness to work things out, sometimes the only choice is to separate ourselves from those who are deliberately malicious, including family members. Thanks for sharing that situation. The important thing is not to let these situations dominate our own immediate familys. These ugly dynamics sometimes get passed down once again generationally if we aren’t careful.

  4. Right, we considered that prospect in our decision to leave. It was my belief that God took us out of the dismal existence and for us to not make the most of the situation and 2nd chance we were given by dwelling on anger, resentment, bitterness etc. would be even more tragic. There was a point where I wondered if one can get to that point – of indifference, and I can tell you it is possible and its only through God’s grace. It is so freeing. I have actually learned to enjoy being with his mother, by taking her for who she is when she is with us and putting blinders on in a sense – not allowing the past to impede what progress may be made. My story is an extreme example of what your blog discussed. I do know that, and I only share it in the hopes that it may help another. If you do have to separate from the problematic family it may be the best answer, it may be God’s answer.

  5. Ingrid:

    My family has lived out this toxic type relationship with my mother-in-law during the last twenty years. She came from a very abusive home with a very mean father. Her treatment of her children (just her children) seems to be just a repeat of what she endured. She claims herself to be a Christian, but continuously brings misery with her wherever she goes. Her only daughter (my sister-in-law) died four years ago after living a life of ridicule and comparison with others her mother considered better than her. I believe that her relentless harrassment helped lead her to her early death. After her death, my husband and I knew that we would be the recipient of her abusive behavior as he was the only surviving sibling. It finally got so bad, that my husband told her that if she didn’t start to treat us with respect and love that we would have to sever the relationship–which we did. Our Pastor and his wife told us to continue on in a relationship like ours with her should be considered ‘emotional suicide.’ Later, we received a letter notifying us that we were being withdrawn from her will along with our children and that everything was being given to her ‘lost’ granddaughter. She was a woman who was beyond the ability to repent. She will tell you she is saved, that she reads her Bible and that she is a good person. Her level of deception is staggering. This has been a very sad thing for us as we tried in every way to redeem things–but she chose to hurt us whenever she could. Only God knows her fate, but we are deeply concerned for her soul.

    Sincerely,
    Jean

  6. I think we have to consciously try break patterns from our past.
    My mother was irrational to say the least. A good school morning was one when she didn’t wake up – but rather we children got ourselves off to school. If she woke up it was non-stop screaming (and somtimes worse) until we left the house.
    I purposely have made a point of waking up my sons by singing a silly song or saying something funny, because of the horrible mornings I experienced as a child.
    I vowed to NOT be like my mother. She is now in her late 70s and we have a pleasant relationship but I don’t see her very often and our visits are not lengthy. I don’t hold any grudges at this point – she has not had a “tantrum” in front of me for over 25 years. I marvel at women who have close relationships with their mothers – I can’t imagine such a thing! (I love my sons to death of course, but the mother/son relationship is different than a mother/daughter one).

  7. I just turned 56 yeras old yesterday and spent most of my day alone as the Lord healed me in relation to my family of origin and other childhood wounds. I have removed myself finally. The seeds of divorce and the unbiblical patterns of handling conflict, the damage done to the children, the anger, hatred, abandonment, etc. all sow a path of tremendous evil.

    In my case I grew up in a cult and the deception has taken its toll. Most of my family came out of it but into greater deception and wickedness. Of course, the religion portrayed God as severe, cruel, harsh, and maintained that man would be god someday. Pretty intense brainwashing and overt satanic attack.

    I am simply astounded that the Lord brought me out of it. He did so in such a dramatic way (think of the demoniac at the tombs and also of Mary Magdalene) that my Mom came to faith after witnessing such a dramatic turnaround and hearing the true Gospel for what may truly have been the first time. She died in faith about 20 years ago.

    My other family members for the most part flounder around in all manner of darkness. I haven’t lost hope of their salvation and in fact am more hopeful than I have ever been.

    Satan has leveled such a huge onslaught against the family. He has for years. My parents’ generation was the first to ever consider and embrace the unbiblical option of divorce. The ramifications of that have been massive and dark. It is in huge part why society and individuals are in such trouble. The rebellion, strife, death, destruction, hatred are at “end time” level highs.

    I praise God that He has gifted me with a true family at my local church. When I first started attending there three years ago the Lord gave me Psalm 68:6 “God makes a home for the lonely; He leads out the prisoners into prosperity, only the rebellious dwell in a parched land.” I am glad for the new family for the old one continues to live in parched land.

    If you ever want to author a book, Ingrid, I’ll be glad to share my testimony!

  8. i give as much as i can to keep the peace and hopefully change things for the better, but when it starts to be an emotional toll on my life and i can’t be objective anymore i take a huge step back and stay out of it for a while.

    i have a situation right now where someone’s constant whining and complaining makes it really hard for me to want to spend time with them. it is very hard for me to tell them so i am just keeping it as neutral and calm as possible and not initiating much contact. i hope things will calm down soon so i can get back to being better friends.

    thank you for opening this discussion. it is sadly a part of even christian families.

