Surviving Toxic Families
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” -Ancient Proverb
“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” -Matt. 5:39
How do we reconcile these two statements? On one hand, we have what appears to be sound wisdom: don’t let someone cause you pain twice. On the other hand, Jesus is saying to take two smacks. But what happens when family is the source of our pain?
Many of us grew up in toxic environments. The ever-present stench of danger followed us from home to school to the park and everywhere in between. Many have endured abuse both in and out of our homes. Whether it be abusive parents, drugs, violence, or terrible jobs, we faced every day hoping for a brighter future.
We dug our heels in to fight for a better life for ourselves and our children. We persisted. But what do we do when the people causing us the most pain are the ones we are bound to by blood? It’s easier to walk away from a toxic job or toxic relationship than it is a toxic family.
In Black homes, we are often told that we have to just “forgive and forget” because “You only got one daddy” or “That’s your sister and you have to back her no matter what.” Elders are often given carte blanche to treat you and talk about you any way they want to. They are free to offer their unsolicited opinions on your growing waistline, lack of marriage prospects, or tenuous job situation. Your role is to sit there and take it. You put forth the polite smile to keep from going full Madea on somebody.
Tracing the Source
Abusers have no right to be in your life. While we are told we have to deal with this mess because after all, it is family, that is simply not true. Your mental and emotional wellbeing is valuable and therefore must be protected. It is neither disrespectful, rude, or wrong to defend and protect them.
Many of us carry a lifetime of scars and wounds that will never heal because of the people who are supposed to love us most. When I think of my biggest sources of insecurity today, they can often be traced back to the words and actions of family members. I believe the same is true for many of you.
In the end, we will always love them despite all they’ve put us through, but if the abuse persists, we cannot continue to forgive and forget in the way our family members may demand.
So What Do We Do?
I believe the first answer is to earnestly seek reconciliation. Romans 12:18 says: “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” At the end of the day, the gospel is the work of reconciliation. Jesus filled the gap between ourselves and God the Father, restoring our relationship to Him. Living in light of that truth means we are bearers of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18).
To live at peace with others then means we have to make an honest effort to do so. We go the extra mile. For example, I invited a particular family member to my gender reveal event, baby shower, and baby’s first birthday party even though we hadn’t spoken in years. The point here is that the ministry of reconciliation means we leave the door open. We are willing to forgive much just as God in Christ forgave much.
I am not naive; this is incredibly difficult. For many of us, the abuse we’ve experienced means we can never be in the same room as that person again. Therefore, peace sometimes has to be maintained from a distance. There are those who give us no choice but to live apart from them. Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” When it’s family, we hope against hope they will change but many times, they simply don’t.
We should not abandon the hope that God can bring justice to the injustice we have experienced and redeem the pain. But in the meantime, we cannot take justice into our own hands and we should step away from the situation assuming that, at least today, they aren’t changing. We shouldn’t force ourselves to grin and bear it if there’s any chance of creating a peaceful distance.
This may mean your interactions with your mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, and whoever it may be, has to be extremely limited. That could mean that leaving the door open for them is a strong commitment to prayer. This means not just praying that God would change their hearts, but praying for their wellbeing, praying for their success, and praying that they never feel the pain they’ve caused you.
The reconciling work of the gospel should always make peace an option in your life. That does not mean you should put yourself in the position to be harmed again. Trust is earned and once lost, it cannot be freely and blindly given back. Always be discerning, but do your best to seek peace.
I’ve recently become fascinated by the Japanese art of Kintsugi. It is the art of mending broken pottery with gold. For example, If you broke a bowl, you would essentially use gold glue to put it back together. Broken relationships are similar to that. They can be restored but may never look the same. That may not be a bad thing since many pieces of pottery are even more beautiful than the original version because of the golden additions. The golden lines form beautiful rivers that run throughout the piece, tracing every breakage and turning it into a beautiful work of contrasting colors.
As Christians, our hope is placed in a God who specializes in making beauty from ashes. He laid the model for what true and good reconciliation looks like. While we may never be able to fully live up to that, let’s strive for peace wherever possible.