Tolstoy famously wrote that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The poignant sentiment captures the complexities of toxic family situations perfectly. They are hard to define because they vary so much in the way they manifest.
Toxic has become a bit of a catch-all term for dysfunctional relationships in general. Nowadays, romantic relationships can be toxic, work relationships can be toxic, and families can be toxic, too. But what does this mean? And can one become toxic unwittingly?
Even the most well-adjusted families will face difficulties at one time or another. The occasional argument or disagreement is inevitable and suggests a healthy dynamic where individuals feel safe to voice dissenting opinions. But when a family is toxic or dysfunctional, family members could feel unsafe or tense all of the time.
At their worst, toxic situations can include overt physical, sexual or emotional abuse. But a toxic family dynamic can also manifest itself in subtler ways. Anything from gaslighting, to neglect, to manipulative or controlling behaviour can create a toxic situation.
While there are ways to tackle dysfunctional family patterns, it is vital to identify whether a family is toxic and where the toxicity stems from first.
Are you part of a toxic family dynamic?
Do you feel like the next argument is inevitable? Is there constant tension at home? Does it feel like every nice family dinner culminates in a big fight?
If any of the below sounds familiar, you may be living in a toxic family.
Your partner is gaslighting you
The term "gaslight" comes from the 1930s British play "Gas Light," where the husband attempts to convince his wife and others around them that she is going insane by manipulating small aspects of their life and trying to convince her that she is misremembering or delusional when she points them out.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser tries to distort their victim’s perception of reality. The abuser may insist that an event didn't happen and that the victim imagined a situation, overreacted, or misremembered it, for example. This form of manipulation can make a victim feel like they're losing their mind.
Let’s say you wish to raise a concern with your partner. Perhaps they were disrespectful during a family meal out, and you decided to speak to them when you returned home. You bring up the problematic behaviour they exhibited at the dinner table, and they say: "I never said that! That's not what I meant! You're being overly sensitive!"
While this may sound like classic defensive behaviour, if your partner insists that you misremembered or that you're crazy or overly sensitive, they may be gaslighting you. This type of abuse can leave you feeling less confident about your judgement, apologising often, or feeling like you can't get anything right.
Gaslighting can take even more nefarious forms. Partners could insist you never accompanied them to a particular event when you know you did. They could hide your belongings from you and castigate you for losing them. They could even tell you that your family members are talking about you behind your back. The abuser is trying to make you doubt your perception of reality and judgement so they can control you. This type of gaslighting is extremely serious and needs immediate attention.
You find yourself walking on eggshells around family members
Do you feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells around certain family members? Perhaps your partner explodes every time you gently remind them they promised to take the recycling out. Or your teenage daughter throws a tantrum every time you ask her to tidy up her room. The tension in your home is palpable, and every little remark can turn into a full-blown confrontation.
If you catch yourself constantly self-editing in your head before you speak and worrying about how your words will be perceived, you could be stuck in a toxic pattern. When the lines of communication are closed, this only exacerbates an already dysfunctional dynamic.
Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells usually indicates that a family member is emotionally unstable. If you constantly fear how this person will react or when they're going to lash out next, you're going to feel on edge all the time. It can also adversely affect you mentally; if you need help with your mental health, please read our guide.
Nobody should have to view their family member as a ticking time bomb. If this is the case, the person may need to seek help to address their unstable personality.
You feel drained and out of sorts after you spend ‘quality time’ with your family
It should have been a perfect Saturday. You invited your family over for a barbecue to celebrate the start of summer. Everything was going well until your younger daughter turned up. You love her dearly, but she is still finding her way in life. She has a complex personality and quickly starts rubbing everyone the wrong way while also being extremely negative about everything.
While you will always support your daughter in every way you can, you come away from what should have been a joyful experience feeling deflated.
If you consistently feel drained, guilty, stressed, or like something’s not quite right after seeing a family member, they could be exhibiting toxic behaviours. A few questions to ask yourself to determine this include:
- Are they overly critical of everyone else?
- Do they make people feel guilty for their success?
- Are they constantly negative about how their life has turned out?
- Do they make every conversation about themselves?
While it’s okay to be there for your family and support them through hard times, it could point to a deeper problem if this behaviour is constant.
How to deal with toxic family members
Living in a toxic family can cause immeasurable pain and long-term damage to family members. Once you identify a toxic pattern, it is crucial to tackle the problem before it becomes worse or causes more damage.
When it comes to setting boundaries, it is vital to remember the old adage 'not my circus, not my monkey.' While everyone wants to be there for their loved ones, sometimes others' negativity can feed into your life, and you could start taking on the bulk of their problems. When dealing with older family members or adult children, this is unacceptable.
You could set boundaries by hearing them out but limiting the time spent on negative conversations.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you may wish to have a tough-love conversation with the person and explain that they are consistently negative. This may be a behaviour they are unaware of, and bringing it up could facilitate self-reflection.
If this is not an option, you could try changing the subject to a more positive, lighthearted topic. Engaging in small talk could be an easy way out when you don't often see the person. However, it may prove a problematic strategy if you live together.
You may decide that you love a family member but only in small doses. Experts suggest opting for a low contact, appeasement solution in some cases. This could involve maintaining a relationship at a superficial level.
You will still see your toxic family members during holidays and gatherings and may still make small talk with them. But you will keep conversations casual and lighthearted without revealing too much about your life.
This strategy means you can 'keep the peace' but also keep your distance and limit exposure to toxic family members.
Going ‘no contact’
Going ‘no contact’ means cutting a toxic family member out of your life completely. You cease all communication with them and come to terms with the fact that you may never see them again. In some instances, this may mean you need to move out or ask them to move out of your home.
Although this may seem like an extreme solution, it may be appropriate in serious cases of abuse or where the person has consistently overstepped your boundaries and shown no respect for your wishes to the point where it has started negatively affecting other aspects of your life.
Experts advise that you make sure you have a robust support system that you can rely on as you make this transition. However, if a family member is particularly toxic, they may try to isolate you from your loved ones by speaking about you behind your back or by trying to badmouth others in front of you.
While you can remain steadfast in your convictions, some of your loved ones may not take your side in the matter. Going no contact can sometimes mean losing other loved ones, too.
Toxic families come in all shapes and sizes
Hannah Canavan of Adventure Travel Family told us: “It is very common for people to realise that they had toxic relationships with family members, only once they become adults. Finding yourself repeatedly in situations where you feel uneasy, uncomfortable or ‘walked over’ is a sign that your boundaries were respected when you were growing up or during key relationships. It is important to understand that recognising this is essential to stopping the toxic cycle and not passing it down to our children.”
What you decide to do will depend on the nature of the relationship you have with your family members and the toxic behaviour exhibited. Some toxic patterns, including negativity and guilt-tripping, could be done unwittingly.
There are usually ways to resolve these without cutting a family member out completely. Keeping the lines of communication open could do wonders for someone who may just lack the self-awareness to realise their behaviour is harmful.
But overly controlling behaviour and nefarious practices like gaslighting could sometimes require drastic measures like going no contact.