  9. Great post Ingrid. As I was reading this it reminded me so much of my family. I feel bad for my husband who married into it! My mom was married VERY young and never grew up. My dad was always and still is very passive so my mom took authority when my brothers and I were growing up.

    “a truly toxic family is where a poisonous undercurrent of resentment brought about by years of unresolved issues is the major influence”

    (speaking of my family) It is hard to confront or even talk about things that happened growing up (like my mom walking out on us kids frequently) when the other person or people dont acknowledge that things happened or were said.
    Sad to say that my relationship with my mother has been very cautious. We stopped talking, visiting, etc when Elizabeth was a baby for 8 months because of authority issues. I have a feeling that it will be happening again soon (it seems to go in spurts with her). Everday by God’s grace and constantly praying for wisdom in words we are learning how to “deal” with the family. We have also talked about not discussing biblical matter with my side of the family too. That has helped tremendously in the tension with them, but it is also pushing away the real problem.

    Sometimes I just wish that my children would be able to have that special relationship with their grandparents and not to have it tainted.

  10. The testimonies shared in response to your post are incredible. Here is my story: I grew up in a home where my parents had a very parallel marriage–trying not to ever intersect (TVs in every room, single beds for all, seperate interests). My dad, even though an alcoholic, was the nurturing one–taking me to mass, making sure I attend Catholic schools, giving me advice, reading me books and staying home with me when I was sick. My mom, did what she had to–worked, fixed meals, laundry and house cleaning. However, interpersonal relationship with her was non-existent.

    Fast forward to when I am in my 20s. My dad passed away, my mom retired, I got married and we bought the house next door to hers–all within the span of a year. The main issue back then and now 25 years later as we have since moved–she lives a mile away as she eventually moved here too—is she clings to me. She has a temper tantrum if I do anything socially with anyone but her. I have gotten to a point where I don’t even tell her if I take my kids shopping or to a movie. She wants all my free time, my loyalty and devotion. Yet the relationship is very surfac-y because of her unwillingness to talk about anything of substance. Usually she dominates the conversation with how bad everyone is to her with repeated stories from years ago.

    She is 88, lives in her own home and still drives but is showing signs of dimensia and slowing down considerably with walking. My only brother is still in hometown where we use to be and calls her once a week and sees her maybe three times a year. So I feel the heat is always on me to keep her happy and not alone, never mind I have three kids of my own (young adult and upper teen ages) and husband to keep perculating.

    There is always this constant pressure that I am never quite good enough no matter what I do, how much time I spend with her or compliments I give. Then add my mother in law who insists on talking to me about my husband’s recent diagnosis of diabetes and says it is all my fault because of the food I fix for him. She never talks to him–just me. I always feel like I am never good enough.

    I can honestly say I try with both the mothers as well as my own family. Taking on responsibility though for their bad behavior is something I need to stop doing. I am not quite sure how to do that but your posts, especially Paula’s have helped me see clearer as to maybe some changes in my attitude that needs to happen–indifference. Maybe that is what Jesus meant when he said if you love me then you need to leave your mother and your father. I hope this all makes since. As you can imagine there is much, much more I could say. Thanks for talking about real things. It is truly refreshing.

  11. I am grateful that my family issues are not as severe as some of the other posters. I do struggle with the relationship between my husband and his mother. When my mother-in-law is around it’s like the two of them disagree with me on every issue, including finances and how to raise our two little boys. I’m not sure how my mother-in-law became such an influence in our decisions. My husband doesn’t see it as a problem, probably because he has someone to back him up when we don’t see eye to eye. I don’t want to say or do the wrong thing and regret it, so for now I am praying and waiting for clarity.

  12. I posted a while back about a book on the subject of mothers an daughters-in-law. That relationship historically has tended to be fraught with problems, some of which (a lot of which) is the mothers inability to let go and to respect boundaries. There can be equal issues with inconsiderate daughters in law as well who don’t show respect for the mother-son relationship either, but I would hazard a guess that the former is more common.

    I think if I were to err, I wouldn’t want to err on the side of being intrusive or controlling. We have to remember that our children are SUPPOSED to leave home and form new families. If we love in an open-handed way, our sons and new daughters will want to be in our lives. If we hang on too tightly and fail to respect the wife-hood of our daughters in law, we’re going to lose them both ultimately.

    Husbands need to be attuned to this problem and sensitive to the sacredness of their marriages. No wife should feel like she’s playing second fiddle to a mother-in-law who is trying running the show or worse, drive a wedge between son and wife. But neither should a couple shut out a mother-in-law unnecessarily. Trying to find a good balance is important.

  13. Ingrid, Thanks so much for this post. It is so hard sometimes to find understanding and validation in the church. I also have had to distance myself from my family of origin because of being the scapegoat and punching bag for everyone’s unresolved anger and hostility towards others. The manipulation, emotional games, etc. became too destructive and it was hurting me physically and emotionally and spiritually. I thank God that I was able to step away to get out of the dense fog of it in order to sort through it all. It has taken years and I am still recovering with His help. I can only see my family about once a year. God Bless for all that you do to help others.

