Dealing with Dysfunctional Families: How to Make Strong Fences
“Toxic relationships not only make us unhappy; they corrupt our attitudes and dispositions in ways that undermine our healthier relationships and prevent us from realizing how much better things can be.”
When I was about fifteen, Mom was cleaning out the deep freeze. There was a box of freezer-burned fish she asked me to take out to the back side of the property and bury. She emphasized that I had to bury it deep enough that the animals wouldn’t dig the fish back up once it thawed.
I was hot, tired, and grumpy. Like any good teenager, I took that box of fish about halfway to the back of the property and covered it with some leaves. Good enough, right?
It was the middle of the summer and within just a couple of days that fish had thawed and begun to stink. About the same time, our curious little dog got out of the back fence and tore off through the woods. When she finally returned, she was dragging that box of fish in her mouth. The dog was covered from head to tail in rancid fish.
Family dynamics are a lot like dead fish on a summer day.
We expect certain people, based on their title and role in our lives, to always know how to love us well. But that’s not usually the case. Those closest to us often hurt us the most. And if you choose, as I have, not to walk away from those relationships, you have to draw strong boundaries.
People can confuse emotional intimacy with honoring your parents. Your parents can love you and not know part of you. Just because a person is in your family, doesn’t mean they have access to every part of your life. This is especially true in a parent-child relationship. Just because someone has the title of “Mom” or "Dad" doesn’t mean they get an all-access pass to every aspect of our adult lives.
So what do you do when you’re stuck?
A friend of mine recently purchased a new lake house. Everything is perfect, from the yard to the pier that leads down to the water, the screened-in back porch, and the plush living room. Everything is perfect, except the neighbors.
The neighbors are...peculiar. Interesting. Different.
They’re extremely formal people. Very particular about their yard. The kind of people who take a nap daily at 1pm and put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on their front door.
As my friend says it, they are “fence neighbors”. There’s no sitting on one another’s front porches together, sharing tea or a smoke. There’s no invitations for dinner. “They stay on their side of the fence and I stay on mine.”
Some of us have family members who feel more like “fence neighbors”. You know the ones: the mother-in-law who always has a critical opinion, the dad who never has a positive thing to say, the sister who can do everything better than you. What do you do when you can’t build a wall? You build a fence.
- It’s okay to say, “I forgive you, but I need my space.”
- It’s okay to say, “I love you, but I do not want you in my life at this time.”
- It’s okay to say, “I have to work through this and I don’t need your help.”
- It’s okay to say, “I care about you, but I will not give you the opportunity to hurt me again.
There are some people who are fixtures in your life: the ones you don’t feel you can just push away. You can check in with them and offer them the basics. You can respectfully let them know how you are doing, without divulging personal details that make you uncomfortable.
What does this look like?
- “Yes, Mom, I am taking my medicine.”
- “Yes, Dad, I am continuing my therapy.”
What does this not look like?
Being so bold that you intentionally hurt their feelings or shock them with your recovery. Remember, you are the one going through recovery and learning these tools. They may not be at the same place or have the same resources.
It is perfectly okay to say, “Thanks for asking, but I am not willing to talk about this with you.”
You also do not have to be a doormat. This is especially important for people of faith, who foolishly believe that turning the other cheek means standing around, waiting to be smacked. You can absolutely walk away from a toxic person for the sake of your own mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
I’ve learned that forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to continue to be as close as you once were. If the offense cut deep, you have the right to set boundaries. You don’t have to be surrounded by or deeply connected to people who don’t support you. Surround yourself with people who are in your corner and believe in you.
I remember being a little boy and doing some dastardly deeds, returning later and saying “I’m sorry” and being told those infamous words, “Sometimes sorry doesn’t cut it.” Have you ever heard those words? They’re true.
Just saying the words doesn’t fix a thing.
With my mom, I apologized for not burying the box of fish, but the dog was still there, stinking up the neighborhood.
Sometimes, sorry doesn't cut it.
It is the same with our hearts and our minds. When you are cut to the core by something someone says or does, you cannot just take a deep breath, allow them to apologize, and move on like nothing ever happened.
People will hurt you. Even family. But you don’t have to live like a victim forever. You can say no to toxic people and take ownership of your life. It all starts by making a fence.
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