If something is no longer serving you, let it go.
Everyone has heard this advice at some point; whether it’s from friends encouraging you to walk away from an unhealthy relationship, or a gut instinct that we are no longer in the right job.
But when it comes to family, there is an expectation to remain close regardless of complicated history, family feuds or toxic dynamics.
This can make cutting ties or walking away extremely difficult, even when it’s necessary to protect yourself.
Kerry Athanasiadis, psychologist and practice director at Be You Psychology & Counselling, believes it is natural to feel conflicted about how to handle complicated or unhealthy family relationships, particularly when it comes to parental figures or primary guardians.
“In early childhood we form an emotional attachment to our primary caregivers. This is biologically hardwired into us for our survival,” said Athanasiadis.
Children have a specific set of needs, including physical needs like shelter, food and safety, emotional needs like love and self-esteem, and cognitive needs likes opportunities to problem-solve.
Since children are not born with the resources or skills to do these independently, intensely close attachments form with caregivers whose role is to meet all of these needs.
“Particularly if the primary caregiver was not able to meet the needs of the child, it can be challenging for adults to walk away from these toxic relationships,” said Athanasiadis.
“They may not trust in their ability to care for themselves, or they may feel a sense of responsibility for their parent.”
How to set clear boundaries with family members
If you are dealing with a complicated or unhealthy family dynamic, you may not necessarily need to cut ties altogether.
Setting healthier boundaries with family members can be transformative, however it is rarely easy or straightforward.
Relationships are a two-way street, and you cannot resolve deep-rooted problematic family dynamics on your own.
Take responsibility for your own behaviour, but avoid internalising responsibility for how your family behaves or responds to you asserting yourself.
How you approach setting boundaries will depend on your circumstances, communication style, and the historical context of the current family issue. However, having a plan for how to approach the conversation can help you communicate what you need in a clear, assertive, and constructive way.
Athanasiadis recommends first deciding on what you’re hoping to achieve by setting the boundary, seeking the support of a counsellor or mediator if needed.
You should then describe the situation you want to address, being direct and specific about the behaviour of concern. For example, “you told me you would be home for dinner by 6pm but you didn’t get home until 3am”.
Express how the behaviour of concern makes you feel, followed by a kind but firm assertion of your boundary, such as requesting a phone call or text if they are running late, so that you know they are safe.
This can clarify the impact of the behaviour on you, without starting to throw blame or accusations which can derail the conversation.
Athanasiadis suggests following this by reinforcing the boundary and the positive effects it will have, such as you having better peace of mind, being less anxious, and being easier to live with. Throughout the conversation, maintain your position and stay mindful of your goal.
“Appear confident. Use an assertive tone of voice, make eye contact and try to avoid apologising,” said Athanasiadis.
“Finally, negotiate if necessary. Offer some alternative solutions to the problem and ask the other person what they think would work.”
If you’ve tried this approach without success, don’t blame yourself if you feel like you need a break.
“Your own needs are also important,” said Athanasiadis.
“It is perfectly fair and reasonable to take space from someone who isn’t able or willing to value or respect your boundaries and needs in the relationship.”
Even if this discussion feels productive in the moment, it’s common for people to slip back into toxic or even abusive habits.
“Abusive cycles typically involve an episode of conflict or abuse,” she said.
“Following this, there can be a ‘honeymoon’ period when the person apologises, shows remorse and promises to change. Then the tension builds up again, there can be red flags or signs of anger building, criticisms, yelling or gaslighting, and then the cycle repeats itself all over again.”
This harmful pattern can make it very challenging to protect your own needs for safety, respect, and healthy communication, while experiencing feelings of love, loyalty, and hope that the relationship can improve.
Since we cannot change other people, only ourselves, in these situations the harsh reality is that some space and time may be needed from this person in order to break the cycle, regardless of genuine love and care for one another.
You can love your family and still need space from them
If a person or relationship is toxic for us, it does not mean they are a cruel or evil person.
A family member who loves you very much can still treat you in unhelpful, unkind, or ineffective ways, sometimes without even realising they are doing so.
“Human behaviour is not necessarily always deliberate or chosen. People don’t always have the insight or awareness into how they are behaving or how their behaviour may be impacting those around them,” said Athanasiadis.
Many people act out in response to their own unhealed trauma or engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms they once needed in order to survive.
“Having said that, an explanation is not an excuse,” Athanasiadis said.
“It may not necessarily be the person’s fault that they are behaving in that way, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t take some ownership or responsibility for their trauma recovery, learn more effective coping, anger management or emotion regulation skills.
“We cannot control other people’s behaviour or force them to seek support, but we can certainly protect ourselves and set boundaries around what we will and won’t tolerate in the relationship. No one should ever have to tolerate abuse or hurtful behaviour just because the person didn’t intend to cause any harm.”
Our society places a high value on family ties, and those without close or traditional relationship structures are often subject to stigma and shame. This can lead to feelings of self-doubt, or invalidation of the harm you have experienced, especially once some time has passed and the wounds start to heal. In these situations, Athanasiadis said it is important to practise self-compassion and trust your instincts.
“If someone is being hurt or treated poorly by a family member, they do not have to tolerate this,” she said.
“If there are feelings of guilt or shame there, perhaps they are owning shame that doesn’t belong to them.”
Letting go of shame and learning to put yourself first is not easy, but it is often the first step towards creating a life that truly meets your needs and allows you to be your most authentic, powerful self.
Do you need help?
It’s important to seek help if you need it. If you need support, or want to know more about healthy and unhealthy relationships, White Ribbon Australia and 1800Respect have useful resources and information.
Your GP can also provide you with a referral for a mental health care plan, to enable you to access a rebated psychology or family therapy in your area.
You can also read some of SHE DEFINED’s mental health and relationship resources:
- How to find the right therapist for your mental health needs
- 7 relationship red flags you should never ignore
- How to protect your mental health during uncertain times
- Removing the stigma of seeing a therapist
- Why setting boundaries is the secret to better relationships
- It’s OK to not be OK: Removing the mental health stigma
If you need immediate support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.