If an unwanted divorce is not enough to be dealing with many of us women are dealing with a toxic family of origin as well.
I’ve been coaching and mentoring women through the divorce recovery journey for about four or five years now. In my experience, I’ve only coached a couple ladies who did not have problems with their birth family as well as marital problems. I believe this is because we all have what we believe is “normal” behavior passed onto us by the generations before us.
I’m not saying this is a predictor or causation for marital calamity but there is definitely a coalition between experiencing toxic relationships in adulthood and being raised by a toxic or dysfunctional family. Furthermore, toxicity isn’t always a personality flaw but generational curses or patterns of behaviors that are repeated by families without even knowing why they act the way that they do.
How to know you’re dealing with toxic family members?
1.) Getting together is not a peaceful or joyful experience. You feel nervous and anxious knowing you’re going to have to see one person or the entire family. There is always a conflict between you and them or them and someone else, and they expect everyone to get involved – which causes family drama and stress. Their issues are always at a crisis level and always more important than anything you or anyone else is dealing with or feeling. Gossip and putting others down (when they’re not around) is the game they play at every event and you wonder what they’re saying about you when you’re not around.
2.) Your relationship seems to be codependent. When you need space or to practice self-care they make you feel guilty and act jealous of your other relationships. Or they don’t allow you to be alone without them. They don’t want to share you with other people so you feel controlled by that person. They create a codependent relationship with you, especially if you’re the caregiver type so that your life revolves around them. Anything you do for your own emotional health takes from them and they feel threatened. You feel there is nothing else you can do but try to always please this family member or the entire family.
3.) Asserting your boundaries leads to drama. The toxic family feels they should have access to you and your resources whenever they want. You say you won’t be attending a family gathering but you know instead of well wishes and understanding, you’ll get backlash and criticism. You tell your family that you can’t help (physically or financially) this time or rescue someone again but that is not acceptable to them. You feel forced to allow everyone else to have their way in order to keep the peace in your life. You don’t want to cause anyone, especially yourself, discomfort. If this is you, you have become a peacekeeper rather than a peacemaker.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. – Matthew 5:19
4.) Money is a HUGE manipulation tool. The family member(s) who comes to the rescue financially, repeatedly, does so because they feel powerful and in control in doing so. They often want you to be dependent on them so you can’t be independent – which means you won’t need them. The Bible says we are a slave to our lenders (Proverbs 22:7) so when you owe someone money, they own you – that means power.
A toxic family member will say (or sometimes you just know without them saying) that they control who comes to events if they’re paying for it. Their money has strings attached meaning they control how things will go if they’re loaning money or paying for something important (dinner out as a family, weddings, graduations, funerals, etc.). These are not suggestions because you know what they’ll say and/or do if you don’t do what they want.
Some toxic family members even compete for the upper hand by giving more than someone else can or do (especially during gift giving times – grandparents who try to give more than a child’s own parent – just to look better). Everyone in a dysfunctional family walks on eggshells around the person with the fat wallet or purse strings because they all know who has the most money and who’s in control.
5.) They’re emotionally unavailable. All close relationships need to connect on an emotional level to grow. Often toxic people are closed off to emotional connection and sharing their vulnerabilities because they don’t want people to see what they may be hiding. Toxic people may be there physically but they’re not able to be there emotionally for you; they may even lack empathy. On the other end of the spectrum, emotionally safe people are able to share the private aspects of their lives (the good and the bad) and still accept each other for who they are.
6.) There are two sides to these people. They have a public persona and a private persona. This person can seem very kind, caring, and say they love you (or other family members) but their actions say something very different. In private they tear down other races or religions but pretend to love thy neighbor all over social media. They give to the poor because the church has a food pantry (and everyone else is giving) but often state welfare recipients are lazy and just looking for handouts.
Really caring for others means meeting people right where they are at. Toxic people are unable to do this so don’t expect them to understand what you’re going through while you’re struggling through your divorce recovery journey.
7.) You never hear an apology for hurtful words or actions. You could get screamed at, names called, and the toxic person feels he or she has a right to do so because you did or didn’t do something (it could be very minor too). They could lie to your face, talk behind your back, and stonewall you so you don’t feel you can speak up and defend yourself but there will never be a sincere apology for what was said or done. Somehow it’s always your fault for having feelings, being too emotional, or not being a forgiving person.
8.) They place the blame on one family member. Every toxic family has unstated labels they put on certain family members. Just like a bullying situation the toxic family has the bully and his crowd and the person who’s being bullied. The bullied person (the victim) may get the silent treatment (“everyone is mad at….”) while other members are blaming the victim and finding other members to join in.
One label for the victim is the scapegoat – the person who is blamed for all the family troubles. And another is the black sheep – the person who stands up to the family dysfunction and refuses to participate or take the blame. If you’re trying to have emotionally healthy boundaries, these labels could be put on you.
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9.) Family secrets must be kept concealed. This is a huge red flag that your family is toxic. You know one (or more) of your family members who lie, steal, cheat on a spouse, or participate in other immoral or illegal behaviors but it’s the family’s job to keep that all concealed – for the protection of the family image. If you shared or even talked about a family secret you know you’ll receive one of those labels (the scapegoat or the black sheep) so you too protect the “family name.” Protecting others while allowing an immoral or illegal activity to continue is not a healthy or godly thing to do. Healthy people don’t cover for dysfunctional behavior.
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10.) Alcohol or other addictions are a priority. I don’t believe family gatherings or other events need alcohol for people to have a good time. But in toxic families, there are people who need alcohol or other drugs just to be there. Or when they do drink (or take drugs), things always get out of hand. Addictions are a real problem for families but toxic families support and enable the behaviors instead of stopping them before things get worse.
Sometimes you also need to divorce your toxic family, in order to find peace and emotional healing. I share some signs and my story in this video.
We all get to decide how we behave as adults. Our toxic family doesn’t define us and we shouldn’t let their actions control us. Getting emotionally healthy is seeing the toxic behavior and making a choice to act differently – to stop the cycle!
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Do you have toxic family in your past or present life? How are you dealing with these people while healing after divorce?
God bless your healing journey,