Q: I told my parents I was a lesbian ten years ago and have been with my wife for eight years. They refused to come to our wedding, and, in fact, made it clear that she isn’t welcome in their house. This year I flew back East alone and spent Christmas with them. It was one of the loneliest five days of my life. I have a brother who’s prone to periodic, hateful tirades in which he switches from treating me like a close friend to a total enemy, and then he doesn’t speak to me for a year or two. No matter how badly he behaves, he always sees himself as the wronged party, and never apologizes for his cruelty. Whenever he does this my parents make excuses for him and even blame me for “provoking” him. This year I made the mistake of confiding in him how much I was missing my wife. He flew into a rage, accused me of ‘bad mouthing’ our parents, and promptly went to them and told them his version of everything I’d said. Christmas dinner was awkward, silent, and miserable. After I got home my mother sent me an angry email accusing me of sulking and being ungrateful for all the trouble they’d gone through to make Christmas special for me. I haven’t responded, and for the first time in my life I’m seriously considering severing contact with all three of them. But I feel guilty about it, and I’m afraid that, if I take this step, knowing them, none of them will ever forgive me or speak to me again. What are your thoughts?
A: Wow! You’ve been putting up with way too much from your family.
It’s common in our culture, especially among the “family values” social conservatives, to romanticize family as the source of all that’s sacred — nurturing, safety, belonging, unconditional love – and for some the reality actually approaches this idealized picture. But psychology long ago recognized that family can also be the source of all that’s unholy, and the task of psychotherapy regularly turns out to be to loosen or even sever loyalties to toxic and abusive family members. And while almost everyone these days accepts divorce as an appropriate response to an abusive relationship, there is still a stigma about ending relationships with other family members, no matter how badly they behave. Most of us seem to think that we’re stuck with our families for a lifetime, and that we have no choice in the matter. But does it have to be that way? As adults we have the power, if only we’ll claim it, to decide who counts as family and who doesn’t. If we define “family” as the people in our lives who have earned our trust and who nurture us emotionally and spiritually, then not all of our relatives are family, and many who are not blood relations are. You have the right and the power to decide for yourself who belongs in your “family of choice.”
If, when interacting with a relative, you constantly feel drained, angry, or manipulated; if you find yourself feeling emotionally ill, or even worse, physically ill (back and stomach problems, ulcers, migraine headaches, etc.), you may be in a toxic, destructive relationship. Most seriously of all, if you don’t feel safe (physically or emotionally) in the presence of a relative, then it is probably time to put some distance between you and that person.
That said, there are also intermediate steps between setting appropriate boundaries and the “full Monty” of divorce. In your case, for instance, you can resolve never to spend Christmas, or any other time for that matter, in any place where your wife isn’t welcome. As your partner she should be your first loyalty. You can also make a decision not to have intimate conversations with your brother, since he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to be trusted with what you disclose. Begin with a firm commitment to yourself not to let yourself be abused any further, and then find out how much distance from your family is required to achieve that goal.