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What is Wrong with You? The Damaging Dynamic of Familial Toxic Love

A couple weeks ago I was out shopping with my daughter. We saw this awesome shirt (pictured) in the store Zumiez. I posted it on my story on both my social media platforms. Because hello, why not? Of course I believe in ‘F*ck racism’. If you follow me at all, you know this is not something abnormal for me.

While I love the message of the shirt and believe it’s very important, that is not what this specific article is about. You can find more conversations about racism and anti-racist work throughout our site and podcast. HERE and HERE and HERE are some places to get you started. This specific article is about what ensued after I posted the picture.

Shortly after this picture went up, I got a message in my inbox from a distant relative that said:

“What is wrong with you?”

My response to her message was, “Feel free to unfriend me if you think there is something wrong with that!”, and then the toxic love bomb was dropped. Her response: “That’s an easy way out! I guess I really don’t know you but I’ve always loved you.”

Wait what? hang on a second. You have always loved me? You’re 100% right that you don’t know me. I’ve had possibly 2 conversations with you in my whole life. As an “elder” in my family you have never taken the time to get to know me, taken an interest in me, or reached out to me the many, many times that there were really hard things going on within my family. Now, you feel like you have the right to ask me what it wrong with me while following it up with the fact that you love me? I don’t think so. Please explain to me how any of these things equal love.

The Toxic Love Trigger

Let’s just say that this message triggered me in a big way. Why? For three reasons specifically.

  1. This was the same kind of toxic love manipulation used by my mom throughout my life. I know the pattern very well.
  2. I’ve done A LOT of work for many years to get to the point where I know within my core that there is nothing wrong with me. There is something about that same toxic family dynamic that can so quickly send us right back though. I was instantly pushed into that familiar dynamic of shame and doubt that riddled me through childhood. Was there something wrong with me? Could she be right?
  3. Racism is wrong. The argument that went on over messages was about how being “colorblind” doesn’t exist and how just because your child dated a Black person once a long time ago doesn’t make you anti-racist. She was beside herself that I could use the word f*ck at all. I’m pretty sure the F word is called for in this situation and that there will never be a word strong enough to describe the atrocity of racism.

For this article though, I want to focus mainly on #1 and #2. That pattern of toxic love that had been so deeply engrained in me since birth.

Multigenerational Patterns of Unhealthy Love

My mother was (maybe still is, I don’t know because she’s no longer in my life) a very unhealthy person. My upbringing was interwoven with drama, a complete and total inability for her to take responsibility for herself, control, and very conditional love. You can read the whole story HERE in my book.

The feeling of “I love you, if” was always present. Though she would say all the time how much she loved me “unconditionally”. It was very evident that wasn’t the case. When I would challenge her, not agree, have different feelings, or try to be my own person, it was met with the message that I better conform, otherwise there was something deeply wrong with me. It wasn’t just my mother. My father and most of my mother’s extended family also had characteristics of this dynamic.

I know for sure that there were generations of physical, verbal, sexual, and spiritual abuse that came before me.

Their love had become a side effect of that abuse. Clouded and torn apart by shame, fear, unworthiness, and doubt. Love in my parents homes had become distorted. A kind of “power over” love meant to keep you in line. To not rock the boat. Because if you rock the boat, I may have to take a look at myself, and that’s much too scary.

I realize this now. I can pull myself far enough away from it to see where it came from, how it was passed down, and have some empathy for their situation without owning it as my own. But it’s taken me a long time to get here. And I can still fall easily back into that pattern if a triggering situation arises. Let’s talk about the patterns of toxic love so we can keep it in the forefront of our minds, not matter where we are in our healing journey.

Characteristics of Toxic Love:

1. It chastises you and then uses “love” to soften the blow.

Toxic love beats you down and then brushes it off with an “oh but I love you.” Sarcasm can fit into this category. “I was only kidding, stop being so sensitive, you know I love you”. It’s like as soon as I say I love you, no matter how hurt you are, all should be wiped clean.

2. It creates a “power over” dynamic.

Toxic love lets you know in a very sneaky way that the other person holds power over you instead of you holding your own power. This can be through financial, religious, or physical means. Through blatant abuse, or even through much more quiet and manipulative ways such as gaslighting.

3. It “love bombs” to get you hooked.

Love bombing has been identified as part of the abuse cycle. Though it often refers to intimate partnerships, it can apply to parent-child relationships as well. My mom used money and buying me items as a way to love bomb me. But then I was also always indebted to her. It’s a really good way to make you dependent on someone or make you “feel too bad” to stand up for yourself.

4. It threatens to remove love if you don’t behave the way they want.

I love you if… you are doing and being who I want. It ties your behavior to who you are and makes you hustle to prove you are worthy. People who have been loved in a toxic way by their families develop a keen sense of awareness around how they must behave or what they must achieve in order to receive love.

5. It tells you there is something wrong with you as you are, without the love.

If I stop loving you, you are nothing or you are not whole without my love. Worst of all it can send the message that “if I don’t love you, no one will”. You are whole and worthy as you are with the love of no one. Love is meant to add to the breadth of what you already are. Toxic love wants you to believe that there is something wrong with you. This makes you more susceptible to manipulation and control.

6. It hates boundaries.

Toxic love breeds people pleasers and people pleasers don’t set boundaries. If you get to a place where you are ready to start setting boundaries and the other person doesn’t like it, this is a red flag. In healthy love, boundaries are respected and encouraged.

7. It evokes fear.

A person is much easier to control if they are fearful of many things. Anxiety and worry keep us locked up tight. Toxic love tells us that we are not safe. It creates dependence on others for our safety. It can also create fear surrounding the loss of the toxic lover. What would I do without you? It lies to you and makes you believe that you can’t stand on your own two feet.

8. It’s self-serving and suffocating.

When I was in college I wanted to go away to a three month college program where I would travel around the world. It was an exciting and wonderful opportunity. My mother could not see the benefits of this for her. To have me gone for three months was unthinkable. I couldn’t go because she could not function without me. Toxic love can’t prioritize your desires if it doesn’t serve them. It doesn’t allow freedom to explore and roam outside of the the relationship.

9. It devalues your feelings.

One of the the most impactful books for me when I started my personal development journey around my toxic relationship with my mother was, Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. I learned to not have my own feelings growing up because my feelings weren’t valid or important. This book opened my eyes to the ways I had learned to become “gifted” by shutting off my emotions. In toxic love there is no room for you to have your own feelings.

10. It asks you to be the adult, but also not have any rights.

According to the article, 10 Traits of Toxic Parent’s Who Ruin Their Children’s Lives Without Realizing it, it talks about children being dragged into adult scandals. Children “will be forced to listen to their parents’ complaints, adjust to a “complicated situation,” put themselves in their parents’ shoes, help, tolerate, and console. Unfortunately, in these cases, children have no right to express their opinion”. This was the case of my childhood exactly. At 10, hold your sobbing mother while she can’t get up off the ground because she had an affair, never taking responsibility for her own behavior. Perpetually the victim. While I was never allowed to express my own feelings, boundaries, thoughts, or needs.

What do you do now?

  1. Open your awareness to it. What is it exactly? What are the red flags or warning signs? How has toxic love affected you? The first step of healing is always awareness.
  2. Embrace the fact that there is NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! I can’t say that enough times. Do the deeper work to unpack the lies that have been handed to you though toxic love.
  3. Set boundaries. Over and over again. Research boundaries, get comfortable with boundaries. And know that boundaries are HEALTHY and necessary for your own well being.
  4. Do the work to change the generational cycle. How has toxic love played out in your family before you? Often times it can become more of a family culture. A way of being. The more you can become aware of this, the more you can consciously break the cycle.
  5. Identify if there are ways we love toxically. This one is hard. But if we have been raised with toxic love, we most likely have areas where we tend to love toxically as well. What’s your go to in a conflict? Are you able to allow others to be who they are? The best way to not be a perpetuator of toxic love is to take responsibility for yourself.
  6. Remember that you are not a victim. No matter what anyone has told you or taught you, you have the power to take control of your own life.

Most of us have been touched by toxic love in one relationship or another. Don’t be afraid to do the work. Dive in. Learn and increase your awareness. And always remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you!

Sarah Monares

Sarah is the founder and creator of The We Spot. She is a Colorado native and she absolutely loves to travel yet, feels blessed to live in a place where she also loves coming back home. She has two awesome kids, and has been married to her hubby for 12 years. Sarah is passionate about helping women make authentic connections with their true selves. She is a counselor and a business and life coach/mentor, as well as a speaker, and author. More than anything she loves belly laughing, coffee, vulnerability, authentic connection, adventure, ice cream, horses, QT with her fam, and seeing women walk in the full power of all they were created to be.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Sheila Strunk

    It also teaches you that whatever worth you have comes from pleasing others. What you do, not who you are. It took me years to begin to understand that.

    1. Sarah Monares

      Yes Sheila, I completely agree! It’s so good to be able to separate that! We are worthy for just being who we are.

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