Families are complicated. And while disagreements are totally normal, it's important to know the difference between a little fam feud and a straight-up toxic family member.
But how can you tell which one you're dealing with? Well, first, you should know that there are no criteria for a ‘toxic person,’ but there are certain things to look for in a ‘ toxic relationship.’
‘It’s difficult to get clarity on whether or not an individual is toxic,’ says Alexandria Deas, a licensed therapist and owner of the practice Wisdom Meets Beauty. ‘The concept is easier to understand if you think about toxic interactions.’ And surprise surprise, toxic interactions = a toxic relationship.
Now that you've reframed your mindset, you're probably wondering what a toxic interaction actually looks like. Keep reading for 30 signs you're dealing a toxic family relationship, according to experts.
You Don't Like Being Around Them
If you feel any of the following when you spend time with this person, you may have a toxic family member on your hands. ‘Check in with yourself before, during, and after the interaction,’ says Deas.
You dread being around them no matter the occasion
Your interactions leave you feeling unseen or weak
The way that they treat you and others is unsettling
They guilt you during conversations
You feel unsettled just being in the same room as them
You worry about your own safety and the safety of others when they're around
You Have Consistent Blowups
Some conflict is totally normal when it comes to family life, says Tracy Ross, a family-focused counsellor based in New York. That said, when you have a toxic relationship with a family member, even the smallest disagreements can turn into a major argument.
‘There's a feeling you have to walk on eggshells so you don't trigger a fight,’ she explains. ‘But try as you may, you can’t always predict what might set them off.’ Toxic family members may also engage in the following:
They take everything you say personally
Your fights are a result of personal issues and not misunderstandings
You feel like you're walking around grenades when you're around them
You leave your arguments feeling drained and manipulated
You're noticing these signs of gaslighting
They make personal attacks on your character during the argument
They Don't Respect Your Beliefs
Many people have different beliefs than their family members: The question is, is the relationship toxic? ‘Our families are a part of us, a reflection of us, it is painful when they espouse beliefs that we find offensive or dangerous,’ Deas explains.
That said, the difference here is that they actively do not accept your perspectives and life choices, perhaps even berating you about them or making offensive comments when you're together. This might look like:
They don't accept your partner who is of a different race or religion
They don't accept your sexuality or your gender identity
The family member displays active contempt for you
They voice their negative opinion about you publicly or on social media
When you've asked them to respect your beliefs, they decline
You feel a sense of aggression beyond annoyance
They Make *Themselves* The Priority
There comes a point when a family may start to organise their entire lives around a toxic member, says Ross. ‘Different standards apply to this person, and people try to keep the peace,’ says Ross.
‘The rest of the family is accommodating the toxic family member while at the same time convincing others to sacrifice their own needs, wants, convenience, and values saying it’s the right thing to do.’ This, in turn, may make you feel forgotten, exhausted, or even worthless. Here's what it might look like when a toxic family member takes up too much brain space:
The toxic family member repeatedly sabotages plans
They're never held accountable for their actions
They rarely say 'thank you,' even though you're always making sacrifices for them
You find yourself doing things just to get approval or attention from them
You are generally disappointed by your family's response to their behaviour
Their inability to consider others always comes at the cost of your needs
‘Manipulation, gaslighting, violation of boundaries, and the threat of harm are all examples of abuse,’ says Deas. Does this sound like something you're experiencing?
Everyone breathes easier when this family member is absent
They bully or harass you
They have little to no respect for boundaries or personal space
Your family member is extremely controlling and hypercritical
You have received both verbal and physical threats from them
They have physically attacked you or hurt you in any way
What To Do About A Toxic Family Member
So you've identified the kind of toxic relationship you have with your family member. And because you don't want to live with the mental and emotional burden, it's time to think about some possible next steps. Your approach will likely fall into three categories, depending on the severity of your toxic family life:
Set Boundaries And Limit Your Interactions
First, if your safety isn't threatened, Deas says that you should be wary of cutting people out completely. ‘The cut-off is the most severe consequence that one can enforce for a boundary violation,’ she says. ‘If the relationship is important to you, it might be worth exploring less drastic options.’ The following are some tactics to consider.
Refuse to discuss certain topics with this family member. Leave the room calmly if you need to.
Limit conversations to specific settings or lengths of time. When do things usually get heated? Could you limit yourself to ten minutes of small talk?
Insist that all interactions with this family member be on your own terms. Maybe you only interact on holidays. Maybe you prefer these interactions to be on your own home turf, or on theirs so you can leave whenever you want. Figure out what works best for you.
Work It Out With A Third Party
Sometimes a situation requires more than just talking it out with your toxic family member one-on-one. If you think there's hope of improving the relationship, consider seeking the help of professionals.
Invite your relative to attend regular family counselling sessions with you
Ask them to go to a workshop with you to work on their bias or prejudice issues
Encourage them to see a therapist on their own if you feel they need one
Cut Off Communication Completely
A relative should *never* violate your sense of safety or consistently disregard your boundaries, says Deas. Abuse is a serious issue, and if that's what you're dealing with, there's no shame in walking away. Remember: It's not your responsibility to 'save' this kind of person or keep them in your life, and you did nothing to 'deserve' the way they treated you. Still, it can be incredibly hard (and scary) to cut an abuser out of your life. Here are some tips that might help you on this journey.
If you can, cut off all communication: block them on social media, block their number, don't invite them to family gatherings, and so on.
Reach out to a trusted friend or family member and ask them to help you navigate the situation
Contact Refuge: The freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline to speak with a professional
See a therapist who can help you end the relationship safely
‘Ultimately, you get to choose the people in your life,’ says Deas. ‘You don’t need a reason or permission to cut someone off if you think it is in your best interest to do so.’
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