A guide to setting boundaries in toxic family relationships

We all have our fair share of family drama. Its inevitable. Family is based on genes, natural selection and meiosis. Unlike regular friendships and romantic partners, these are not relationships we can choose.

In the same way, they are not relationships we can abandon as easily. Even when things get absolutely rough. Not mom-did-not-allow-me-to-go-to-the-mall-with-my-friends rough, but addicted abusive and generally toxic kind of rough. Which begs the question, when is it okay to cut these ties?

I’ll be the first to say there is no correct answer to these. The sad reality of it is that as humans, our experiences shape our perception of good and bad. Right and wrong. So one person’s toxic is not necessarily another persons toxic. In the same way, you may absolutely think it’s acceptable to put ketchup on pasta and I think that’s barbaric. Not because it is the law of things, but because my college days were filled with that and they are times I’d rather forget.

So let’s put this in context. We will not talk about far reaching relatives like cousins or aunts. These are generally easy to distance yourself from (Simplistically speaking). We are looking at kinship. Mother, Father, Siblings . You live together, or have grown up together and are generally expected to maintain the relationship because of the very close ‘i could give you my kidney’ ties.

But what if said mother is constantly nagging. Or looking down on you. Or overbearing. That’s mild. Let’s take it a step further. She is an alcoholic who refuses to save herself. Reflecting all her disappointments on you. Blaming you and especially worse, making her happiness your responsibility. Therefore anything you do is taken to heart and becomes a tantrum. So you have to be perfect, and you have to do things her way because otherwise you’re failing her and making her life miserable (vocalised as betraying).

How do you deal with such a parent? When the process of catering to their happiness is taking away any hopes of yours.  I’m not the first to say that any relationship where you feel you have to tiptoe around someone’s feelings is not a very healthy one.

Boundaries is the most common piece of advice out there. Set your boundaries. Explain clearly what you will and will not tolerate in the relationships. Move away from home so that you have a physical boundary. But this is easier said than done. Consider a 14 year old who is still under the care of parents and cannot just move to a different city.

The other common piece of advice is recognizing triggers and avoiding them. Do you feel sad when they do not support your dream? It is much better then, to avoid the topic all together. Avoid topics or situations that will bring a scuffle or argument..
However, these steps don’t work unless we recognize the underlying cause for the need of boundaries in the first place.

Disclaimer; this piece talks about emotional or psychological abuse. Any form of physical abuse where your physical health and safety is at risk should immediately be reported to authorities.

Here’s what I’ve learnt from advice over the years. Many times, we know that someone’s personality clashes with ours. Family or otherwise. Yet because of the ties, we continue to hold on to hope that you will find common ground. It is this hope (read expectation) that leaves us feeling disappointed over and over again. And in the end, the damage goes both ways.

Take a situation where your parent expects you to follow the natural path of going to college, getting a steady job. But you decide to follow an artistic path, that may or may not be lucrative. What happens in this situation is that your parents vocalize their disdain for your chosen path. They expect you to follow the ‘correct’ path. Then you feel sad, because you expect them to support you. So this clash of expectations causes this rift because neither is meeting either ones expectations.

.Next time, before jumping into conclusions of toxicity, carefully assess the cause for friction.  You may find that you are playing a part in it. As mentioned earlier, what we chose to believe is shaped by our experiences. What’s the remedy? Take things at face value. Maya Angelou said, when someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them. So if you know that your parent holds firm a belief, accept that. Go on and live your truth and let go of any expectation that they will accept yours. The same goes for alcoholic parents. You could try and try to change them, but its only until they decide to that they will. So until then, accept that they are an alcoholic, and let go of expectations that they will see the light. You’ll be surprised how much peace this gives you. Only after you have done this step, can you understand the dynamics, and go on to chose any of the other two pieces of advice to follow.