Welcome to My Dysfunctional Family

As we start the new year, I was reflecting on my goals for 2019, and that got me thinking about how much can happen in a year. A few years ago, my husband and I started a tradition of writing down Happy Thoughts throughout the year and stuffing them into a jar, then we read them to each other during the first few days of the new year. We’ve been doing that this week, and I’m realizing how much I have to be grateful for, and I don’t want to take anything for granted.

I grew up in a dysfunctional family, so it’s amazing that it took me as long as it did to recognize it when I found myself entrapped in it in my adult life. What’s more puzzling is that, even after my own experience, I didn’t see my best friend’s (now my husband) Stockholm Syndrome for what it was. In my defense, I was still licking my wounds and trying to make sense of what I had been through. I was also blinded by optimism and a renewed sense of hope.

So many people feel obligated to maintain unhealthy relationships because of a little shared DNA, and I’ll never completely understand that. I left my abuser, and I had no trouble disengaging from my narcissistic father. (I came to see both of them for what they were at roughly the same time). DNA? That’s superficial. Toxic is toxic, and I refuse to feel obligated to enable a narcissist or to stress myself out.

As of this writing, I haven’t spoken to my father in almost ten years (same for the narcopath I lived with at that time; it was a clean break, no further communication), and it hasn’t been difficult at all. My husband went no-contact with his narcissistic mother a few years ago, and he doesn’t miss her either. I realize not everyone has an epiphany moment, or their toxic relative (or lover) does something so unforgivable to them, that trying to salvage the relationship is no longer an option, but I want to tell you that not having to deal with toxicity in your personal life on a regular basis is a much more peaceful way to exist.

Whether it’s a lover, a parent, sibling, or even a child, no one should have to endure emotional, psychological, or physical abuse out of a sense of duty or obligation. It may be difficult, but you can remove the negativity from your life. You are good enough, and your needs are just as important as anyone else’s. You can have hope and aspirations. You can live up to your full potential.

On Forgiveness and Confrontations

Cover of "Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their...
Cover via Amazon

I am currently reading Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward, PhD. Most of her information and advice is spot on. However, I disagree with her on a couple of issues. Before I get into those, I should probably fill you in on why I’m reading this book.

As stated in my introduction post, I lived with a sociopath for a number of years, and my significant other was ensnared by one for over a decade. If you’re reading this, I assume you’ve had your own major encounter with a psychopath, or perhaps you have a loved one who has. And if that’s the case, you may already have learned that the reason some of us get involved with sociopaths is because we’re trying to resolve childhood issues. We had high conflict parents, and we got stuck in dysfunction; we don’t know what normal, healthy relationships are all about.

As far as my parents are concerned, I’ve already made my peace. When I say that, I mean I’ve made my peace within myself and, as a result of that, I was able to make my peace with them. (I want to point out that this was partly a result of the relationship I had with the psychopath. As I was discovering what he was, I realized he and my father seemed to have come from the same template. So it gave me some deep insight into the relationship I had with him, as well).

My SO comes from a dysfunctional family also, and has made significant progress as far as understanding how that has affected his life and his choices. He has learned to recognize when he is being manipulated, and he stands up for himself. We both still read books like this one to continue to gain valuable insight. For me the subject is still fascinating.

Getting back on topic, Dr. Forward tells her clients that forgiveness is not essential. I respectfully disagree. Unfortunately, many people seem to think forgiveness and absolution are one and the same. They are not. Forgiveness does not equal absolution. The two are not synonymous. Forgiving someone does not mean that you will continue to allow them to abuse you.

It’s been my experience though that forgiveness is a process. You cannot simply state that you forgive your abuser and expect that magically, all of the hurt from the past will disappear, you will have your self esteem back, your toxic parent(s) will be grief stricken at ever having hurt you and will become the perfect parent(s), etc. Strangely, many people seem to think that that’s how forgiveness works. You are not Jeannie, you cannot simply blink forgiveness into being. It has to come naturally. For me, it’s been part of the healing process. It gradually started to happen on its own, without any conscious effort on my part. (Other than struggling to make sense of everything and to recover from it all – that was a conscious effort).

I realized I had forgiven these people when I got to the point where I could think of them, and unpleasant incidents from our past, without feeling strong emotions. Now, when I recall traumatic incidents from childhood, they almost seem as if they happened to someone else. I don’t feel anger, confusion, emotional distress, helplessness, hatred or a wish to lash out. Sometimes there’s a little sadness at the fact the we humans can be so cruel, but that’s not what this post is about.

The second thing I disagree with Dr. Forward on is her urging all of her clients to confront their toxic parents. I don’t think a confrontation is necessary for everyone. She suggests putting it in writing or arranging a face to face meeting. The patient basically outlines the abuses/neglect they suffered, how they were affected by it, and that they are not going to tolerate any ongoing abuse or disrespect. I think there are plenty of people who could benefit from writing a letter that they never intend to send. (Writing in a journal is another option).

Dr. Forward suggests that the confrontation is to prove to the patient that he/she can stand up to their parents. In my experience, in order to do that, you must set solid boundaries and stop allowing the parents (or anyone else for that matter) to cross those boundaries. When you can do that, then you know that you are okay. When you no longer allow them to abuse you or treat you with disrespect, when you can calmly tell them that you’re going to walk out/hang up if they keep acting like children, when you can refuse to give in to guilt and manipulations, when they are no longer able to push your buttons, then you are fine.

You can stand up to your parents without confronting them with the past. In some instances, a confrontation may make things worse. For me, I simply don’t see the point – it wouldn’t be helpful to me at all. Everyone is different though and, if you feel the need for a confrontation, Toxic Parents will help you prepare for one. Check your local library, or you can purchase the book on Amazon or e-bay.

There’s one more thing I want to mention. Dr. Forward gives examples of how toxic parents typically respond during these face to face encounters. Not surprisingly, they react exactly the same way personality disordered spouses/lovers do, when we call them on their bullshit. Essentially, they respond with denial, blame shifting, false apologies – in hopes of sweeping everything under the rug, making excuses/rationalizing, the martyr routine, and – my personal fave – the whiny, melodramatic why-are-you-being-mean-to-me crap. I couldn’t help noticing the pattern, and it made me wonder if Dr. F would also advise her patients to have a face off with an ex spouse/lover. I doubt she would, and doing so with one’s parents hardly seems like it would be particularly helpful for most people either.

I’ve comprised a short list of books that have been helpful to me during my recovery. If you’re interested, you can view it here.