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.