Is Your Family Relationship Toxic?

National Domestic Violence Awareness Month is over for 2012 and still seven months away for 2013 – too long a wait for many people who are suffering through violent lives every day. NOW is the time to be aware. Now is the time to recognize that violence doesn’t always start with a  fist. Many times it’s a voice ….

Close your eyes for a moment and listen carefully.

There’s a voice cussing you out in the distance. Can you hear it? Its pitch dips low then soars higher. It vehemently stabs you with words at a staccato pace. With each angry syllable, the voice rips you to shreds.  You want to run from its intensity and protect yourself from its debilitating blows. Can you hear it?

Now imagine that the voice which is berating, humiliating and devaluing you is your sister, father, brother or mother, daughter or son.  How would you feel if one of them were verbally dragging your self-esteem down to ground level? My hope is that you can’t imagine this. My fear is that too many of us can.

Though we probably couldn’t properly define it, many of us have endured relationships toxic enough to need a Mr. Yuk symbol pasted on them.

Remember Mr. Yuk?  When my girls were little, his green scowling face with the tongue hanging out kept them away from the bottles of bleach, cleaner and roach poisons I kept under the sink. But we can’t stick labels on people. And protecting ourselves from family can be even more complicated. Mostly because we don’t believe that we should need protection from family. I mean they’re family right? How do we form our minds to think that we might need to keep a safe distance from them? Or think that they might send us screaming to the nearest therapist?

Consequently, even though we may see or hear problems, we reject any notion of toxic because we don’t want to believe. We are like the women I listened to who called the House of Ruth hotline. Their descriptive powers of the abuse from their significant others were textbook perfect. Yet, for many it took more than a phone call to label him an abuser, just as it will probably take more than an article for us to label a family relationship toxic.

So, let me help a bit with a few of my own experiences and those I’ve witnessed.

Like domestic violence overall, the face of a toxic relationship within our family has subtle characteristics.  Sensational headlines tell us to look for the more physical issues. Think of the Menendez Brotherswho shot their parents

Mug shots of Lyle and Erik Menendez

Mug shots of Lyle and Erik Menendez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and John List who waited for his children to come home from school, then murdered them, his wife and his mother before he left town. The emotional and verbal signs that were probably present never headline on Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil or Oprah until it’s too late.

Emotional and Verbal Actions

The actions below can be considered toxic when they happen continually and over a period of time.

  • Giving you “the silent treatment” as a punishment for any transgression.
  • Embarrassing you in front of your friend by comparing your pimpled skin to her clear skin (or subjecting you to any form of embarrassment under the guise of “helping” you)
  • Calling you names and/or declaring that you will never amount to anything.
  • Denying you any form of affection or attention until you conform.
  • A daughter who declares she’s just blowing of steam by cursing her mother and calling her names.

These examples won’t necessarily escalate to physical violence. But they can tax your stress level enough to suppress your self-esteem, ?? you peace of mind and ruin your physical health.

Trusting your first feeling is key. Regardless of their smiles, apologies or denial, if you feel hurt, anger, embarrassment or unloved, it’s important to address your feelings.

Addressing the relationship

What will make a relationship toxic are the mounting stress issues that aren’t resolved and the inability or unwillingness of the stressor to make an effort to resolve them. An individual who is skilled at hiding his own angers and frustrations will not easily admit to anything he/she may be doing to you so addressing the problems may prove difficult or impossible. In that case, it’s important to rally for your own peace.

  • Keep a diary – Toxic personalities are manipulative. It’s very easy to get caught up in their version of events, even to the point of forgetting what we were frustrated about in the first place. Writing it down will keep you focused on your feelings.
  • Set verbal guidelines – Over time you may notice a pattern of emotional escalation when you discuss certain things. If conversation won’t resolve them and you aren’t ready to distance yourself from this family member, set guidelines about acceptable and non-acceptable conversation.
  • Suggest formal counseling – A third, neutral party may be the only way the two of you can hear each other. However, if none of these methods work to de-escalate mounting anger or preserve your peace of mind …
  • Distance yourself – Sounds scary. But it may be necessary if the two of you can’t connect to resolve issues.


In Baltimore, here are a few counseling centers that can help you alone, or both of you to address your relationship.

  1. The Family Counseling Center of Baltimore
  2. Family and Children’s Services of Maryland
  3. Family Solutions of Maryland

(Published first in WomanScope NewsMagazine)

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