  14. Thank you, Ingrid, for the post. I’m 25, married and from a family similar to those posted about above (different specifics, but similar emotional trauma). I’m a bit too emotionally drained at the moment (and pregnant… so likely rather scatterbrained as well) to post my own situation, but suffice it to say that your post does indeed offer some hope. I’m another who particularly appreciates the bit about becoming indifferent if nothing seems to have any positive effects. Was that in your post or a reader’s comment? Well, either way.

  15. Cordial indifference is probably the best route to go with consistently “difficult” family members.
    My mom and I have a pleasant relationship now – I am 55, she is in her late 70s. However, I don’t see or talk to her more than once a month. She lives about 20 miles away. I think once the “control” is gone from difficult family members they are much more agreeable. Also short visits and conversations are best. It keeps everything light and there is no danger of getting too “deep” or too familiar. I never bring up old hurts or bad experiences – she doesn’t either. It helps to focus on something new – such as young children in the family. Some of my siblings have had a harder time getting over past hurts – but I look at it like this: who had PERFECT parents? I know many grew up in far worse circumstances than I. So we should never feel sorry for ourselves, but look to the future and figure out how WE can improve our relationships with OUR children, rather than looking backwards at something that’s over and done.

  16. Ingrid, I too, thank you for your post.

    From just reading the title of it, I thought the content was referring to what my husband and I and the majority of our children find ourselves in: some of our adult children are causing the toxicity. Have you heard stories about the reverse situation?

    We are beginning to feel what one of your readers mentioned: that we are committing emotional suicide.

    The only person who can make the changes necessary for the wholesomeness, cleansing and healing needed, steadfastly and repeatedly refuses to do so. These choices aggressively ripple out past their family onto ours, people at church, and even into our community.

    The word “toxic” is an apt description of the flotsam left in the wake of the shipwreck they’re making of their lives. Our hearts are broken as we continue praying, and listening to the Spirit’s still, small voice. But we fear the space we’ve been forced to put in place between them and ourselves will have to be widened soon, just to keep from being pulled asunder; we want and need to walk on in the good works the Lord has prepared for us to walk in.

    That reminds me of the words of the finale of “Carousel,” “Walk On:”
    “Walk on through the wind,
    Walk on through the rain,
    Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on
    With hope in your heart
    And you’ll never walk alone,
    You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

  17. I regard myself as a Christian and I had one of those toxic relationships. I realized, especially toward the end of the relationship, just how far I had strayed from God (and therefore let my family stray) which I believe was a factor all of it’s own in the termination of the relationship.
    Unfortunately, there are children involved who keep me tied to the toxic ex. Time, distance, prayer, renewed faith, psychological counseling from a Christian pyschologist, and a complete trust in God are the things that help me cope, get better daily, and overcome the past.
    In the renewing of my faith I had to undergo a shedding or molting of the person I had begun to become. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not a guarantee and today is a true gift. Actually doing everything I can do to live that theory, as if today is the last day I have on earth, has made all the difference in the world. I do not know what God’s plan is, but I do know, without question, that God knows. I give God my complete trust; in my life, my finances, my relationships, and all other facets. Though I see worldly situations, I do not let them shake me anymore.
    Whatever the reasons were will be revealed to me later, of that I am sure, and for now I have know idea why the relationship had to end, simply that it had to end. My children and I are all better for it. How much more better a place the world would be if everyone could live this way.

  18. I found this site as I am desperate . My marriage broke up eleven years ago and I have raised my two sons on my own. My ex-husband produced 4 daughters with my replacement and they have now separated. THere has been much angst between the two families as my ex refused to pay the legal amount and right up until they separated there were always issues. My boys are now adolescents and it is true they have heard and witnessed that which is detrimental but it has happened. I cannot change what was said and my ex cannot deny how he treated me and his sons, although his history is nowhere near what actually took place.How can I work against what I contributed to without denying what my ex and his partner did. He is blaming me for it all and I am sickened by the conflict that has never ceased between the two of us. It is hard enough dealing with adolescents but it is exacerbated with the history of disrespect

  19. Emel62,
    My heart goes out to you in your situation. None of us can go back and change the past. All we can do is deal with today. I have been a single-parent in a very difficult situation not unlike yours. Committing to changing your own conduct is all that you can do. Committing to business-like relations with the other party is essential. What’s in the past is in the past and nothing is ever going to fix that, but you don’t have to get dragged in to the old, ancient drama, and if you do, it’s because there are no healthy boundaries established in your thinking. I highly recommend the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. You can get used copies on Amazon for less than a dollar. It’s a classic on the subject. It will help you understand why you are getting pulled back into emotional scenes with this man, years after you were separated, and it will help you chart a new course.

