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         Toxic Families

Toxic Families

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Thank you for your column today, I found it very helpful.  Although you wrote about children of alcoholics it could apply to any adult children of personality disordered parents.  I have been pondering what to do about my now aging PD mother and feel very sad she is unable to change her ways. 

I see how being raised by her impacted my functioning.  It is sad to see the impact on my siblings as well.  It breaks my heart I cannot be around these people much because their behavior is so hurtful.  Other relatives are judgmental that I am not more helpful to my viciously mean-spirited, yet ill, mother. 

It makes me cry when I see a mother and daughter in our age group.  I can’t count on my mother for anything, and she has only minimal interest in my two beautiful daughters.  It’s a real struggle, and there are no support groups for adult children of nasty, mean-spirited, self-centered parents.

The part you didn’t mention is how to stop the hurt that never goes away.  At my wedding I had to dress myself.  Graduating with my master’s degree, my mother couldn’t help me adjust my cap, and she barred my father from the event.  My father never called with congratulations, and my sister failed to show after insisting I had to invite her and uninvite my then fiancé. 

My first child was born and not one moment of shared wisdom, support, or encouragement was offered.  I feel utter aloneness when facing life’s struggles.  What do you do with the broken heart that this is the family you were born to?  Years of therapy don’t seem to take the ache away.


Adrianne, an old joke begins with a man going to a tailor to buy a suit.  The tailor hands him a gorgeous suit, but when he tries it on, the man sees one sleeve is longer than the other.  The tailor suggests tugging on the short sleeve to make it longer.  However, then the suit doesn’t button properly.  So the tailor tells the man to carry his head to one side and thrust out the opposite elbow.

Now the suit fits perfectly.  So the man buys the suit and walks out of the store.  Two other men spot him on the sidewalk.  One says to the other, “What a beautiful suit!  But what do you suppose is wrong with the poor devil wearing it?”

Some suits will never fit.  For us, time moves in only one direction.  Naturally you want a good relationship with your mother, but you cannot change the past.  You must stop expecting her to be anything but what she is. 

Novelist Philip Roth once wrote a line that goes, “Obedience is embraced to lower the stakes.”  In other words, following moral and biological rules is supposed to make life easier for us.  There is a moral precept about honoring our parents, and it is our nature to do so.  But with cruel parents, obedience to the rule doesn’t help.  Following those rules makes life worse.

Your relatives either are speaking from cliché and don’t have any real knowledge, or they want you to wallow with them in misery, like the friend who doesn’t want you to succeed.  You are not helping them by pretending things are anything but what they are.  You are not helping your children by doing that, and you are certainly not helping yourself.

Swiss psychologist Alice Miller has often described what it is like to grow up in a home with disordered parents, and how to overcome the harmful effects.  After reading three or four or five of her books you will realize, though you were raised in a damaging way, you can still have a wonderful life.  As the mother of two beautiful daughters, the dream of a wonderful mother/daughter relationship is within your grasp.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)


Suspicious Claims

I am the oldest of three kids.  I am 28 and my brothers are 24 and 16.  I wish I could say the years of sibling rivalry are over, but I'd be lying if I did.  My 24-year-old brother still lives at home.  We used to get along, but things changed when he turned 16.  He developed a violent temper which is directed only toward me.

It started with the typical bickering you get from any brother and sister and evolved into cursing, name-calling, and insults.  That further evolved into spitting on me, throwing food at me, and physically threatening me.  It's hard on my parents because they cannot control his temper.  They've spoken to our family physician, but unless my brother is willing to help himself there isn't much they can do.

I started dating an amazing man over a year ago.  One day he overheard my brother cursing at me.  He told my brother if he was going to talk to me, to do it with respect.  There have been no violent encounters or arguments since.  This works for my family because the fighting has stopped.

It hurts so much that my brother hates me.  I don't have this kind of relationship with my younger brother.  In fact, we are close.  But I wish I knew what it is about me that bothers my oldest brother.  I want to find a way to fix things.  Is there anything you can suggest to help me build the bonds of this broken relationship?

