Family occasions can be a genuine minefield for people with toxic families. (If you're not sure whether your family qualifies as toxic, go read some of my articles on toxic parents and whether you may have them, and come back; the feelings and problems involved in them can apply equally to siblings and other relatives.) If you're still not sure, though, watch carefully for these seven questions and whether they pop up over the holiday season. This guide is meant to be an interpretive map: family gatherings are often flash points for old patterns of behavior, and while you may have escaped aspects of a toxic upbringing or family if you live separately as an adult, going back into the fray may just create "an old normal" where cruelty, gaslighting, boundary violation, and other nonsense is regarded as acceptable. Knowing what kinds of questions toxic families ask is one way to pick up on it.
Here's one thing to remember: it is possible for family to love and be concerned about you without needing to hurt you. Toxic behavior is inherently hurtful and it is entirely possible for a family to function without it. This doesn't need to be normal. You do not need to sit through a 40-minute passive aggressive fight, combat aggressive guilt trips and invasive questions, feel useless when overtly compared to a more successful cousin, or be made into a vehicle for somebody else's drama.
If you need a guide on how to put up your boundaries and stick to them over the holidays, I've done that for you too. But for the moment, keep your eyes open, and if these questions start to crop up, I'd recommend doing some investigation into toxic families and how they work.
"Why Aren't You [Insert Societal Expectation] Yet?"
Possible Manifestations: "Why aren't you married yet? Why doesn't your job earn as much as your cousin Marcel's? Why are there no kids? When are you going to get a proper career? You were such a star in high school, what happened to that?"
Why It's Toxic: The weight of expectations around children in toxic families can be astonishing. Children are, in particular toxic situations, not regarded as fully flourishing individuals who can develop into adults with their own emotional lives and needs. They are, instead, vessels for the ambitions of others, and symbols of the parents' overall success. Some toxic parents will use the constant attempt to be perfect for the sake of approval and love as an instrument of cruelty, taunting or prodding their children about their "failings" rather than rejoicing in their happiness or attempting to empathize with their struggles. This is often built into a narrative of "motivation," where they're "just trying to find out what went wrong" and "push you harder."
Your Go-To Response: "Well, I'm happy and healthy, and that's the most important thing! How are you?" or, "Oh, thank you for asking; I'm glad you take such an interest. How are you?" and then refuse to engage with any further questions.
"Why Didn't You Do [That Thing You Expressly Said You Didn't Want To Do]?"
Possible Manifestations: "Why did you bring a vegetarian dish, are you still doing that silly thing?" or, "I know you don't mean that; I know you want to tell me all about your job."
Why It's Toxic: The violation of boundaries is one of the classic signals of a toxic relationship, family or otherwise. If you have expressly said you do not want to do something, say something, interact with somebody, or made any other request about a thing you're not comfortable with, and your family keeps pressing anyway (even if the pressure is loving and confused rather than obviously malevolent), it's a negation of your value and wishes. A healthy relationship is one in which people recognize the boundaries of others and respect them. Telling you that you don't mean it, that you're not being serious, that you can't actually be holding these beliefs seriously, is another way of trying to "get around" the things you're establishing as limits.
Your Go-To Response: "I won't be doing that." No need to justify or elaborate; just that. Over and over again if necessary.
"How Could You Do [Insert Reasonable Thing Here] To Your Family?"
Possible Manifestations: "How could you get that haircut/date that person/vote that way/continue to be vegan/want to watch that TV show/refuse to talk about politics? You're ruining Thanksgiving."
Why It's Toxic: This is a direct attack on your values, via guilt and the intent to cause distress. It's poisonous whether it's something that you are in fact "doing to your family" (not wanting to go to a religious gathering, for instance) or something that was entirely independent of their concern and is your own business (your sexual orientation, where you live or who you date). "How could you do this" is not a question that is meant to be answered; it's designed to make you feel like a traitor to a family group or belief, and to frame you as a conscious agitator and causer of pain. Unless you're going around deliberately causing distress to others in a lasting way, this is not a valid question.