    We often don’t see our own behavior patterns and how we (unconsciously) give permission to the other party to drag us in to arguments and emotional scenes. Let the past be the past, but commit, for the sake of your sons, to peace and let them witness you change course. When they see you turn a corner and stop letting their father push your buttons, you’ll be an excellent role model for them in their own lives. Apologize to them for any part you had in the past in fueling things, and tell them that many things were beyond your control, but that you want to make a change and move on from this trap your ex-husband has you in.

    I would be glad to email chat with you further. I was once a single parent with two sons myself, and I can relate to what you are going through. I would like to share more with you about how God changed my life when I surrendered to His will and found healing and forgiveness from Him. If you’d like to email me, my address is found when you click on the About page at the top of the blog.

  20. Ingrid,
    How do you still honor your mother when when she blames your husband for all the trouble in the family, refuses to discuss matters and kicks my husband out of her house when he comes to try to discuss things? She does not want to hear our side and has chosen to believe the lies she has heard. I don’t want to hurt my mom but she is making things very difficult. It would be easier to have no communication but I worry about if she dies or if by not talking and just focusing on the needs of ” my” family, that I am not honoring her? It is tearing me apart. She is so hard on my husband and refuses to allow me to defend him either

  21. Lisa, I can give you some advice. They are bound up in these three words. “You left home.” Three more words. “Stop the madness.” Only you can. I can say this from a rich load of experience, this kind of mind-blowing guilt manipulation is the direct result of bad boundaries and a failure from parents to let their children be adults and let go. I have a book you need you read, I repeat, NEED to read. It helped me tremendously over the years. It’s a classic on the topic. It’s titled, “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of your Life.” The Christian authors are Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. You can get them for 2 bucks on Amazon used. Just look at the lower right hand column to find used copies.

    When children leave home they are instructed by God to LEAVE and cleave. We start new families. Many parents can’t get over that and attempt to drag their dysfunctional lives right into the new couple’s life. Nowhere does the Bible say that we must continually associate with angry, toxic and sinful parents who have no interest in biblical reconciliation. Honoring parents as adult children sometimes means separation until they understand that their conduct has consequences. Also, separation allows you to build the home God wants you to without having the constant destructive influences of your family of origin.

    Guilt manipulation is a powerful tool when adult children WANT to live at peace and to reconcile with and honor parents. When we love our parents it’s even harder to hear from their mouths that we’re failing them, that we’re bad children, that we don’t care and on and on. But the voice of a parent who is in sin is NOT the voice of God. Part of adulthood is understanding when a situation can only be changed by God and then walking away to leave it in his hands. Honoring a parent who is in sin sometimes means getting out of the way and letting God deal with their hearts.

    In our family, we once had to separate from an in-law who refused to accept our adopted children. Conflict, grief, arguing crying, hurtful things, accusations. My husband stepped up and said, “No. This is a boundary violation. This is our decision and what God is calling us to do and we have to do it.” We didn’t see her for a year. I share this only to help you. In the end, she accepted our decision and knew that at the least sign of non-acceptance towards adopted children, it would result in further separation. It was her choice.

    You and your husband need to be in the driver’s seat and you have to be willing to walk away with accusations of neglect and dishonor ringing in your ears. Otherwise your parents can turn your life into a non-ending cycle of drama and conflict that never gets resolved. Celebrate your adulthood. I would tell your mother that you will no longer discuss issues within the extended family. That is the condition of further communication. If she refuses to respect that boundary, shut off the calls. Let her say what she will, pitch blame and otherwise refuse to repent. That is her decision, not yours. God knows your heart. Rest in that and care for the family and marriage you have. If parents grow so toxic you cannot be around them, that is their decision. Let them “OWN” their own choices as the psychobabble goes. There’s really something to that.

  22. I have been thinking of getting counseling this week because of abuse I continually allow! My dad (I feel hates me)is still abusive and now my Mom has become the same because of bitterness because she has lived with an abusive husband. She acts as if the abuse never happened. I was so suicidal growing up because my dad was constantly beating me down. Married at 19 and was married to abusive man for 15 years and it wasn’t physical but emotional and verbal. He ended up leaving me for another woman. I had depression and ocd that stemmed from my abusive childhood. Figured out at the end that my husband was an alcoholic and didn’t even realize that! I re-married 2 years later and guess what…he’s abusive in his own ways and my mother-in-law wants to control our relationship like you described above.
    I moved back to my hometown where my parents live and my husband is presently working out of town and I have a vision problem and don’t drive. I have to ask my parents to take me places and I’m trying to find another way to get around. My husband has an addiction and didn’t realize that I should of run away from him when I met him but I felt I could help him. How messed up is that thinking I can change anyone. My concept of things are so messed up because I don’t know how to set boundaries and I’m so overwhelmed right now. My parent’s claim to be Christian but it’s hard to see if they really are or not. I know I’m being attacked because my desire to love God. He personally showed up for me a year ago like in a vision because I literally could not understand the love of God no matter how many times it was told to me. I looked at God through the eyes I saw my dad…distant and mean. I thought He was angry at me all the time. I know now that’s not how God is and I’m so happy. I’m considering finding a counselor who could help me see things in a logically perspective since mine is tainted because of the abuse. I don’t know what to do with my parents or my husband but depending on Jesus to be my husband, mother and father. I need advice on what to do. I’m 45 and been abused in every area because I have allowed it to happen. There is no good psychologist in the town so I may have to go in to a larger town but it would be worth it. I’m tired of feeling miserable ! I know my dad and mom are not going to change unless the Lord intervenes. I know before He healed me of depression and ocd ..He said He wanted to show my family but it seems they do not believe what I experienced even though the proof is there. Anyone have any suggestions for me?.

