Some relationships are deeply damaging and unhealthy for the people within the relationship. Unlike healthy relationships, which have peaks and lows, which have struggles now and then, a toxic relationship is poison to the people involved.
But what happens if the toxic relationship is within the family sphere?
Imagine your daughter telling you that every time she was with her boyfriend, he insulted her, gaslit her, made her feel small and insignificant, mocked her interests, tried to change her personality, deprived her of what she loved, cut her off when she was speaking, demanded her to always agree with him, ignored her when she differed in opinion, expected only adoration, and left her feeling stressed-out, sick to her stomach, and emotionally wounded.
Would you tell that daughter to continue seeing that boyfriend?
No. Absolutely not. No one would. However, what if the people involved was a friend telling you about an abusive parent? Myriad people would say, “But it’s family. It’s blood.” And if the family is involved in a religion, the religion will also be used as an excuse. “But it’s family. But they’re [insert religion].”
The excuse of “being blood” or “being family” is no excuse. People should expect more from their family members—not less. Families should be safe havens for the people within them, a shelter of love, hope, support, and affection in a vast world.
However, many emotionally abused children (and adult children caught in the cycle of emotional child abuse far into adulthood) do not have such birth families.
When Is a Relationship Toxic?
A toxic relationship is not limited to abusive boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses. A toxic relationship sometimes exists in the biological family as well. But when do people step over the line of “family being family” and into “a toxic relationship”?
In Sherrie Bourg Carter’s article, Toxic Relationships: A Health Hazard, Carter offers six questions to help gauge whether a relationship is toxic:
- When you’re with [the person], do you usually feel content, even energized? Or do you often feel unfulfilled and drained?
- After you spend time with him/her, do you usually feel better or worse about yourself?
- Do you feel physically and/or emotionally safe with this person, or do you feel threatened or in danger?
- Is there a fairly equal “give and take” in the relationship? Or do you feel like you’re always giving and he/she is always taking?
- Is the relationship characterized by feelings of security and contentment, or drama and angst?
- Do you feel like he/she is happy with who you are? Or do you feel like you have to change to make him/her happy?
Unlike healthy relationships—which inspire happy, contented feelings with only flashes of “normal” disagreements—a toxic relationship is the inversion of that definition. A toxic relationship mostly summons exhaustion, hurt and blue feelings with only flashes (if any) of happiness.
(To better understand whether your relationship is unhealthy, please talk to a mental health practitioner.)
You Don’t Want to Be Abused Anymore… So Now What?
If you awaken to the truth that you’re in a toxic relationship, what can you do? Because this site focuses on emotional child abuse and adult survivors of emotional child abuse, let’s focus on the answers in that light.
An adult survivor of emotional child abuse needs to understand that a boundary has been crossed. Somewhere in the timeline of the parent/child relationship, the child’s boundaries were crossed and violated. In some extreme cases of emotional child abuse, boundaries were not allowed to be established.
The adult survivor has to establish a boundary, which “defines what is me and what is not me”( from the Boundaries book).
“A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.” (Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No and Take Control of Your Life, pg. 38)
The adult survivor of emotional child abuse will need to learn to reclaim what belongs to him—time, space, emotions, a voice. The only way for the adult survivor to establish that is to take a break from the relationship with his parent. (Note: Only the adult survivor can determine whether the break should be permanent or temporary.)
“Adult children who have never spiritually and emotionally separated from their parents often need time away. They have spent their whole lives ’embracing and keeping’ [Eccl. 3:5-6] and have been afraid to refrain from embracing and to throw away some of their outgrown ways of relating. They need to spend some time building boundaries against the old ways and creating new ways of relating that for a while may feel alienating to their parents.” (Boundaries, page 38)
For example, a grown son who has been trained to call his father every day may decide to limit the call to once a week or once every two weeks. Or a daughter who has been trained to tell her mother all the details of all her relationships, including her husband, will no longer share all the details of everything for the sake of her privacy, her friends’ privacy, and establishing separate relationships from her mother.
Learn to say no, learn to take back your life
An emotionally abused adult child will not realize the power in the word No. They have spent most of their life saying Yes to the abusive parents… or if the adult child ever said No, the adult child was punished with the silent treatment or verbal abuse for speaking out and therefore has learned that saying No hurts.
But saying No is liberating.
“The most basic boundary-setting word is no. It lets others know that you exist apart from them and that you are in control of you. Being clear about your no—and your yes—is a theme that runs throughout the Bible (Matt. 5:37; James 5:12).
“People with poor boundaries struggle with saying no to the control, pressure, demands, and sometimes the real needs of others. They feel that if they no to someone, they will endanger their relationship with that person, so they passively comply but inwardly resent. Sometimes, a person is pressuring you to do something; other times, the pressure comes from your own sense of what you ‘should’ do. If you cannot say no to this external or internal pressure, you have lost control of your property and are not enjoying the ‘fruit of self control.'” (Boundaries)
At The Invisible Scar, we cannot stress enough the need for an adult survivor of emotional child abuse to find professional help, whether from a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or minister. Just make sure to interview the professional first, so you know the therapist’s bias, whether you two are a good fit, etc.