Your Go-To Response: Get yourself out of this situation as soon as possible, engaging as little as you can. "I'm sorry, I don't agree with you and I'm going to go now as you're hurting me" is one option.
"Why Aren't You Behaving Like My Little Girl?"
Possible Manifestations: "What did I say about talking back to me?" or, "You used to love wearing dresses, now you dress like a boy!"
Why It's Toxic: In toxic situations, the construct of childhood is actually one of powerlessness. You're not supposed to have your own ideas or ability to move, to make your own decisions, or direct your own behavior. That violates their ability to control you, so they fight against it hard.
Your Go-To Response: "As a grown woman I will take that into account when I make my choices, which are my own. Now, what about TV?"
"Why Won't You Tell Me [Insert Thing I Want To Hear] When I Paid For [X]?"
Possible Manifestations: "I paid for your college, so I demand to know what you're doing with your time. I paid for your trip down here, the least you can do is be civil. Why are you being so ungrateful, after all we've done for you?"
Why It's Toxic: Control, or attempted control, is one of the most distinctive elements of a toxic family relationship, particularly when it comes to adults and children. The toxic assumption is often that payment for a certain thing creates privileges in others: access to information, knowledge about your choices, veto power over the things you do. The reality is that payment for a child's life and education is meant to be given freely, as a gift; parents holding it over the heads of their kids are not doing a healthy or helpful thing. (Many children of toxic families will experience this when it comes to occasions: if they pay for Thanksgiving they deserve obedience, if they pay for a wedding they require that it adhere to their tastes. Welcome to why I essentially eloped.)
Your Go-To Response: "I'm sorry, I don't feel comfortable doing that."
"Why Are You Lying About Our Past History?"
Possible Manifestations: "I never said that. I never did that. What are you talking about? I think you may be misremembering things, dear."
Why It's Toxic: This is a technique known as "gaslighting," and it occurs often in situations of severe emotional abuse, in families and in intimate relationships. The aim of it is to destabilize the memory-holder's faith in their own mind, and make them question if the abusive incident really did happen, or was as bad as they remember it to be. This can be surprisingly effective or just intensely maddening. The narrative that abusive parents and relatives can tell themselves about their history with you can be radically different to the one you experienced, and trying to make them reconcile that and recognize your hurt or pain can feel impossible.
Your Go-To Response: Do not get stuck in an argumentative loop; desist and get out of there. If necessary, write things down or tell others in order to keep your own faith in your brain.
"How Dare You [Not Show Off My Value For Other People]?"
Possible Manifestations: "I did everything for you and you tell Aunt Susan I can be touchy? How can you be so ungrateful about your family? Why can't you just dress nicely and do what you're told tonight? How dare you tell your husband about that!"
Why It's Toxic: This is a complex one, and is often particular to narcissistic relatives, for whom you function as a way to magnify their value to others rather than a person with your own value. The expectation that you will make them look good to "people that matter" is paramount, and if you fail in some way to do so, you'll encounter misery and wrath. It's normal for people to react poorly if their children tell a horrible story about them in front of their boss, for instance; but for toxic and narcissistic families, your behavior around others and distribution of attention to the narcissist is the only thing that matters or earns you praise. Typically, narcissistic parents don't actually want you to hog praise except when it reflects well on their parenting skills.
The other side of this is the experience of family secrecy. Toxic bad behavior like alcoholism is often regarded by a family unit as part of an intimate secret, one that can't be revealed or discussed outside of it. The notion that somebody would reveal it to an "outsider," even a loved one or spouse, is regarded as extremely threatening and shameful, as it exposes the family's weaknesses and makes it "look bad". Rather than solve the problem, the emphasis is always on covering it up.
Your Go-To Response: "I'm sorry you feel that way. Do you think the potatoes are burnt?"
If this stuff comes up, I know it might be irritating, hurtful, miserable, or upsetting. But just know: it's not you. This is about your family and their own toxic requirements. Now get outside, breathe some fall air, drink some good whisky, and arm yourself for Christmas.
Image: Weinstein Company; Giphy