  23. I too have seen the devastationn that old bitterness and hurts can bring into a family for years and years. I am the middle child of a divorced family. It was nasty and my parents like all parents had flaws that were difficult to understand and still are sometimes. Life has gone on and it has now been almost 20 years but my father is still bitter and it manifests itself in many ways. My older sister often see through his eyes and has no relationship with my mother. My younger brother has been a scapegoat for disdain from my dad for loving his mother. It makes me sad. I have “opted out” on many levels because I feel a compulsion to mediate everyone and help them understand how communication and forgiveness can heal but also realize I can only handle so much too. Just yesterday I was stuck in the middle of a big fight again between my dad and brother. I flipped out on my dad screaming “what the eff is wrong with all of you?!!” The sentiments of my former desires for them to learn to communicate was there but I admit the way that I said it was rather harsh. I later told him that I cannot be a part of this continued drama in our family which thankfully he took in stride. I pray often that my siblings may reconcile with my parents and my parents to forgive their own hurts to see our family move on and heal. Now my sister has begun the cycle anew with a divorce from her husband of several years. It saddens me but it also stresses me out. If there is one thing I pray for her is that her family heal and forgive so that my niece and nephew do not carry on the torch of bitterness. I also thank god that my brother and myself have learned of great love, forgiveness and commuication as we have seen how it can heal us for the sake of our respective spouses and children. God be with you all!

  24. Christina I think we have the same mother. She is emotionally unstable and had tantrums every few months. Since I was 16 I’ve gone through months and sometimes years when I needed to take a break from her (or shes “cut me out”). It’s like a cycle. So bad that my oldest son can recognize the signs and asks if grandma is being crazy again. I am functioning as her mother. I wish I had a mother and that my kids had a grandmother.

  25. I can very much relate to the comments on this page! My family is extremely toxic and I’ve spent years trying to figure out why I’ve always had to bear the brunt of their abuse. My mother has always made derogatory comments to me, more so once my father left her for his current wife when I was 11 (I’m 51 now). She had a nervous breakdown at the time. It’s like my father broke her spirit when he left her and because I reminded her of him, she tried to break mine. She let many of my brothers friends live with us all while my brother sold and did drugs all thru my teenage years. My father’s current wife is very critical and judgemental as is my father. He spent his life as an unvolved father married to his job and making money. My brother, who is almost 55, has spent his life living off my parents (my father has bought him two homes), and they have enabled him his whole life. He treats my mother, who pays all his bills and give him an allowance, horribly, screaming at her all the time and milking more money out of her. He abused drugs and alcohol (and is now suffering the consequences healthwise) and my parents have consistently bailed him out. He had three children who ended up living with my father and stepmother and were raised by nannies, all of whom my father still financially support and all my parents enable. I spent my life being the caretaker of all of them, (including having custody of one of my nieces for 3 years who had major rage issues) trying to always do the right thing and always be there for them, meanwhile going thru a divorce from someone who was emotionally and sometimes phyically abusive and then raising a daughter by myself without child support from my ex-husband. My daughter watched me go back to school and graduate from college at 30 and then spent 25 years in the corporate world. I met a wonderful man 8 years ago and we have been married for over 5 years now. I also left the corporate world and moved 2 1/2 hours away from all of them as I also spent the last 20 years taking care of my mother who has health issues and was emotionally abused the whole time because whatever I did wasn’t good enough. The problem that consistently occurs with my family is that I’m the one that they think needs to be taught the lessons my brother created. I’m treated like an unwanted stepchild as is my daughter whom they barely have a relationship with. She is the only responsible grandchild they have and is married and independent. My husband adopted her and we are both very proud of her. Numerous derogatory comments were made to her growing up by all of my parents and she learned at an early age to distance herself from all of them. I’ve tried on numerous occasions to verbally stop the abuse, even writing them letters when they wouldn’t listen, as usual, but there is nothing but denial on their part and I’ve been told my whole life that I’m “too sensitive.” All of my close friends thoughout my life have witnessed the treatment and are completely shocked by it. They say, I’m the good one, never having gotten in any trouble, always being responsible and have always been there to pick up the pieces when there’s trouble. Although I knew that the way I was treated was wrong, I accepted it as something I couldn’t change until my husband came along and helped me realize that I didn’t in any way deserve the abuse. Now I’m at the point where I do whatever I can to avoid them. I do call my mother every day to make sure she is okay, but do my best to keep it short and have made it clear I don’t want to hear about my brother and all his drama anymore. I’m at the point where I don’t even want a relationship with either my father or stepmother as they do nothing but cause stress with their judgements and criticisms which also causes stress with my husband. He says when I’m stressed he’s stressed and although he’s very supportive, he doesn’t like how my family treats me. My father and stepmother call themselves devout Christians but think they know everything and everyone else is just stupid! They think they are superior to everyone because they have money. Anyway, I know this is long, but it sure feels good to get it out! Any suggestions? I’ve prayed and prayed about it and have come up with some answers but not enough to give me peace!