Help can also come in the form of knowledge. Read books about emotional child abuse, read about healthy relationships, etc.
Find support in other people
Turn to good, healthy supportive friends during this boundary-setting time.
During the painful first stage of realizing the truth of the abusive relationship, you will need strong, good, caring friends who believe you, who understand your need for healing, and who will love you. People are social beings, and we need to surround ourselves with good, loving folks.
Don’t immediately run back
Once you’ve begun establishing your boundaries, the abusive parent may react by: increasing the abuse, ignoring you completely, or changing immediately.
For now, let’s look at the last one: changing immediately.
Long-lasting change does not happen immediately. How many cases have been shown on the news of people in toxic relationship who returned to their abusers when they thought it was safe? They often ran back as soon as the abuser expressed an “I’m sorry.”
Inward change does not happen so quickly.
“Many people are too quick to trust someone in the name of forgiveness and not make sure that the other is producing ‘fruit in keeping with repentance.’ To continue to open yourself up emotionally to an abusive or addicted person without seeing true change is foolish.
“You should not continue to set yourself up for hurt and disappointment. If you have been in an abusive relationship, you should wait until it is safe and until real patterns of change have been demonstrated before you go back.“
When Your New Boundaries Are Constantly Violated
When faced with adult children who are establishing long-needed boundaries, some emotionally abusive parents will refuse to acknowledge any hurt or damage that they caused, negate responsibility within the relationship, and in some cases either escalate the abuse or cut the adult child out of their lives until the adult child returns to the long-established patterns of behavior.
“There are truly some parents who are too toxic and are what I call the “untreatables.” If someone is abusive and cruel and continues to be without remorse or empathy, it cannot be healthy for anyone to be around that person. That’s OK and important to know.” (Karyl McBride, Psychology Today)
In such extreme cases, the adult child may choose to go “no contact.”
“Going No Contact (NC) is not necessarily a decision to stop loving the person. It is a decision to stop struggling with them and let them be who they are going to be while not letting their behavior hurt you any more.” (Out of the FOG website)
That point merits repeating. In myriad cases, an adult child who goes NC with a parent is choosing to do so to protect himself, protect his self-esteem and guard his self-worth. (In rare cases, adult children may willingly go NC to hurt their parents over trivial matters, but this website concerns itself with adults who have been emotionally abused by their parents and thus have good reasons for considering NC.)
In most cases of NC, the abusive parent has repeatedly shown himself to be neither remorseful nor willing to change or acknowledge their destructive behavior. The adult child, for sake of emotional survival, cannot have contact with the abusive, toxic parent.
Benefits of Going NC or LC (Low Contact)
Why go NC? Aside from no longer putting himself in the path of constant maltreatment, the adult child of an emotionally abusive parent will enjoy:
- A sense of peace (All the jitters of constantly expecting an emotional ambush will be gone.)
- A sense of empowerment (For the first time, the adult child is speaking up in self-defense and protecting himself.)
- A sense of being a real grown-up (and no longer having your life dictated by your parents)
- Freedom (to make adult choices)
- Holidays that you can enjoy (without the drama, the demands, the painful interactions)
- A sense of being more you
- A better use of time (in doing what the adult child wants, needs, or plans to do—rather than the abusive parent’s plans
- Growing more comfortable in your skin
- Discovering new facets of their personality that were buried beneath the abuse
- New fulfilling relationships with emotionally healthy people
- A sense of wonder in discovering new things that the abusive parent had disallowed
- Joy in being untethered and a true grown up
- A voice that speaks the truth
- A voice that says what he doesn’t like, what he does like, what hurts him, what gives him joy—all without fear of repercussions
- A better view of the world (and less feeling like the world is going to ambush you with its demands, pains, and abuse)
Some of those benefits will come immediately from putting a halt to the abuse. Other benefits, such as finding one’s voice, may take time and therapy…. People who come out of deeply emotionally abusive relationships often have a form of PSTD (post-traumatic stress disorder), so the movement from feeling abused to feeling happy will take time, patience, and support.
Keep Your Ground
An adult child of emotionally abusive parents who has finally set up boundaries is disrupting the landscape of the adult parents’ lives. Depending on the abusive parents’ personalities, they will react in some or all these ways: The abusive parents will try to manipulate the adult child back to the fold, play the “we’re old” card, use friends and other family members to get the adult child back into the appointed role, threaten the adult child with outrageous statements, smear the adult child’s reputation, spread gossip about the adult child to explain the adult child’s “sudden disappearance” in the parents’ lives, ignore the child as “punishment” for setting boundaries, send siblings as flying monkeys to badger the adult child back, use the “grandchildren miss me so much” card, send abusive cards, leave cruel messages, etc.
That all will distress the adult child… but, in the end, all that matters is that the adult child protects his heart and guard the treasure that God made him to be (rather than serve in the image that the adult parent attempted to make him).
True friends will listen to your story and believe you. True therapists will help you in your new life as a “real grown-up” freed from the clutches of the abusive parent.
Keep your ground. And remember the following C.S. Lewis quote:
Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications.