Article links, Family Issues, Relationships

When “Family” Becomes a Sick System

I’ve found myself saying this a lot recently, and I’ll keep saying it if it makes a difference for someone who needs to hear it:

Biology and genetics are no longer sufficient excuse for feeling compelled to remain part of a sick system.

Sometimes a “family” (biological *OR* chosen) is the single most toxic and dangerous environment there can be. As a human being, you’re entitled to safety and respect for your personhood. If that’s threatened by your own family — GET OUT, get safe, and heal.

In this case, a “sick system” is one that manipulates one or more participants into remaining fused in the relationship, constrained to support the manipulative relationship partner even to the other participant’s own detriment (unhappiness, ill health, depression, risk of violence, etc.), but all in the guise of love and care. It’s a form of gaslighting, or rather, gaslighting is a common tactic in creating and sustaining sick systems: make someone doubt themselves so much that it only seems safe if they rely on you for perspective. Abusive or emotionally-manipulative parents and care-givers will do this to children, other family members, and to their partners; romantic partners can do this to each other.

One of the best descriptions of sick systems I’ve ever encountered is found on LiveJournal:

A sick system has four basic rules […] All of [which] work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won’t be able to go on, and you can’t not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can’t see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don’t have either, and you’ve been told that you’ll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won’t make that thing happen so it’s better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

The same author later wrote a companion piece to examine the qualities of the people most likely to become trapped in such a relational sick system, available here. These qualities do not guarantee you *will* become trapped in these kinds of dangerously-destructive relationships, but they seem to be the common characteristics of those who find themselves stuck.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks when its a *family* system is the pervasive cultural belief that because it’s *FAMILY*, we *HAVE* to remain loyal. This is absolutely not true. In truth, it never has been, but it’s one of the great cultural myths we propagate from one generation to the next: from one level of sick system to another. “Family above all others”. So how does a person finally waking up to the reality of the system’s destructive nature get free of it? Escaping the gravitic pull and emotional enmeshment of a sick system is hard, but necessary. Gaining perspective from friends outside the system is often how change starts, followed by seeking professional help if you can. Sometimes a complete cut-off is the only way to enforce new self-protective and self-respecting boundaries from toxicity and violence, and that’s a hard thing to hold up in the face of pressure to remain loyal, to remain compliant to the herd, to avoid ostracization from other members of the system with whom you have healthier relationships (but who conform to the systemic expectations).

One has to begin a process that Murray Bowen (father of modern family systems theory) termed, “differentiation”, the gaining of self within the system or, if not possible to achieve selfhood within the family system, then outside of it. It starts with creating new boundaries and defending them, of valuing yourself as a whole person inside those boundaries who is individually deserving of love, compassion, and respect. If those things are not to be found within the system through the larger change process of differentiation, they can only be found outside. A sick system almost never changes for the sake of the differentiating individual; a sick system exists solely to sustain its own sickness. That’s the trap, ultimately: you can almost never change the perpetrator, no matter how much love and care you bring to them.

In addition to Issendai’s articles above and the wikipedia definition of “gaslighting”, I also highly recommend the following readings:

Emotional manipulation: how to recognize and free ourselves from it

When parents are too toxic to tolerate (NYTimes article)

The Guide to Strong Boundaries

Love is NOT Enough

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