When Should You Divorce Your Family?

Over Christmas I heard stories from a few of my friends about horrible things done and said by their family as they gathered. Some of it was just plain emotional abuse. Keli Goff asks an important question: If it’s accepted that we can divorce a spouse, why can’t we divorce a family member without being made to feel guilty over it?

While divorce is widely accepted today there remains a stigma around ending a relationship with other family members, often no matter how egregious their behavior. I was reminded of this just before the holidays when on a recent episode of Oprah Winfrey’s Lifeclass, megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes chastised two sisters who had not spoken in years. The reason for the estrangement: one sister tried to engage in an affair with the other’s boyfriend but was caught before the relationship was consummated. The sister in question had never apologized to her sibling for this transgression. Yet for some reason Jakes seemed under the impression that having this woman out of her life was a major loss for the sister who’s boyfriend the other one had tried to shag and insisted they reconcile. But the question I kept asking is why?

Why should this woman want a person she cannot trust and has shown her no remorse or empathy to remain in her life? What benefit is there in such a relationship? Jakes insisted on the importance of blood, which seems an odd reasoning to focus on when it comes to defining what constitutes a worthwhile relationship, particularly since we live in a society in which there are plenty of strong, healthy adoptive families who do not define family along bloodlines. He did mention the possibility of needing a kidney one day, which I guess is something. But by that logic children should never be taken from abusive parents and adopted by others because “you never know when they might need a kidney.”…

For this reason and others we all tend to tolerate behavior from siblings and parents we never would from spouses or romantic partners. But Doherty and the other therapists interviewed also believe we tolerate more from family members because society expects us to. Pressure, particularly on those who are religious, to forgive can often result in the mistaken assumption that forgiveness means one should tolerate unhealthy behavior for a lifetime.

But Rev. Jacqui Lewis, a pastor at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan said this is not the case. While she stressed that as a pastor her focus tends to be on healing, counseling, therapy if necessary and ideally reconciliation, “sometimes we have to break up to stay healthy in our lives.” She added, “I think in some blood-related families there can be such toxicity, such violence to the spirit that it’s not healthy to be in that relationship.” She also noted that biblical text does not support the idea of staying in a harmful, destructive relationship with anyone for any reason.

I don’t think it’s that complicated. I think genetics means very little. And I think that you should end any relationship that is emotionally unhealthy for you, whether that person is a member of your family or not. I know that’s an easy thing for me to say since I don’t have anyone in my family who is that toxic. But I think you have to be your first priority and the fact that a person is damaging you is not diminished by the fact that you share DNA with them (indeed, it’s often magnified).

Sometimes the decision is made for us, of course. An alarming number of my friends have been disowned by their families because they’re gay or atheist or their partner is the wrong race or religion and the results are often emotionally devastating. But I think that only underscores the importance of placing the emphasis not on shared DNA but on shared values. And many of those friends have built new families that actually care about them.

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4 thoughts on “When Should You Divorce Your Family?

  1. I will take my chances on the kidney thing. Religion does not ever take psychos into account. I believe people, regardless of shared blood, are in our lives to teach us lessons, some are there for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.- as the saying goes. Once the lesson is learned, move on and always forgive, yourself and them, which can be hard. No contact is often the only way they can be in our lives, as a memory. But NEVER give anyone the power to steal your joy again once they have shown what they are capable of, life is hard enough once you have PTSD. Toxic is toxic and many will never change. I can honestly say my door is not open. It’s been 30+ years and I don’t see they want to be around me any more than I do them. I can say, after a lot of work, I love each of them as conscious souls, here to learn and doing the best they can, as am I, and I can live with that.

    • Agreed :o) And I too will take my chances on the kidney thing!! Coming from a Catholic background I know how Religion can eff you up and complicate and totally confuse something quite simple. It infuriates me that religion is predominantly used as a crutch in order to not face your fears or take action to save yourself… they’re all waiting for some idol to save them. Although I believe in God and have had spiritual experiences, I do not believe God is going to save me.. support me as I make healthy choices – yes.. but not save me. it’s just another addiction they play out.. and many people live out their whole lifetimes as a martyrs due to the instilled religious belief that somehow suffering in shitty situations (and calling it love) is somehow honorable in the eyes of God.

      I only wish it didn’t take me 48 years to learn my lessons .. but I am proud that I did learn them and I am feeling energized and excited for my future. After all that craziness I went through I know I deserve a good one!

      • Yes, groupthink is very important in our society and others. Individuality is strictly frowned upon if it involves deciding to walk away from family or relationships that are not good for our psyches. I wish I had figured it out by 48, it took me 55 years to understand it was not my fault. That’s a longass lifetime of shitty relationships and lessons. I am still wondering if I can even function in a normal relationship since I never have. But I guess if God thinks I should I will be able to. Life is not about misery, it’s about joy. It just keeps getting better and better. I’ve been on my own for 3 years now, wouldn’t trade it for anything. So much personal growth takes place when you are alone and the only one to please is yourself, freedom is intoxicating and wonderful! God won’t save us but wants to live through us as we take action to find our purpose in life and make our dreams real and struggle and rejoice along the way. I wish you a very peaceful future, you should be excited and you do deserve it because you count too, more than ANYONE.

  2. Thank you, and I hear where you’re coming from. I have been alone for 5 years after a 25+ years unhealthy marriage, I hope I can function in a normal relationship as well!!.

    Instinctively .. I feel in time I’ll meet a guy who’s probably been through hell as well and has had the courage to heal and gain strength like me .. (he’ll get me and we’ll make an excellent match!).

    I feel that my work (purpose) will focus on the connection between emotional/ psychological abuse in relation to healing mental/ spiritual illness. I feel it’s not something I necessarily have to plan for, because it will pan out naturally from my own recovery. (I know that sounds like magical thinking but taking action on your instincts is also required.)

    I believe our shitty paths and our courage lead us to the right partner and our uniquely designed purpose.

    After all those years of hard lessons I bet we’ll be the experts.. teachers/ healers/ visionaries.. in our individual fields and we will help bring in a new healthier system. I also believe we will be blessed for the courage we have shown!! (in all areas of our lives..)

    But right now I am emotionally and physically exhausted, financially strapped and have no career options. I still wonder how on Earth that magic’s going to happen when I feel like sitting on the couch and napping!!

    After 48 years I take one day at a time and I still have incredible faith.. I guess right now I still need to recover and need to nap so I’ll be patient :o)

    Hey what’s a little more time after you’ve had 48 intensely painful years right!!
    (But seriously I feel like crying because it’s taken sooooo bloody long.) I just wish I had a frickin’ magic wand.

    But each day I continue to take a little action, slowly moving forward and trusting my instincts because good things are loading (I just know it) and in time it’ll be good (really good – all our dreams kind of good) because good lordy we deserve it :o)

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