  26. Hi Lori, the best advice I can give you is to leave the dance. Relationships with family members are like a ballet or modern dance. It can be beautiful or grotesque, depending on the choreography established early on. When we fail to spin off and to begin our own new dance as adults and instead keep dancing around the old dynamics with parents, stepparents, siblings, etc., it can become a nightmarish scene. We yearn for healthy and loving relationships. The truth is that this is not always possible even among professing Christians. We are called to live in peace with one another as much as possible. Even a team of counselors would fail to sort out the layers of problems in some families of origin. It all is based in sin and pride, grudge-holding, jealousy and above all, selfishness. Only forgiveness, repentance and humility can cure this, and the truth is most don’t want that. They prefer the macabre dance instead. So, leave the stage. Leave the dance behind and find the joy and peace God intended you to have in a new production. Thank God for the ones you have in your life who do love you and stop investing your time in lost causes from the past. Let God sort it out. You will never be able to do it, and sadly, often it does not get resolved in this life. It’s difficult to do this, but it’s the only option if we want to move on in our lives. The alternative is no option at all.

  27. Hi Ingrid. Thanks so much for your input. I had pretty much come to the same conclusion but it’s sad that it’s come to this and a very difficult decision to make. On top of everything else, they are very good at throwing guilt trips and playing on my emotions. My husband says it’s like I’m a puppet on a string when it comes to them and he’s right in a way. I care very much about people and have always wanted to do what I can to help, but I think it’s time I step back and let them all stew in their own juices so to speak. I no longer want to be part of it.

    Thanks again.

    Lori

  28. Ingrid, THANK YOU for this insightful article. For a long while I have been searching for something which discusses the complexities of adult toxic family relationships in a Christian context.

    You make an excellent point that family dysfunction can be traced back to a parent or the parents marriage relationship. I’m in a unusual situation of being a disabled adult living with elderly parents who I have toxic relationships with each other, me and my siblings. My siblings are often played off against me, and I am in a position where I cannot leave the situation and am powerless to change things. After having been independent for the better part of my adult life this situation is a huge daily challenge. Thank you for your empathetic and wise words, and the reassuring reminder to depend on Christ to get through this.

  29. Ingrid thank you so much for this site and your insight.
    To Lori, I agree it is sad to have to choose life without the family you’ve trusted and loved your whole life OR continue to allow them to abuse you just so they will still be in your life…so they can abuse you.
    I am 46, youngest of 4 sisters and I have just been the victim of sibling abuse in such a blatant way that even I couldn’t deny it.
    I am and have been the victim of Adult Sibling Abuse for years.
    After this insane episode of lies and betrayal, The Lord allowed the scales to fall off of my eyes to the true characters of my siblings. Childhood jealousies and envies have matured into full seething hatreds.
    The funny thing is I was taken completely by surprise. It was the sister whom I loved and trusted the most who was the one who served me up for dinner to my other siblings. My Brute.
    My sisters and I are no longer speaking simply because my husband, in his wisdom, refused to let me respond to their toxic attacks. I was so crushed all I wanted to do was cry and ask them why??
    The Lord in His love for me has granted me this stark insight into how they truly feel about me and have felt for years: jealous and envious.
    Others have seen it yet I had denied it all this time because my main question was “jealous of what?”
    I had always looked up to them, always strove to be just like them because I admired and loved them. They are tall and beautiful where I was the short one in need of braces. As adults we had all become successful in our own way, but over time tensions were growing between us all but I could never put a finger on it. I had assumed it was because I had become a Christian and the divides were strictly religious or spiritual.
    I had never once considered that my sibs had been intentionally mean and undermining and all without remorse.
    After learning much more about Adult Sibling Abuse and that it is much more common and socially acceptable than I had ever realized, the things birth families can be most jealous or envious of, just like Cane of Able, is the victims intangible qualities like kindness, or gentleness or, in Able’s case, his righteousness before God.
    The nicer I tried to be, the worse it got.
    I am sad that I have had to choose, but God allowed me to see it for what it truly is.
    If God has separated me from those who wish me ill, I do not want to be like Lots wife looking back on what is not intended for me, a continued relationship with people who do not have my best interest at heart.
    My brother, God love him, told me to just apologize for the sake of family peace, even when it was I who was a true victim of adult bullying and cyber abuse and it is I who is expected to deny what is true just so my family who wants nothing but hurt to me can have further access to me and my children.
    Lori, the choice is simple but definitely not easy. I no longer have the family I for so long thought I did and I am grieving them all as a death. I go through all of the stages of grief and in weak moments of the negotiation stage I consider picking up the phone…but I know, after 31 years of trying, it never works.
    So I cry instead and I love my God the Father through Jesus Christ and thank Him for separating me from those who do lot love Him, or me, His precious child. I love my husband for standing up for me so bravely.
    Most importantly I am now teaching my two daughters with much more intent to love each other truly as God loves them and to cherish and protect their relationship. I teach them of Gods love and I know because of my choice to follow Christ instead of following ‘mans approval’ I have a chance of breaking the chain of toxic relationships in our family.
    And for that I am eternally grateful.

