Toxic Family Relationships

By Dr. Meredith Collins
November 12, 2012 • comment(s)
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The first time I heard the phrase “toxic relationships” I was listening to the radio.  The hosts were talking about eliminating toxic relationships from your life—these types of relationships are unhealthy, damaging, not okay.  And while I agreed wholeheartedly, I couldn’t help but think to myself, But what if they’re your sibling or your mother or your aunt?  Changes things just a bit, doesn’t it?

After a lot of family drama, and a lot of heartache, my relationship with my brother dissolved.  It’s been 12 years.  Twelve years since I’ve seen him, talked to him, laughed with him, sent him a Christmas card, yelled at him.  Twelve years.  He’s never known me in my 30s or in my 40s.  And I haven’t known him either.  He hasn’t seen my children grow and I don’t even know some of his.  I know his children’s names, but don’t know faces—some of whom I couldn’t pick out of a crowd.

In the beginning of this estrangement, it was very difficult.  Not a day would go by that I wouldn’t think of him or his family.  I couldn’t even speak his name without a waterfall flowing.  Those days have become fewer and further between as the years have passed.  But there are still times when I think of him, and it hurts.

One of the things that bother me the most about this separation is the reaction I receive from those who learn my brother and I no longer speak—speak is such an understatement.  Let me rephrase—who no longer have any interaction in any fashion what-so-ever in each other’s lives.  First, there is the pity in the eyes—the puppy-dog look with their head tilted to the right.  Their lips even purse up just a bit as the familiar, “Ohhh,” sighs in dismay.  I’ve yet to meet anyone that doesn’t have this knee-jerk reaction.  Seriously, no pity is needed. 

Does the bond between siblings have to exist?  I think I’ve proven it to be “no”—yet, if this is true then why do I still have those moments of longing, of missing my big brother?  Will these feelings ever go away?  It’s been 12 years, and they haven’t.

A toxic relationship can come in many forms.  Sometimes it’s with a friend, a partner, and sometimes it’s with a family member.  For me, I could put up with the drama, the verbal abuse, and the aggravation for only so long.  When I saw the fear in my children’s eyes at the mention of going to their Uncle’s house, I knew they would not, could not be exposed to such dysfunction.  I’ve learned that I can’t “save” anyone.  People, even your family, make their own decisions in life and they have to live with those decisions—but I don’t have to.  I don’t want to, and so I don’t.

The choice I made does come with a lot of consequence—a lot of unresolved feelings, and a lot of hurt.  I see my friends, who have brothers, and it’s hard.  They talk about them and I crave to have those kinds of stories in my repertoire.  My kids don’t even remember their only uncle on my side of the family, and I detest that.  I wish for days when my brother and I were young, and life was just simpler.  When we got along, when he stuck up for me, when I was proud of who he was.  But it’s not, and I’ve accepted that.  There’s the saying, “Time heals all wounds,” and I think it’s a load of crap.  Nothing is healed; nothing is resolved—at least not for me.  I believe time just makes it easier to deal with—numbs the pain that was once shooting through my heart.  Unlike unloading toxic friends, letting go of toxic family relationships is so much harder.  Perhaps it’s because friends are replaceable, and no one can ever replace my big brother that once was. 

Meredith is a mom, sister, wife, friend, teacher, critic, Starbucks junkie, writer, coach, and a million other things. She enjoys writing about the good, scary, funny, sad, exciting and all those other truths that too many people are afraid to write about. You can find her blog at or on Twitter: @FmTheSidelines. 


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Anonymous's picture

Thank you for this article. I've been struggling with a toxic relationship with my younger sister for several years now. I've tried to be patient and understanding while she consistently undermines and talks condescendingly to me, privately and in front of other family members. Our other siblings and our parents don't want to ge involved or pick sides, but their inaction is still an action. I'm left feeling like the only way to stand up for myself is to limit and avoid future family functions. Which leaves me wondering how to go about creating new memories to fill the void that will undoubtedly arise from limiting and cutting off these ties. I'm at a crossroads and I don't know what to do. But I feel that self-preservation is necessary and will ultimately lead me to my decision.

