By Elliot McKernon

Family is complicated. We all have different relationships with our parents, siblings, children, and extended family. Many feel a sense of duty, to be loyal and support all members. But should there be a limit to this loyalty?

In the Godfather, Don Corleone says “You can do anything. But never go against the family.” In the world of Game of Thrones, anyone who kills a member of their family is believed to be forever cursed in the eyes of gods and men. 

The language of family, and the associations that go with it, appear in many places, especially when strangers are brought together and expected to cooperate. Monks in monasteries are in a brotherhood, nuns in a sisterhood. Priests are called Father.

In Confucianism, the relationship between father and son is paramount, and leaders are expected to treat their subjects as a father might. In fact, Confucius (and to some extent Socrates) argued that sons should not turn in their father for crimes or misdemeanours, but rather keep their secrets: “A father will cover up for his son, and a son his father“. 

Evolution And Family

Humans evolved to be social. Selfish individuals can out-compete selfless ones, but cooperative groups can out-compete those dominated by competition. However, groups can only win out if there is reciprocity within them since otherwise selfish individuals can dominate. Thus, humans have evolved a strong sense of loyalty and fairness

Human babies are more vulnerable than most animals’ young. This is because our large skulls make birth dangerous for the mother and the child, and so we’re born at an earlier stage of development. We also rely on learning from those around us far more than other animals, and so human children require a great deal of attention and care from their family.

This only happens if parents and extended family care deeply about the children, leading to millions of years of evolution that influences our relationship with our family. We’re predisposed to value loyalty to our family, and many aspects of our culture reinforce this disposition. 

Toxic Relationships

Just because you are family, doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect or that you should tolerate toxicity in the relationships. But what is a toxic relationship? 

The UK Mental Health Foundation has a guide citing the following potential signs:

  • You don’t feel good enough. You feel like nothing you do is quite right and are constantly trying to prove your worth, always seeking the other person’s validation.
  • You can’t be yourself. You feel you have to walk on eggshells and monitor everything you say and do, thinking twice before you speak as certain topics are off-limits. You act or behave a certain way and are afraid to bring things up because you’re not sure how the other person will react.
  • The other person puts you down.
  • You feel like the problem. The other person never takes responsibility for their actions. They attribute any relationship issues as all your fault, gaslighting you.
  • You start to withdraw from participating in activities or seeing people in your life.

If you think you are in a toxic relationship, contact a domestic support group in your area for help, or even start by just reaching out to a friend.

Mental Health

Theory aside, what are the real-life harms of a toxic family member? The most obvious is the impact on your mental health. These kinds of relationships can lead to anxiety, depression, isolation, low-self esteem, and many other issues.

Katherine Fabrizio who works with daughters of toxic mothers, says “If you end up feeling bad about yourself after most encounters with a family member, there’s probably a good reason for that, one worth looking into.” She emphasises the consequences on mental health: “Unpredictable or hostile relationships can cause anxiety, while relationships that involve stuffing your resentment can cause depression”. 

The consequences of toxic relationships can be severe, but they can be treated with the help of a mental health professional. They can also be prevented, perhaps by changing your relationships, or perhaps by cutting ties when necessary. “Above all,” Fabrizio says, “remember you have choices when relating to someone toxic.”  

Family is complicated. It can be hard to tell when you’re in a toxic or abusive relationship with a family member, and even harder to leave that relationship behind. We’re predisposed by our evolution and our culture to value loyalty to our family. Though this attitude has its values, it leads to many suffering unnecessary pain. 

The burden of a toxic family member weighs heavily on people’s mental health. There is a growing movement encouraging people to value their own health above duty to toxic family members. If you feel like you might be suffering in this way, please reach out for help so that you can lead a healthier, happier life.