A family is a group of people who share a common ancestry or who are bound as a unit. The US Census Bureau defines a family as a group of two people or more related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together. In an ideal world, family is our source of love, security, and loyalty. Until it isn’t. Sometimes family members can be toxic.
The US is deeply divided politically. Many people have purged friends and family whose political views are offensive to them. I read that Ricardo Deforest of Tampa, Fla., said, “I hate to say it because family is everything. I disowned them. In my mind, they’re not family anymore.”
I saw a Facebook post, targeted to mental health therapists, which asked if it was okay to cut off family members. A lively exchange followed in which most therapists strongly agreed that one should cut off toxic family members. They had no reservations about alienating people who do horrible things even though they are blood relations. You can only take so much, try so much, and do so much until you decide to leave. Giving up on people that relentlessly hurt you is taking care of yourself, and you deserve to be safe.
We wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior from acquaintances, but should we make more of an attempt with family members? Family is still family no matter how they’ve hurt you. Family ties bind us in a way that other social ties do not. We will work harder to maintain relationships with the people that we share our lives with.
Where do you draw the line? Some decisions are easy. If there is a present danger of sexual, verbal, emotional, or physical abuse to children or elders, it is not only wise to leave, but there are societal safeguards in place to assist the process. Domestic violence is not tolerated. You are not expected to make a consistent sacrifice in your own well-being.
But life is not always black and white. Families are complicated and cutting off family is giving up, perhaps prematurely or unnecessarily. Sometimes we have to learn how to love someone with detachment or from afar. You can still consider them family, albeit from a distance.
The experts in setting boundaries with family members are people who attend Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a “worldwide fellowship that offers a program of recovery for the families and friends of alcoholics”. They teach people the concept of detachment. The principles can apply to any toxic family member.
According to Al-Anon, “Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. It does not imply judgment or condemnation of the person or situation from which we are detaching. It does not necessarily require physical separation. Detachment allows us to let go of another’s behavior and begin to lead happier and more manageable lives. We learn not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other people and not to allow ourselves to be used or abused.”
Knowing your boundaries and establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is a life skill. Determine the need for creating a boundary or changing an existing boundary by listening to your feelings. For example, if we feel angry, used, or guilty, we probably need to set a boundary. Ideally, we want to create a healthy middle ground between the extremes of either controlling others or allowing them to control us. We can set boundaries with others who attempt to control us by telling us how to think, feel, or behave. And we should refrain from the same. Either end of the spectrum between rigid or non-existent boundaries is unhealthy for us and others.
What’s the best way to communicate boundaries? Al-Anon says it best: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, just don’t say it mean.” In other words, manners matter when communicating your boundaries with others. We think better of ourselves when we are direct, honest, and respectful. Listen to objections as long as they are stated in a respectful manner. Then carefully consider your response.