My boyfriend told me to realize it's a lost cause, but he's my brother and I love him.  If anything happened, I'd be there regardless.  I want to make peace but don't know how.  Is everyone right?  Am I hoping for the impossible?

Mary Jo

Mary Jo, years ago Wayne rented a farmhouse in the Ozarks.  Wayne owned a St. Bernard, and he and the dog would roam the woods together and the dog would watch as Wayne picked apples in the orchard.  One day the landlord decided to put cattle on the land.  Unfortunately the dog sensed the cows feared her, so she entertained herself by chasing them.

Wayne thought he might have to give the dog away.  A dog that runs cattle can't stay on a farm because cattle can overheat, collapse, and die from exhaustion.  Things changed, however, when the landlord bought two young bulls and made them part of the herd.  The bulls began to stalk the St. Bernard.  Her fun over, the dog lost all interest in chasing cattle.

Apparently you found a "bull" to end your brother's fun.  While we wouldn't call your brother's behavior healthy, it does appear to be under his control rather than an undiagnosed mental illness.  It also appears he trained you and your parents to accept his behavior, and he escalated his tantrums to increase his power.

Today many of us are raised to believe there is a fix for everything.  Experts claim to have a system which will put other people under our control.  But these claims often disappear on close examination.

The author of a best-selling relationship book admits he gets along with his wife by pretending she is as important to him as his clients.  The author of a book purporting to eliminate divorce, in fine print on the copyright page, specifically disclaims any legal responsibility for her claims.  And a leading researcher on communication skills, whose work is often cited in self-help books, no longer stands by that research.

In the United States you can recover money from an auto mechanic who fails to fix your car, but there is no legal recourse against "experts" who claim to fix any relationship.  The worst part is, when you fail to make their system work, you blame yourself rather than them.

The power to change this situation is in your brother's hands, not yours.

(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)


Vicious Cycle

My mother and I are in yet another silent period.  Again, it is her choice.  She is 70 and I am 48. 

Mother and I were reminiscing, and the conversation to that point was pleasant.  When I was a child, we had a caretaker with a distinctive cry for my brothers.  I mimicked her cry, and mom and I both laughed.  Suddenly, the tide turned as if I stabbed my mom with a knife.

It all has to do with mom's mother.  She died when mom was nine, and after this my mom's life was tough, going from home to home never fitting in.  Her father did not handle the death well.  Mom felt he blamed her for the death of his wife.  When I was born, mom named me after her mother.

My relationship with mom was not much better.  I was a behavior problem, tall and overweight.  At nine I was sent to live with my father, and at 11, sent to boarding school.  The birth name mom gave me was a name other students made fun of.  I wanted to die. 

One wonderful friend suggested, if it was so bad, why not get rid of the name?  So, with much protesting from my family, I created a new identity for myself with a nickname.  I cannot tell you what it was like not to be teased anymore!  As a graduation present, my father allowed me to go to court and make it my legal name.

Thankfully 12 years ago I found a great therapist who helped me look to the future, but my mom never has been able to warm up to me.  I am a fly she would like to swat and can't.  Add to this all my brothers' wives are thin college graduates, and you get the picture.

When I said my birth name in the voice of my old caretaker, it brought all this back to my mom.  She said, "When you changed your name, it was like you killed all of what I had of my mother, and I had to lose her a second time."

The name change happened 30 years ago.  Part of me wants to tell mom off.  Part of me wants to comfort her.  I am sick of trying to bend myself into something she can deal with, yet I fear doing more damage to our relationship.


Sylvia, you do see the pattern, don't you?  At nine your mom loses her mother.  Then she names you after her dead mother. 

When your mom sent you away at nine, she accomplished two things.  She deliberately punished you in the way she had been punished by life, and she got revenge on her own mother for dying, the event she felt estranged her from her father.

Some people say the family is the best of institutions, and they are right.  But the family can also be the worst of institutions.  It can be the home for incest, beatings, insult, and ridicule.

As John Douglas, the famous profiler of violent criminals, said, "In all my years of research and dealing with violent offenders, I've never yet come across one who came from what I would consider a good background and functional, supportive family unit."

The biological link we value with our parents only goes so far.  It can be destroyed by the lack of the important elements of caring, love, and protection.  You are an adult now.  You have to weigh in your mind what position in life your mother holds.

As you make strides to move forward emotionally, you must decide how much distance to place between you and your parent.  Your mother may call you selfish, but trying to make you replace a dead relative, and holding a hurt from over half a century ago, is selfishness raised to the level of cruelty. 

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)


A Perverse Confidante

Dad passed away years ago and Mom lives alone.  She is still young and healthy, yet she always plays the victim.  I am in my 30s and divorced.

Our relationship has always been based on a maternal dictatorship.  Even as an adult daughter I cannot approach my mother because her idea of advice is an order.  Since she makes life miserable, I withhold my personal life from her to the point of lying.

I met a wonderful man who lives out of town, and we have been cultivating a terrifically close relationship.  Mom met him once, but only to the point of saying hello.  Because I find sneaking around emotionally draining, I phoned Mom and confessed.

The reaction to this news was exactly as expected.  Mom called me a tramp, a useless stupid person, and a terrible daughter not worthy of living.  She suggested I get an operation on my eyes so I could see this man as the bum that he is. 

Neither my friends nor I see what she is implying.  He is well-versed, well-educated, with a great job and strong morals.  Mom said if I continue with this man she is writing me out of her will.  Our conversation ended with her hanging up after telling me to have a nice life. 

Because I know deep down she means well, I am torn by her reaction.  I feel guilty for hurting her, yet I am hesitant to put my life on hold because she does not approve of a man based on a 30 second conversation.

Why do I feel like I am a terrible daughter?  Her reaction puts a damper on an extremely exciting and happy time in my life.  I am faced with a choice between two people I love dearly.  Am I being selfish?


Irene, you feel like a terrible daughter because your mother trained you to feel that way.  Your news didn't hurt her.  She lashed out because she doesn't want you to have an independent life.

This man must make an excellent first impression because in 30 seconds your mother realized he would never tolerate her abuse.  She also recognized he would never allow a woman he loved to be treated the way your mother treats you.

Everyone with a satisfying life makes one important discovery.  There is a direction and flow to life, and that direction is toward growth, realization, and fulfillment.  Without those things it is not possible to be happy.

In the Greek myth of the Procrustean bed, people too short were painfully stretched until they fit the bed, while those too long had excess parts cut off.  Your mother wants you to lie on her Procrustean bed.  It's time to ask yourself, What is the true nature of maternal love?

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)


Breaking With Tradition

I have a problem with my husband's grandmother.  From the beginning, I welcomed and accepted his grandmother openly.  I did not question her motives and accepted her for who she is.

The problem is this woman is the source of gossip in the family and dwells on pitting my husband and his brother against each other in petty competitions.  This carries over and includes the wives. 

I am a born-again Christian and the peacemaker in the family, and I am tired of it.  I am tired of petty competitions like who gave the best birthday present.  I told each and every woman the gossip must stop!

Life is too short to spend on negative issues and fighting.  How can I teach my children healthy conflict resolution if this woman continually hurts us and starts fights?  She is in her 70s and too late to change I guess.


Josee, your desire to teach your children healthy conflict resolution is excellent.  It is a much needed skill, but it assumes at least a minimal willingness on the part of the other person to play.  Sometimes that just isn't the case.

So it is with your husband's grandmother.  She has been doing damage to her family for decades, and barring some profound event like a near-death experience, she isn't likely to change.

Dealing effectively with her is more like housebreaking a puppy than conflict resolution.  A behavioral approach is what is called for.  Behaviorism has strong overtones of manipulation which we don't approve of, but with intractable behavior it can be the only answer. 

