When Family is Toxic

Why does family get a free pass?

We've all heard of toxic friends and toxic relationships.  

But what about toxic family?  What are you supposed to do when the very people who are supposed to be your biggest supporters truly make your life lousy every time you see them?  

There are a fair number of people in my family who I can say with 100% certainty that if I was not related to them, I would not want to be associated with them.

Now, just to be clear, I am not talking about my parents or my sisters or a select few others who really are good, genuine, caring people.

I'm talking about some other family members that never have a kind word to say.  

We can go months without seeing each other and still, the first words out of some of their mouths are venomous and full of hate.

If these people were my friends or were someone I was dating, I would be told by all of my close friends and nuclear family to disassociate myself from them.  

Why is it that just because they are family that they get carte blanche to say whatever they want and get away with it because "Oh, they're family.  They don't mean any harm!"

As I have grown up and (mercifully) left my early 20's behind me, I have left behind some seriously toxic friendships and relationships.  

A lot of advice columns and self-help books tell us that forgiveness is a virtue and that it takes a real person to forgive someone if they cause you emotional damage.

To hell with that “conventional wisdom!"  

Why forgive someone who repeatedly hurts you?  After a while, it becomes your fault that you keep letting this person treat you badly.  

It takes strength and courage to cut people out of your life. Even then you know those people are bad for your self esteem and self worth.  It is ALWAYS hard to make the decision to part ways with someone even when you know they are bad for you.

The fact that someone who is bad for you might be a family member makes it even harder.  

I am certain that I am not the only one who has that mean, old aunt that judges you for your wardrobe choices and tells you to your face that you're unattractive.  Or that crabby grandmother who openly criticizes your partner.  And career choice.  And house.  And sister.  And mother.  And dog.  (Need I go on?)

Stay away from these people.  Even if you're related to them.  Exchange pleasantries at family functions.  

Wave "hi!" to them from across the room.  

And, then position yourself next to that truly lovely favorite cousin you see once every blue moon.

Or better yet, if there is a family function you need to go to but just can't bear the thought of another character attack by someone that shares your blood line, call the local caterer and have them send over a delicious appetizer or decadent dessert for everyone to enjoy.

Be the classier one.  Be the bigger person.  

There is a scene in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch tells Scout, "You just hold your head high and keep those fists down.  No matter what anybody says to you, don't you let 'em get your goat."

That's good advice.  

And, when all else fails, completely remove yourself from the situation that is going to add toxicity to your life.  

Just because they're your relatives doesn't mean they can eschew all of the social decorum that keeps daily life peaceful and get away with it.

Trust me, I get it.  I get that what I'm saying here is uncomfortable but if no one ever tries to prove that families are always healthy for the people in it.  

But, everyone tries to prove that "family" is this magical bond that should never be questioned.

Question it.  If someone in your family, extended or otherwise, acts like the person in that terrible relationship you just had to put an end to that one time, don't put up with it.

Instead, go spend time with that nice friend who doesn't care that your shirt is wrinkled, doesn't think your ass is fat and sure as hell doesn't prejudge every man or woman you introduce her to.  

Life is too short for toxic people of any kind.  

Breathe more positivity into your live... one skipped family function at a time.

Sally Turkovich is a regular contributor to twoday magazine and also pens a blog for CBS Local. Find her on Facebook and tell her your ways to deal with toxic family..

Next entry: Falling in Love with Your Gay Best Friend
Previous entry: The Pressure Men Feel to Be Perfect


  • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Tue, 23.08.11 at 03:16PM

    Wow, Sally.  I’ve read your other articles with incredulity, but this one really takes the cake.  Or, should I say, it takes the extra appetizer or dessert.

    It sounds like you have an unpleasant distant relative or two.  I think we all do.  That doesn’t qualify you to provide advice to people who have legitimate problems or “toxic relationships” with family members who actually matter to them.  As you might be aware, many people spend years and thousands of dollars addressing problematic family situations in therapy.  Your simplistic suggestion that people facing these dilemmas simply “stay away” from their difficult relatives (while still exchanging pleasantries at family functions?  How is that even possible?) is naive and insulting.

    I also question your general thesis that toxic families get a free pass.  Since when?  Is it really generally accepted that friendships and relationships can be toxic but families can’t?  Is it news to anyone that countless people come from troubled families, and many struggle with difficult family dynamics for their entire lives?

    If I were you, I’d try to stick to topics about which you have kind of demonstrable expertise.  If you’re not an expert in anything, I’d look for a different hobby.


  • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Tue, 23.08.11 at 08:10PM

    Thank you for your comment, Powerwalker.  I make no claims to be an expert on anything other than what I do that pays my bills (which is being an eyewear stylist.)  What I do is write truthfully about the way I feel and the way my relationships make me feel.  I make no claim to being a serious writer.  In fact, I am a foreign policy analyst by who left the field to pursue other things.

    I became a contributor here to purposefully be the extra appetizer or the dessert to some of the more serious issues that the professional writers tackle here.