  30. Mary-Grace, you wrote: “The choice is simple but definitely not easy. I no longer have the family I for so long thought I did and I am grieving them all as a death. I go through all of the stages of grief and in weak moments of the negotiation stage I consider picking up the phone…but I know, after 31 years of trying, it never works.” Well said.

    We cannot make the blind see, make anyone love us, or force them to see reality. Even good Christian intentions of trying to “fix” things can only create repeated self-defeating patterns and despair, or it can just make things worse. Real hope is found down the road when we let go. Let those who want to live in the darkness of their own false reality do so. Our real families are those who love us and care about us right now. Nurture and enjoy them and let the dead past bury its dead. God has called us to peace.

  31. I have spent years in tears over a family who operates in full toxicity. From a mother who yelled daily, to a completely passive father who wouldn’t make any decisions, to a sister who has gone through various addictions and mental illness, to a judgmental and competitive sister. I always assumed I was alone and, like previous posters, truly envied friends who had close relationships with their mothers and sisters. I feel like I mourn the lack of a relationship daily. After the last big blow up, I decided I need to separate, but was really struggling with how to do it in a way that was grounded in honor and respect, for myself and them. I just don’t think it’s healthy for anyone to operate the way we have for the past 20 years. There are too many hurts and not enough open hearts. Thank you for not only giving me the encouragement to do so, but for the replies that share my experience and let me know that I am not alone.

  32. I saw this quote today at the Recovering Grace website and it’s helpful. As adults, we train people in on how we can be treated. In long term toxic situations, the reason things get so bad is that patterns get established over time. We sometimes wake up to realize that the patterns are not right in any sense of the word. As one counselor put it, if we agree to emotionally abusive relationships, we enable wrong-doing. It’s really that simple. Those who want peace and reconciliation should be met with open arms. Those who enjoy the darkness should be left in it while we seek the light. Here’s the quote:

    “You don’t have to wait for someone to treat you bad repeatedly. All it takes is once, and if they get away with it that once, if they know they can treat you like that, then it sets the pattern for the future.”

    “And it only takes a little time to realize that it isn’t that you LET them get away with it as much as you never learned that you had a choice in the first place, in order to take your choice back now”. – Darlene Ouimet, from Emerging From Broken

  33. Thank you so much! You have confirmed what I’ve been dealing wIth for a long time now. My family and I are so close. We see each other all the time…almost everyday. I believe most of our conflict derives from spending too much time. There’s little (or no) communication within my family. We do not respect each other different views about life. Somebody is constantly fighting to be right or to control the situation. But I’m at a point enough is enough. I’m tired of the same things and the same people. I love my family…please don’t get me wrong. I wish them the best. But if they are unwilling to see their mouth and actions are destroying our family, I must take my kids and move forward. I can not allow this to effect my kids. They are watching. So I’m gonna distant myself for a while, so I can see life from a different perspective.

  34. Mary-Grace,
    I so feel your pain! I am also the youngest of 3 sisters. I unfortunately took my brothers advice and apologized and graveled to them all…only to have it continually happen. My parents are no better and add fuel to the fire. Every time it happens to myself, my husband or my children it is like a bucket of ice cold water dumped over me! I’m so hurt, humiliated, and simply out of gas to continue this fight. I will not return this time. Myself and my family have been hurt too much! I was going to write a letter, but have decided that would solve nothing and then I would be stooping to a new level of low. The lies, deception, and years of physical, mental, and emotional abuse- are done!

    I praise God for giving me the grace I have needed so many times. The belittling is just overwhelming and to top that off, I have recently been having some horrible memories of my childhood haunt me. My family doesn’t seem like family at all, but a NIGHTMARE!

    Thank you Ingrid for posting this blog. I’m sure it was difficult for you. My only question for all of you is, do I just ignore the calls, texts, emails, etc?

  35. I was not so lucky in my choice of husband. As the attacks became worse he sided with his family. They ceased to attack him as much and put all their attention on me. It destroyed my respect for him and destroyed our marriage.

