Should You Disengage From Your Emotionally-Abusive Family?

06/22/2015 06:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Serena grew up in a family where she was the caretaker. The oldest of four, Serena was the only member of her family capable of deep caring, empathy and compassion. As a result, she was always attempting to protect her brother and sisters from her father's physical and emotional abuse. Even her mother learned to turn to her for help and protection. Because everyone learned to rely on Serena, when things didn't turn out the way they wanted, Serena was the one they blamed.

Serena became an invisible child. Because of her acute sensitivity to other's feelings and needs, her feelings and needs went unnoticed. Everyone in her family wanted to take from her, but no one wanted to give to her. Serena was not a happy child.

As an adult, Serena did much Inner Bonding work. She discovered that she had been ignoring her own feelings and needs while caretaking others. As she learned to take loving care of herself and let go of taking responsibility for everyone else's feelings and needs, her family became furious with her. How dare she take care of herself instead of them! The blame that Serena had always experienced from her family intensified. Nothing Serena said had any impact on her family's behavior toward her. They refused to support her in taking care of herself. They just wanted her back in the old system.

Serena finally decided that, although she loved her family, she needed to disengage from them. She realized that it was not loving to herself to allow her family to continue to treat her badly. She was unwilling to continue the old family system, and she realized that she had no control over how her family treated her. Serena broke almost all communication with her family for three years.

Of course, this caused her parents and siblings to blame her even more. During the few times that Serena communicated with her mother, the hostility was extreme. "What is the matter with you? Have you gone nuts? How can you abandon your family? You are being so selfish! Don't you care about us?" Serena knew that it was useless to try to explain. Her mother didn't really want to know the answers to these questions -- she just wanted to have control over Serena.

It took three years before anyone in her family started to treat Serena with any sense of respect. It took three years before they accepted that they could no longer treat her badly if they wanted a relationship with her. Presently, Serena has a much better relationship with her family. While they will never have the deep caring and compassion for her that she has for them, they no longer expect her to take responsibility for their feelings and needs, and they no longer blame her for their problems.

The question of disengaging from one's family, or from a particular member of the family, often comes up in my counseling work with individuals and couples. Many people have been taught that it is wrong to pull away from one's family -- that one should keep the family unit intact at all costs. Many people have been taught that it is loving to sacrifice themselves for their family, and selfish to take care of themselves.

The problem with these beliefs is that it gives the person who is being blamed and disrespected by their family, no way out. Many of the people I work with, who have problems with their families, know that they would never allow a stranger to treat them the way their family treats them. Yet they feel afraid if they think about speaking up for themselves, and guilty if they think about disengaging from an emotionally abusive family relationship.

Sometimes the most loving act, both for oneself and for others, is to disengage from an abusive relationship. It is not loving to ourselves to allow ourselves to be treated disrespectfully, and it is not loving to others to allow them to treat us disrespectfully. Serena's whole family is much better off today than before she disengaged, even though they were furious at her for it. Through her Inner Bonding practice, Serena discovered that it is actually very loving to them to expect them to treat her with caring and respect.

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