• Jade

Family Loyalty - Or, Why Some People Never Tell

Due to some recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about family dynamics lately.  There’s no way I could cover every possible aspect of an unhealthy family, but these are a couple specific issues I’ve been thinking about recently from my own experiences.  One of the hardest questions I’ve struggled with when it comes to family interaction is the question Are they doing these things on purpose, or do they genuinely think this is normal?  Neither of those things are easy to accept, so in the end, it may not matter. Even if they genuinely thought the way they’ve been acting all of these years is normal, the hundreds of times I’ve expressed the damage it was causing to me and our relationship should have mattered. So in the end, even if they started out thinking it was normal, they should have listened to me.

Their refusal to do so, in the end, told me everything I needed to know.

I don’t feel like I’m communicating very clearly today. I feel foggy. Oh well, sometimes I write for me, so my fog is my fog. :-/

I have written all of these things in a parent/adult child scenario, but they could occur between anybody/anybody. It’s not limited to certain relationships.

Unhealthy families use behaviors, rather than words, to communicate.

By not utilizing direct communication, this makes expectations unclear so that the parent stays in control and able to appear innocent either way; they can get upset that the child didn’t perform to their (unspoken) standards and then withhold normal tokens of approval, but when the child tries to confront them on their passive aggressive behavior, they can then turn around and deny the standard existed because it was never directly stated.

Example: the mom has an unspoken expectation that she will be invited on an outing that the daughter is going on, but the mother never directly asks if she can come along. She may even encourage the daughter to have fun on the outing, and seem happy about the daughter going (which creates confusion later on). The daughter does not invite the mother; maybe she doesn’t know the mom wants to come, or maybe she just prefers different (or no) company.

The mom is hurt/offended at not getting invited and cancels their weekly Saturday morning breakfast date with no explanation. Or she may say in a depressed tone, “I’m just too tired to go to breakfast this week,” although that’s not the real reason. The real reason is payback/retaliation.  She may continue avoiding the daughter or intentionally withdrawing from or cancelling regular (expected) interactions. If/when the daughter tries to ask if something is wrong, the mom may deny it. Then the daughter is left confused, knowing something is wrong but unable to figure out what.

Strong children who have had other (healthy) experiences and relationships will be able to move on with their lives and ignore the mom’s manipulative behavior. If the manipulation has no effect, the manipulators usually stop at some point or another, although some continue their tactics for amazingly long periods of time, hoping to get a reaction.

Unfortunately, after being raised in these types of environments, most children – even adult children (*raises hand*) – don’t have the inner clarity about what is healthy and what isn’t, to recognize the manipulation and stand up to it.  Most children from this type of family will be thrown into emotional turmoil by this type of interaction, which occurs pretty regularly, and spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what happened and/or what’s going on. Staying focused on the parents’ emotional whims is exhausting and prevents the child to put their energy into their own needs, desires, and future.

Growing up with this type of passive aggressive behavior, with very little direct communication, leaves children perpetually confused and fearful of making a wrong move. It paralyzes them and keeps them from being free to be themselves and make choices without wondering what the consequences will be.  It means they are constantly having to focus on doing what they think the parents would want them to do (rather than what they themselves truly want to do) to avoid the backlash. The children forfeit their identity and free will and trade it for the emotional safety of their parents’ approval, which – unbeknownst to them – is something of a moving target. It is a no-win situation for them in many ways, since they are not mind-readers and can never predict what the parent currently wants because expectations are rarely ever spoken out loud.

In healthy families, rules, expectations, needs and desires, and even consequences (when relevant) are laid out clearly and everyone knows what to expect.

Unhealthy families speak in code.

Even when communication is verbal, it is still not direct.

Example of speaking in code: A parent might say loudly, “Gee, I’m really thirsty. {cough, cough} I sure wish I had something to drink right now.  {cough} My throat is so dry. If only I had some tea…” And look at the child pointedly. The expectation is that the child would get up and get the parent a drink.

In a healthy family, the request would be made directly: “Child, I am tired and thirsty after working all day. Would you please be so kind as to use your young legs and energy and get your tired old dad a glass of tea?”  Ideally the child would have the freedom to say yes or no. Even if “no” isn’t an acceptable response in a more authoritarian/hierarchical home, at the very least, this communication is direct and nothing was left open to interpretation. The desire was clearly communicated, instead of just implied.

Secrets are kept at the expense of individual family members.

In family groups consisting of all unhealthy members (including grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc), it can be nearly impossible for one lone family member to speak about or get help with an issue that the rest of them are in denial or disbelief about. It brings punishment from every other family member, often to the point of ostracizing the survivor. They may or may not literally ostracize the person, but the person will be emotionally abandoned and left isolated from everyone else. The family may band together to silence the survivor. They may treat the survivor as an unwanted burden that the family has been saddled with. They may say or imply that the truth being told is going to “ruin” the family name or reputation or destroy the family bond.

If the survivor tries to make a stand for what is healthy (e.g. sets boundaries with other family members regarding certain behavior) but attempts to stay in relationship with the other unhealthy members, they are often pressured, punished, criminalized, put down, and made to feel crazy. Speaking from experience, it is extremely difficult to remain steadfast and rational in the face of this kind of pressure, unless a person has a LOT of outside support and input from truly healthy people.

If the survivor decides to make a stand for what is healthy and chooses to do so by breaking off their relationship with the family, the remaining members often view themselves as the victims of the “mean” person and bond with each other over the experience of offering and accepting emotional support for the “ordeal” inflicted upon them by the abandonment of the survivor.

If the survivor attempts to make a stand, but fails in their resolve (either financially – usually due to being intentionally crippled by their family to remain dependent – or just emotionally), they are often patronizingly welcomed back in and condescendingly “forgiven” for their deviance – with or without a period of punishment for that deviance, which can last anywhere from a short time, to years, to decades, to it indefinitely being an ace-in-the-hole of manipulation that can be pulled out at any time to get them to get back in line.  For instance, if they try to break away again, another person in the family may say “Remember what happened last time you did this to us? This time we might not be so forgiving.”

Sometimes survivors who try to break relationships with their families will find themselves enmeshed in legal battles of various natures, from custody to inheritance to property ownership disputes. The family will almost always try to make the survivor look like an incompetent, crazy, mentally unstable, infantilized version of themselves, so they can present themselves as the strong and reasonable ones on whom the survivor used to (and should) rely on. They distort the facts to make the survivor appear ungrateful for their “help,” when in reality the family is toxic and the survivor’s attempts to escape it are their best bet for emotional health and survival. Unfortunately, a lot of families are very, very good at play-acting in this role. They are often very convincing to outsiders who are unfamiliar with family history and the circumstances leading up to the legal battle.

In most of these types of families, the concept of family loyalty overrides and underlies every other issue that could come up, even at the expense of the individual members’ emotional health. Betraying the family is the cardinal sin, despite the fact that the family as a unit does not serve all its members equally well. Usually it serves only the one or two members in power (who often vacillate between being at war with each other and being in confidence with each other), and the rest of the members are simply tools to be used.

This is why a lot of people never tell. Whether they were abused as children, or are currently being abused, or have some other problem or issue that goes against the family’s belief system, it’s too much of an uphill battle for those who have already been exhausted by the actual problem. The actual problem – whatever it is (trauma, etc) – is exhausting enough; they don’t have the energy left to fight to be heard. It makes perfect sense to me that sometimes there’s just not enough left over with which to tackle the family situation in a way that would bring an end that would be worth it.

Needless to say, leaving these families is very, very difficult — as is staying in them. It may not be the best choice for everyone.

But it was for me.

Cheers. ~J8

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