RLK's picture

Thank you for this article, it is just what I'm looking for. I'm deciding whether or not I want to continue seeing my mom & dad. Most of my problem is with my dad, who thinks it is appropriate to dump all his crap in my lap when I visit them. I suffer through an hour long pity party. Then I offer helpful suggestions, but he has an excuse for why they won't work. Then he has the nerve to yell at me. When they dropped me at the airport, I basically told them how I really felt about them for the first time in my life. Now I feel a bit of relief, but at the same time like Tina said, there is this sense of loyalty. My husband hates it when I visit them, I always need to decompress afterwards. Also, I don't want my children to see how my dad acts and believe that wallowing in self-pity can become a way of life. So sad, but now I know that I cannot 'fix' them. Hopefully, I will stop trying to fix them, it is a waste of my limited energy.

Anonymous's picture

Can so relate and glad to see I'm not alone. I wish I was one of those bloggers who posts pics of my family always coming over, sharing our lives together, etc. Instead, I can always rely on my family to rain on my parade, pick how things can go wrong, and second guess my decisions. You've reached a point I haven't which is that at some point, you have to accept that its not healthy and not going to change. Good for you.

Sarah's picture

Thank you for this post. I am at the point where I realize I need to break away from my parents. My brother and I have been semi estranged for about 6 years, which is extremely painful. My parents are divorced, but both serve equally toxic and cruel roles in my life. After thirty odd years, I finally think I have the strength to cut them off and accept that I am a very old orphan :(

Anonymous's picture

Thank you. I'm sorry for what you've gone through and I can really relate. For me it's my sisters, and I have recently tried to reach out and been smacked back once again. When will I ever learn? Hopefully, this time. Not even the simplest, ordinary thing can go well without drama and pain. What bothers me most is having the whole damn circle of friends and acquaintances involved. In a small town this is really a torture. I can't move,my husband is ill and won't move and I am stuck here. For the rest of my life probably. Was doing fine until I reached out. BIG mistake. Take care.

Anonymous's picture

Great post. Thank you for sharing your story. I have been estranged from most of my family for more than 2 years now. It was hard at the beginning, but got better with the passage of time. Good luck to you.

Tina S.'s picture

Meredith, I am so proud of you! I know that we have known each other for a very long and some of that time was spent apart. Over those years of being apart you and I had to learn to break away from those that were not beneficial to our lives. It was a tough learning experience and one that still brings heartache. From that heartache also brings us strength to be who are today. You know what I had gone through last year and the ties I broke with my own family, it was not only a relief but a sense of freedom. Breaking away from toxic relationships is a birth of freedom that no one can take away. I am still trying to find the strength to let go but this damn sense of loyalty gets in the way but soon that sense will change into a sense of self-preservation. XXOO

Jim's picture

You are so right that we cannot "save" others. We can only be available to assist them when they recognize their need to be saved. Until that time, prayer and and keeping open heart are the only things we can truly do. We may never recover the relationship that was once there, or wish there was, but never had. However, the future is unknown and holds unlimited possibilities. Never live for the hope, but don't lose it either.

Anonymous's picture

oh so true!!! I just watched a move called Rabbit Hole, with Nicole Kidman. OMG! one of the statement in the movie hit me so hard I had to leave the room. Mom and daughter are talking about death- does the pain ever go away? No, it is like a brick in your pocket that you kind of forget it is there, until one day you reach in and touch it and you are brought back right to it. That is how I feel about my toxic relationship I have with my sister. It is only coming up on 8 months since our relationship ended. my husband said that same as you. They have to live with their decisions but we do not. love reading your stuff Meredith!!

Anonymous's picture

You've managed to encapsulate true heart-wrenching feelings in this blog. Congrats and kudos for telling it like it is!