Perhaps you will choose to praise her when she makes positive comments, and remain silent and ignore negative comments.  Or perhaps you will simply let her know you and your children will promptly leave in the presence of infighting or negative comparisons. 

Whatever you decide, keep to your plan as faithfully as if housebreaking a puppy.  You might also look for a book on behavioral analysis, especially one dealing with the rules for shaping behavior.

Many people marry into toxic families.  Spending less time with them and more time with people who value what you value will make your life more enjoyable.  Even more importantly, it will give your children the opportunity to see the difference between productive, mature behavior and its opposite.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)


Maternal Instincts

I am a woman in her mid-60s whose husband passed away, and I do not want to enter into a relationship with another man.  I have no family in town other than my daughter.

I always counted on the fact she would be around for me in my older years.  However, I recently discovered she may be moving eight hours away to live with her boyfriend.  How can my daughter behave so unlovingly and selfishly?

I always helped her when she was in trouble.  How can she treat me this badly?  I have threatened to disown her if she moves away.  What can I do to change her mind?


Minerva, don't enter this letter in a "Mother of the Year" contest.  I don't mean to be completely unsympathetic, but where is the sense of love a mother should feel for her daughter?

You are threatening your daughter as if she has done something wrong.  All she has done is fall in love with a man.  This is a small world.  With telephones, airplanes and the Internet, eight hours isn't far away.

Your daughter is a single woman looking for her companion.  Just because you aren't interested for yourself, doesn't mean she should be put in the same position.  You aren't looking at this from the right direction.  Instead of having just a daughter, you could be gaining a son-in-law and an extended family.

We don't threaten the people we love.  If we open our heart, we find joy.  Close our heart, and we find more isolation than we could possibly imagine.  Your attitude so far indicates your daughter has made the right decision.

(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)



Tell me what to do when your own mother can't stop screaming at you, when you know what she's saying has nothing to do with you.  The worst thing is she knows it, too, but she still screams.

Being a vent for her is not what I want.  No one would want that kind of anger in their life.  I hate it, but I'm turning into her.  I scream the same way she does, except I do it when no one is around.


Cate, one day a man with a problem dog went to see a monk who was a dog trainer.  It seems whenever the man moved toward any doorway, his dog bolted through ahead of him.

The monk and the man talked as the dog lay beside them.  Down a hill, a short distance away, was a gate.  The monk asked the man to get up and walk toward the gate.  The dog raced to the gate, and the monk called the man back. 

Again and again the man was directed to walk toward the gate.  Each time when the dog ran before him, the monk called the man back.  Each time the dog made less effort to follow.  Finally the man reached the gate and went through as the dog watched.  In this way, the monk broke the dog's habit.

Each time your mother screams at you for no reason, walk away.  When your mother realizes what happens when she screams, her behavior will change.  When you realize you have power over the situation, you won't need to scream.  At that point, the two of you can begin to talk.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)


The Right Approach

I grew up in a happy, loving, stable home.  My fiance was not as lucky.  He was beaten by his parents and shuttled from relative to relative.  At age 11, his parents threw him out, and he had to live on the streets until his aunt rescued him.  He is the youngest of four, with three older sisters.

For reasons I don't understand, he remains in almost daily contact with his family.  Family gatherings typically turn into insult contests, even in public places.  His sisters scream at each other, and typically one or more of them will tell me he is lazy and good for nothing.

Being an only child, I have no experience with siblings, but I'm pretty sure this is not normal behavior.  His parents are nice to me, but I have difficulty wondering how they could treat their children as they did. 

I don't want to be one of those women who makes him choose between his family or me, but I also don't want my own future children subjected to this kind of conduct.  He is a wonderful, gentle, kind man, but I am not sure I can deal with his family for the rest of my life.


Margie, to me dealing with people who engage in over-the-top behavior is like housebreaking a puppy.  You have to be absolutely patient, absolutely consistent, and absolutely firm.  Tamara compares it to being a deep sea fisherman who must maintain a constant strain on the line in order to play a fish and tire it out.

