Setting boundaries with a toxic parent is possible, but there may be obstacles to doing so.
When readers submitted questions to me, the ones that came back repeatedly were “Can we overcome the loss of family ties?” or variations of the theme, such as “What happens if a denigration continues and convinces everyone in the family?” Dozens of questions about siblings with very different views of the same family were asked: “Can relationships between adult siblings are healed?” or “How is it possible that my siblings see a woman and a mother who differ totally from what I see?”
As unloved daughters (and sons) struggle to manage their relationships with their parents in adulthood – by setting limits, cutting back on contact, or eventually breaking off ties altogether – these questions reflect very real concerns and struggles. Often, the adult child’s first efforts to set boundaries are met with a terrible setback, not only from the parent but also from siblings and other family members. This adds another level of stress, as 37-year-old Trisha discovered:
“When I told my mother that she couldn’t denigrate me with my 10- and 12-year-olds, World War III broke out. She laughed at me all my life, but she threatened me and upset my children, who felt that she was asking them to take sides, which of course she did. She became furious and co-opted my sister and brother to her side, saying that I was an ungrateful person unless I apologized to her publicly. Above all, I owed her respect and she didn’t owe me anything. Well, I wasn’t about to do that and things got out of hand from there. Everyone – my mother, my father, my sister, my brother – stopped speaking to me. What hurt me the most was not my mother’s action – that was no surprise – but that everyone agreed? »
It is not uncommon for these divisions to become etched in stone, even long after the death of the mother or father, as 66-year-old Donna tells us:
“I keep thinking it would be nice to talk to my siblings about the past, and then I have to force myself to stop fantasizing because my siblings seem to have grown up with parents who differ greatly from the ones I remember. Still, it is a shame that my recall makes me an outcast in their eyes, the ungrateful sister who dishonors our mother’s memory. They inherited her property, which should have been enough, but they are forced to take her megaphone.”
Some predictable patterns you need to be aware of
In many interviews, abetted by more recent research on dysfunctional families and patterns of estrangement, if you try to manage the problematic dynamics in your family of origin, you need to be prepared for some common events. Here are a few to help you along the way:
- Escalation is sometimes inevitable. Parents who are and always have been highly controlling are unlikely to respond well to the most diplomatic efforts to assert boundaries, as they are likely to see this as an insult to their authority as a parent; it doesn’t matter whether you are an adult or a child, because that’s not how they see it. Although research shows that only about 12% of parent-adult child estrangements are started by parents, parents’ response to any criticism often makes escalation inevitable. Several readers, when asked, admitted that they didn’t really know who separated; this was the case for Sarah, 48:
“I have had no contact with my mother, father, or siblings for five years, and I would have said that I started the breakup. But, in hindsight and therapy, I would say that was not true. I was still hanging on by a thread, trying to make things right. But the response to the few rules I was trying to put in place – not to denigrate me or my family publicly, not to spread rumors about my husband’s affairs – was so crazy and out of proportion that they increased all the rumors, even among the extended family. I knew they were making me look bad, but I didn’t know that they had officially stopped talking to me until I saw a message on Facebook that was a picture of what my mother called “the whole family. Of course, I wasn’t there, and neither were my children and husband. It was six months after I had tried to set up the rules.
- Although you may want your experiences to be validated, they may not be. Humans are tribal creatures, as they have been since the beginning, and even with a tribe of dysfunctional and emotionally unreliable origin, our default position is always to want to belong. It is in this context that we see that even if we break with dysfunctional ties, our impulse is to turn to others who we believe have shared our experiences to validate our own. This rarely happens. There are many reasons a sibling might not see things your way, in fact; it can be relatively simple (he or she has been relatively well treated compared to you being the scapegoat for the family, or he or she is invested in keeping the peace) or terribly complicated (he or she is much more comfortable criticizing you than your relative, or is opposed to what she calls “wallowing in the past”). For many adult children, this lack of support adds significantly to the losses already accumulated.
- Most people are strong advocates for their own family stories. Our stories about our families are, of course, stories about who we are and how we became the people we are. Is it any wonder that most people are reluctant to submit these stories to a sibling? Sometimes the differences lie in the details, as with Tim and his brother Jon, who was born only two years apart. Although they agree their father was a bully and used verbal abuse, they disagree about revisiting the past. Tim believes that talking about the past sets you free; Jon believes it is too painful to revisit, and that there is no point in talking about what was. Their opposing points of view create tension between them. They rarely see each other.
The other siblings don’t talk at all. Each defends the “truth” of his or her version. Deidre, 62, wrote:
“I had to choose between my own mental health and my bad family. I am lucky to have married a nice man and to have a son who finds his way in the world and loves me, but it is still a real loss. Their story is about scapegoating me as a scapegoat. It took me a lot of time and tons of therapy to realize that playing a part in their story was hurting me and holding me back. But it still hurts.
- You may feel the loss deeply even though you sued. One of the counter-intuitive aspects of action – whether it is to open a discussion, set boundaries, or reduces or end contact – is that a deep sense of loss can accompany what you know intellectually to be a step in the right direction. Adult children are often surprised by the strength of their emotions when all they expected was a sense of relief. Why is this? Anyone who comes from a family where their emotional needs have not been met really only wants one thing: for someone to wave a magic wand and the family of origin to become good enough. That hope persists.
Dealing with a dysfunctional family is difficult and painful work, best done with a gifted therapist. But you can also help yourself.
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