    I am fully aware that people spend countless hours and thousands of dollars in therapy to work their way through toxic relationships.  I’ve spent time in therapy myself and am fully aware that I am not a therapist.

    My question to you is why would someone with a toxic family member insist that *that* family member is still someone that matters to them?  Who has time for that in their life?

    My thesis that asserts that families get a free pass to say what they want is simply a statement of what I know to be true of my family and several friends’ families. 

    When you have a grandmother who pulls you aside at Christmas dinner on the day you got engaged to your fiance and tells you for NO PRODUCTIVE REASON: “You’re lucky you found a man who will love you even though you’re so fat.  You’re so fat that I thought no one would ever love you…” then you can talk to me again about my “simplistic” way of dealing with hateful family members. 

    Or when a relative tells my sister she is going to hell for being gay and should just force herself to sleep with men so she can learn to be straight, then we can talk again about family.

    I love my mom and dad.  I love my sisters.  I have a very deep understanding of what family is and what it means. 

    My point is that just because someone is in your family doesn’t make them FAMILY. 

    I am deeply embarrassed that I have come across as an idiot who has no demonstrable expertise in anything.  And for that, I truly apologize for wasting your time.


  • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Wed, 24.08.11 at 01:54PM


    I guess I have a problem with your statement that “just because someone is in your family doesn’t make them FAMILY.”  I think you’re wrong.  Regardless of how hurtful family members can be, they’re always going to remain family members.  And perhaps unfortunately, a person usually can’t replace her family.

    I too have family members who can be described as toxic.  My grandmother has made scathing comments to my mother for as long my mother can remember, and she has insulted me in ways I’d rather not repeat.  Yet, she’s the only grandmother I have left, and she’s the only one I’ll ever have (not to mention that in her advanced age, she needs my mother and me as part of her support system).  Your advice to simply “stay away” from these types of people does strike me as simplistic, and it trivializes many people’s family-related traumas that can’t be cured by merely walking away.

    I think a writer should wait until she accumulates meaningful personal experience, or has engaged in rigorous study of an issue, before she publishes advice about it.  This seems especially important when the advice concerns such a sensitive subject.  I would doubt that any reputable psychotherapist, for example, would instantly counsel a person with a toxic family member to simply cut ties.  Thus, I don’t think it would behoove people experiencing serious family problems to use your advice as a guide in their travails.  I’m sorry you’re deeply embarrassed by my opinion, but I feel compelled to share it.


    P.S.  I collect eyeglasses.  I’d love to see some of your designs!

  • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Fri, 26.08.11 at 08:05AM

    After reading “Am I a Female Chauvenist” by Anya Alvarez, I’m not so sure anybody can claim that the writers on this blog are “professional writers.”  Both Ms. Turkovich and Ms. Alvarez have difficulty forming coherent sentences and even more trouble exploring their own theses.  Nevertheless, after reading the works of both of these women, I will definitely be back.  Nothing is better entertainment than terrible writing.
    Keep up the great work!
    Hello Knitty

  • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Tue, 30.08.11 at 07:46AM


        Lets try and put this whole thing in perspective. I haven’t seen anything on this entire site that proports to be medical/professional advice. From what I’ve seen so far, this is a site about experiences and ideas, people presenting things to consider in our lives and relationships. If you two want medical advice, go read Dr. Drew or Sanjay over on CNN. (and if you believe everything they spit out, I got a nice bridge in Brooklyn you might like)
        If you haven’t noticed, about 30% of the entire internet is opinion and perspective (the other 70% is porn, thank Goddess) Apparently you both have problems with people presenting their own life experiences and telling a story without necessarily having a Phd. in Smart Stuff to back it up. I hope you are consistent with your stance on this and don’t watch Oprah or Dr. Phil. Neither of them have any credentials either, except abnormally large heads which translate well on camera.

    But perhaps I am reading you two wrong. Perhaps you could be that rare bird called the Professional Commenter, in which cause we should all be very relieved you are commenting here. I look forward to reading any future Professional Comments that you have studied so hard in school to impart to the proletariat.

  • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Wed, 31.08.11 at 10:13AM


    Thank you for putting into words the feelings I had about the comments on this article. 

    You summed it all up perfectly.  I don’t try to solve problems here in my columns.  I just, as you said, try to present a story about my experiences that maybe people can relate to and perhaps help them see their experiences in a new light.

    Your comment and your excellent use of “proletariate” made my day! grin

  • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Wed, 31.08.11 at 03:24PM

    Hey - don’t lump me in with Power Walker.  I simply enjoy crappy writing.  Example: “...but if no one ever tries to prove that families are always healthy for the people in it.”  THEN WHAT?  If one posts on a blog and purports to be something more than a sad teen writing her private diary (on this site, Ms. Turkovich is identified as a “contributor”) then I don’t think that it’s too much to ask for that contributor to write in complete sentences (see how there, i started my sentences with “if” and it was followed by a “then?”  Maybe I should write for this blog.  Lots of boring things have happened to me too).  Anyway, like I said, keep up the great work!
    Hello Knitty

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