  36. Katie, my family do the same thing. If I apologize for my sins, i am taken advantage of. I NEVER EVER get an apology in return. This is because they still harbor hatred for me. As I teenager I was super rebellious. My sister and brother took my parents side and never saw that my rebellion was sin yes, but came from years of being excluded and bullied by my mom and sister. There was no Christ in our home, and I was the scapegoat from age 11 or so on. I couldn’t handle it emotionally so at age 14 or so I began drinking and having sex to escape. They won’t see their sins and hurting me, so they view me as some sort of evil person who just rebelled on her own :”just because.” I will escape their view of me as a nobody. I have gone in and out of relationship with them over the years. When I am in relationship with them, I revert to a rebellious failure. I am never treated nicely, save here and there. There is always belittling. Over the years I have made more mistakes which have compounded the problem. Finally the Lord showed me that I had to choose: being in relationship with them and feeling horrible all the time and never really being respected, or leaving and going on with God. I chose the latter. I also chose to admit my sins and forgive, but I did this before the Lord. I do it all before the Lord. I can’t change people. I can’t make them love me. I can’t do anything but be led by the Spirit. That is my advice to you. Be led by the Spirit. Sometimes boundaries are necessary. Jesus let Judas in for a bit, but that was for a purpose. Just be led by the Spirit. And have joy in your God. Forgive and love but let God show you how to do it. For me it’s a short email about God once every six months maybe. I share no personal details at all. I just say God is good and I hope you are well. God bless. That’s it. What mom wants is me to fail. That is my family role. I can’t do it anymore. Thing is every single time I am in relationship with them I do fail. I learned that I do/did this for acceptance. The Lord said I accept you so stop. Having no family is the better choice for me than a family who is really out to destroy you but think they love you. I laugh and cry at their love, it is so nuts.. Yet I then forgive because they are deceived and I must forgive. I must forgive. And I must choose Jesus and loving myself too. Be led by God, Katy.

  37. I want to share this from the After Narcissistic Abuse: There is light, life and love page. This quote so starkly sums up what is experienced by those in these toxic relationships. Being smeared by the one you trusted most is something most of us will never get over. Being called “mentally unstable”, “crazy”, etc. is how they attempt to discredit their victims. God can help us forgive and move on, but we will never be quite the same having looked into the face of this kind of evil, particularly when it is engaged in by those calling themselves followers of Jesus. Until these behaviors are identified, and until Christians begin understanding the methods these sick people employ, the victim list just gets longer. Here’s the quote:

    “When the relationship with a psychopath/narcissist is over, a smear campaign by them is waged against the survivor. One of the reasons they do this is FEAR of being exposed. The smear campaigns are extreme efforts to keep you in silence about their behavior and what they did to you. When you are in the throes of the aftermath, this can be a very painful experience and the pain can be so great, that you are unable to fight back. This is what the psychopath/narcissist wants. It may be what is best for you too, at first because it wakes you up to the truth of how sick these predators are!

    Oftentimes, the predator has already spoken about you in derogatory terms, behind your back before the relationship is over. Their attempt to control you, are through triangulations that you may not even be aware of during the relationship because they have been backstabbing you all along. The isolation that occurs as a result of their efforts makes it much more difficult when the relationship is over to speak up for yourself or to cultivate support for yourself, because they have told everyone you both know, how “crazy”, “unstable” and “mental” you are. We can’t see that this is strategic, and just as it was in the relationship, they are always a step ahead of you, to protect their mask, to keep control.

    What is so painful about these smear campaigns, is that whatever it was that you told them about yourself, no matter how personal it will be shared with many others. Because you shared these intimate details, believing you were sharing in trust and love, some of what the predator says, can be just enough truth to make you feel that you have no defense, no way to protect yourself. What the psychopath/narcissist is doing to you is the very thing they fear for themselves EXPOSURE. The most cruel aspects of the smear campaign is that they use your reactions of anger, frustration, and fear against you to create a portrait of a mentally unstable person in some way – they are sadistic to say the least. These hurtful attempts to smear you can create the same reactions for you that you had during the relationship further validating their accusations and gossip. This is another reason why it’s so important not to react at first, at least not in front of them and not to others who would deliver you’re venting to add to the arsenal used in the smear campaign. It’s very important to seek out support during this time so that you can share your anger and outrage about what is being done to you in safety. Another reason to ‘lay low’ during this time is that your reactions will be twisted in that it is you who is stalking them. Due to their high levels of narcissism, the psychopath/narcissist, loves the idea that you can do nothing more with your life than think about them, their life, their new target or supply, etc. Survivors have been accused of doing this long after the relationship is over and thinking about or being obsessed with them. They will often tell the new target or supply that you never got over them and are likely to stalk them both! It’s ridiculous to think about, but this is seriously how narcissists think! In fact it is the only our rage and being repulsed in response to this monsters dark world.

    There is a quote I heard a while back “They are sicker than we are smart”. This gives you an idea as to their total lack of empathy, which allows this “sickness” (psychopathy) to always be a step ahead of you. Without conscience, they can strategize in a way that means you don’t have a chance to “beat” them or to “win”.

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