Whatever comparison you make, it is out of the realm of sitting down, talking things over, and being reasonable.  You must let your boyfriend's family know their behavior is unacceptable in your presence, and you must let them know that there are consequences if it continues.

For example, when insults and screaming occur, you could tell them if it doesn't stop, you will leave for the day.  Then if it continues, go, even if it means walking out of a theater before the movie has started.  Without your boyfriend's consistent support, there is little chance of success.

Very frankly, a good book on dog training is likely to be more useful to you than books on etiquette, understanding others, or negotiating differences.  Difficult people may change, but you have to be very patient, very consistent, and very firm.

(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)



When is it time to divorce a family member?

I've been helping my partner manage his father's long-term care.  This entails working with his brother who controls the purse strings.  My partner and I are both artists, juggling multiple careers to realize our life work and get the bills paid.  Our income is limited.

My partner's brother is a self-made multimillionaire with multiple homes and his own private jet.  We give what we can in terms of love, support, and managing round-the-clock care.  The brother attempts to make us feel guilty by saying it is normal for all siblings to contribute financially and why aren't we.

I found this man disgusting, repulsive, and nauseating when I first met him 12 years ago, and I feel exactly the same way now.  I have always pretended to have a good time and to love him, which adds my dishonesty to the picture.

The brother is about to limit how much money he contributes for his father's care.  He will loan his father the rest.  Once the equity is drained from the home and his father becomes indigent, the brother will provide the resources to take care of him.

My partner is at peace that inheritance isn't part of his future, but my life is thrown entirely off balance and I end up with many sleepless nights.  What bothers me is the distortion of reality.  I communicate with my partner's brother in writing, but he consistently misrepresents what I've written to him. 

When I resend the information again and again, he claims it never happened or continues to misrepresent what I said.  I showed the correspondence to a neutral third party, and she confirmed my perceptions. 

This man does not appear to be conscious of his distortions and really believes his lies are true.  We've tried telephone communication, but it is simply too traumatizing for both my partner and me to talk with him on the phone.

My counselor of many years has advised terminating the relationship, and my partner is also considering this.  What do you think?


Marc, the first time you meet an individual who tells you up is down, right is left, and good is bad, it stuns you.  You question your own judgment.  But there are some people who will look you straight in the eye and lie.

Because you operate from a basis of honesty and integrity, you are dumbfounded that there is not some appeal to goodness or some line of reasoning which will get through to your partner's brother.  But there isn't. 

Believe the evidence of your own eyes.  This man operates from the principle that he always gets to have his own way.  You don't need to understand why he is that way.  You need only accept how he is. 

Your father-in-law is going to be taken care of financially, and that is a wonderful thing.  You asked when it is time to divorce a family member.  The answer in your case is it was time about 11 years ago.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)


Favorite Son

My husband's parents own a dairy farm, and his brother works full-time on the farm and draws a wage.  My husband has a very demanding job, yet he is expected to work on the farm each weekend, count cattle in the morning, and does not get paid even for gas.

Our family time is nonexistent.  The phone rings and my husband runs.  The only time we get together is when I book a holiday.  I really think my husband is frightened of his parents.  They say his brother needs time with his child, but what about me and our children?

When we go away, my husband is so burnt out he is ill for the first few days of our break.  But when we are away, he is like a different person.  I'd do anything to save my marriage, but I'm not sure how much more I can take.


Mona, there is a South American bird with two subspecies, one which builds a nest on the ground and one which nests in a tree.  Occasionally a male of one subspecies will get together with a female of the other.

When this happens the birds live in great confusion.  One puts nesting material on the ground, while the other continually moves it to the branch of a tree.  The two never succeed in building a proper nest and usually this results in a mating failure.  Occasionally, however, they do struggle and successfully raise chicks. 

Good parents raise their children to be independent and self-sufficient, knowing that love is the bond which will hold their children to them always.  Some parents, however, use demands and obligations to tether their children.  That is your husband's problem.

There is no resolution to this problem unless your husband decides he wants to build his nest with you.

(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

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