Family as defined by culture
Our culture communicates many powerful messages about family:
There’s no place like home.
Nothing is more important than family.
Daddy’s little girl.
Mother knows best.
Call your mother.
Family is everything.
A dad is a hero.
A mother is sacred.
Siblings are your first friends.
Because I have a sister I will always have a friend.
Brothers are best buddies.
Family, where life begins and love never ends.
These types of statements are beautiful and meaningful to those who grew up in happy, well-adjusted families. But what about those who didn’t? For millions of people, these sorts of statements, and the images reinforced by advertising and the media, are a constant painful reminder of what they are lacking.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which the target is made to question his or her own observations, perceptions, and intuition by being fed constant contradictions to obvious reality. Gaslighting is one of the primary weapons used in toxic families and relationships.
Advertising also commits gaslighting against its target audience. Popular media has been committing gaslighting against us since its inception. Every time we are told that something is healthy when it’s actually not, or a stereotype is reinforced by a sitcom, we are being gaslit into believing that is the reality, even when intuitively we have our doubts.
For those who are products of dysfunctional families of origin, the messages received from the culture about what family is supposed to be are in stark contrast with what they observe inside the walls of their own house.
Where the heart is not
For many people, home is most definitely not where the heart is.
What toxic families really need is to dig deep into their dysfunction, admit where there is both good and evil, and be accountable together. They need to redefine love, but culture doesn’t support this process.
Culture doesn’t allow for the possibility that for many, Christmas has nothing to do with a giant glazed ham in the center of a long table surrounded by a happy, smiling family wearing matching sweaters. Our culture is uncomfortable with the notion that some families couldn’t survive ten minutes crammed together in an RV, much less a trip to Yellowstone Park.
Even when a dysfunctional family is portrayed in popular culture, by the end of the episode everyone is hugging, or the audience is laughing because the notion of such dysfunction is so absurd, or a muscled cop is confronting an abusive spouse and taking away the rest of the family to a safe, warm place where they can start a happy, shiny new life. Justice is served in under 50 minutes.
An unmeetable standard
The end result of this cultural deception is that families strive to outwardly meet a standard that is inwardly impossible. Even healthy families fall into the perfection trap, made even worse by social media, where Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest set the bar even higher.
For those in dysfunctional families, the cost of this deception is even greater. It feels hopeless to imagine a life free from drama and discord, and it feels lonely when it appears on the outside that everyone else has a perfect life.
Ideally, everyone in a dysfunctional family would heal together. Everyone would join in the process, reflecting on their own strengths and shortcomings and setting and respecting healthy boundaries. But we’ve already established that despite what popular culture wants us to believe, we don’t live in an ideal world.
In the real world, dysfunctional families are highly resistant to change. The dysfunction is usually generational. The problems started long before you were born and left unchecked will go on long after you are gone.
You can’t fix everyone. But you can work on yourself, and teach your children a new way to love and be loved. And perhaps you might influence others in your family as they see your newfound confidence and happiness.
Before you start setting boundaries for everyone else, you first need to do a serious accounting of your own toxic behaviors. Even if you are an adult child of dysfunction, and you had no control over the family you were born into, you have absorbed some of that toxicity into your own life. If you are unwilling to address your own toxicity, you will not be able to successfully redefine love.
Yes, it will be humbling to admit that you’ve screwed up too. If you are in a dysfunctional family, you’ve probably spent a lot of time blaming other people. Admitting your mistakes is even harder when nobody else is willing to admit theirs. It will feel like you’re feeding yourself to the wolves. But it doesn’t matter what others think, because you are redefining love, and coming to a healthier place of peace with the whole mess.
And yes, it will be intimidating, perhaps even terrifying, to start setting boundaries where none existed, with people who have zero concept of what a boundary even is. The biggest pushback will be from those who stand to lose the most.
But know that there will be those who respect what you’re doing, even if they don’t yet have the courage to stand up for themselves. It is entirely possible that you will inspire others to healing, which is a beautiful thing indeed.
An act of love
The thing to keep reminding yourself, over and over, is that setting and maintaining boundaries is an act of love – love for yourself, and love for the other person. When we set boundaries, we are establishing a line between where we end and the other person begins. We are showing who we truly are, independent of everyone else.
There are going to be people who don’t like this new you. Your boundaries are going to be really scary and threatening to them, particularly those who have a lot invested in things staying the same. They are going to try to talk you out of your stance by insulting you (“You are a terrible son!” or “I guess I assumed you actually cared!”).
They are going to gaslight you and try to change your reality (“You don’t love me or you wouldn’t be shutting me out like this!”). They are going to immediately get on the phone and social media and start recruiting other family members and friends to take their side.
Don’t let someone else decide your truth. Don’t let anyone intimidate you into compromising your integrity or your boundaries. Remind yourself over and over, “Just because they say it doesn’t make it true.” Love yourself enough to stand your ground, and love the other person enough to maintain your boundaries. How can they ever hope to grow and change if nobody ever stands up to them?
Visit the Toxic Relationships page for more information on these types of individuals.
Make a choice
It is very difficult to maintain a healthy sense of self within the confines of a dysfunctional or enmeshed family. And although it would be great if everyone could heal together, the truth is that rarely happens. So you have a choice to make. This choice is going to be different for everyone, depending on their unique circumstances.
You must consciously decide where your place is within this family. You must decide what your relationship is going to be with each individual. Who you really are needs to be carefully considered and expressed. You must be intentional with the decision. Take notes or keep a journal if it helps. Meet with a counselor to guide you. Do whatever it takes to get healthy and stay healthy.
Some individuals might decide to keep firm boundaries with some members of the family, and allow others a closer relationship. Or you may choose to attend a few special events throughout the year, just Christmas, weddings, and funerals, for example. What works for one person may not work for another, so it is important that you check in with yourself regularly.
In the case of highly toxic families, you may realize that there is no way to maintain your sense of self while maintaining any connection whatsoever. This can be a very lonely decision, especially since many of these people have spent their whole lives believing that “family is everything,” and thus making few meaningful connections outside of their family of origin.
Make your own family
In redefined love, we get to choose who we allow into our inner circle. There is a whole wide world out there. Why should our families be limited only to those whom we were born to? Regardless of whether you grew up in an emotionally healthy environment or are a product of dysfunction, we all have a right to define our own family.
Making your own family isn’t about turning your back on your family of origin. It is quite possible that you will choose your family of origin to share your life with. The point is that your relationships should be intentional. You should know exactly why you are spending time with this person. If it is out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or coercion, that is a terrible reason to expend your limited time and energy.
Redefining love allows you to love people from a distance. If someone is toxic in your life, it’s ok to withhold close relationship, not because you hate them (even if the other person says that is the case), and not because you can’t forgive (also a highly likely response). You respect others’ rights to be at whatever place they are at any given moment. But you also respect yourself enough to recognize that you are in a different place.
Whether you choose to love your family of origin with daily contact or from a distance, you have a right to determine where you end and others begin.
Copyright © Redefining Love 2018
The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for general informational purposes only. For mental health questions or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.