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Q&A: Dealing with an Abusive Family

A blog reader asks, “Is it better to be part of an abusive family or to have no family at all?”

Generally speaking, I would never suggest someone stay in an abusive relationship of any sort, but cutting off from family is the last effort I suggest in protecting yourself.  I’m going to assume the abuse is emotional because it would be unusual for a family to be physically abusive towards an adult.  But before disconnecting from a family entirely, I first recommend attempting communication with them.  Of course, this is not always successful, but at least you could look back knowing you did everything you were able if you ended up cutting them off.  If a family is abusive to you, they are probably abusive towards each other as well and you may be entangled in an abusive family system.  This is more difficult to navigate as there is a whole “system” you are asking to change and examine behaviors.  A “system” wants to maintain equilibrium and homeostasis.  If you attempt to alter that system, it’s likely they will react against you and try to bring you back to your familiar position of receiving abuse so the system can function as “normal”.

Helpful Steps to Communicate with an Abusive Family

  • Talk to one person at a time – It would not be in your best interest to address multiple family members at the same time because there is “power in numbers”.  It would be easier for them to denounce your feelings, avoid accountability regarding their actions, and avoid reflection, introspection and empathy.
  • Be Clear & Direct – This is a crucial element for all effective communication.  Communication is clear when the content is very understandable and is direct when it’s directed to the person intended.  Masked communication occurs when the message is clouded and indirect communication takes place when it is not directed towards the person intended.  So, when speaking to a family member, be sure you are addressing them specifically and be clear about the message you’re trying to convey.
  • Avoid Blaming or Criticizing – Regardless of whether your blame or criticism has merit, it won’t get you far in a conversation.  Blame and criticism is a sure fire way start an argument and if you’re approaching an abusive family member, they will more than likely turn that around to then attack you.  The best way to get your message heard is to not put them on the defense with an attack.
  • Use I-statements – I-statements basically describes your experience and perspective and it involves you being somewhat vulnerable by sharing your feelings, how you were effected by someone’s behavior followed up by what changes in behavior you would like from them.
  • Examine yourself  – Do you have a part in the abusive cycle?  I’m certainly not saying someone “causes” abuse or brings it on by having a part in an unhealthy relationship, but with two or more people who struggle, all are involved to some degree.  Your anger and hurt towards your abusive family is justified, but it’s good to step back and ask yourself if you need to be accountable for anything, change some behaviors or look at anything you have done to help keep the dysfunctional family system operating.  It may be something as clear cut as you recognizing a direct contribution to the family cycle or something as indirect as you recognizing you learned to “put up with” abuse and unknowingly victimized yourself while enduring abuse since it was a role you were put in early on by other family members.  In either scenario, there is work to do on your part.  It may be apologizing and owning your part, speaking out or setting boundaries.

What Next?

If you attempt the above and are still met with abuse, your family takes no responsibility and shifts the blame to you, then at this point I would suggest distancing yourself from them.  Distancing yourself from family can take many different forms.  You may find you can have a relationship with certain members of your family if they understand their part and make attempts to change.  Some people back up enough from their family and keep enough distance so that they are not harmed emotionally by them but they still have some connection with them.  For example, they may still want to have relations with some younger family members or key people and in order to have contact, so they keep the other relationships very superficial so as not to be harmed.  Other people find the abuse and emotional fallout hurts them so badly they cannot even have a distant relationship with their family.  This is the last resort, but sometimes it is necessary.  If you have a toxic family and time spent with them results in abuse even after expressing your experiences with them, cutting off can be a step towards self care.  It is difficult for most, but necessary for some.

If you feel you need to cut off from your family, I would spend time deeply exploring the reasons behind it.  Have you approached them in a manner outlined above?  Have you taken an inventory to see if you have any part in the family dysfunction?  Are you cutting off to avoid communicating because it is too difficult?  Guilt is another emotion that often leads people to stay in relationships that are harmful and destructive.  If you are having trouble cutting off from your family because you feel a sense of obligation, I would explore how guilt may play a part in that behavior.

If you have an abusive family or a toxic family and want some insight, I would highly suggest reading Bradshaw On: The Family.  It is a highly informative book and can help you make sense of your situation.  You may also want to consider counseling to help you sort out your struggles and help you determine the best path for yourself in relation to a difficult or abusive family.  If you have a question you would like to anonymously submit for the topic of a blog post, please go to my homepage and look for the “Ask Sylvia” column which is the middle column at the bottom of the homepage.

Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. To get in contact with a San Diego therapist, feel free to call or email her.  Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.