Written By: Brittany Bagnato
I grew up in a typical home. My family had its eccentricities, as did yours. If you disagree then please PM me, and I'll refer you to my therapist. I feel fortunate to lack significant childhood trauma. Between close relationships and TV/media, my prefrontal cortex was trained to believe family is forever, family is the most important, never turn your back on family, etc. In many cultures, homes, and hearts that philosophy holds true. But let’s acknowledge the inherent rigidity in “family is forever.” Failure to do so poses risks to our well-being and can perpetuate unhealthy behaviors.
Family is often a source of love, joy, and comfort. It can provide a solid foundation to be ourselves and stumble through life knowing people are there to catch us. In an ideal state, family celebrates our triumphs and supports us through our downfalls. The relationships I have with many family members mean the world to me. I can call 24/7, never doubting steadfast support – often with humor sprinkled in. I believe that their authentic pillars of strength and stability have shaped how I support others. And it’s not always the same type of support. Sometimes we sit and cry together. Other times we need a figurative wake-up call. To be the best versions of ourselves, we need people who love us and will tell us truths (or well-formed opinions) we might need—yet don’t necessarily want—to hear. Such honesty, when delivered thoughtfully, can propel us forward.
But there are instances where family members disregard elements of basic decency: kindness, accountability, and respect. When they ignore these fundamentals, and we neglect to address them, we allow children to exist in adult bodies. And the inflexibility in “family is forever” can then create conditions where we jeopardize our well-being because we’ve been accustomed to no alternative. I’m not saying the “family is forever” mentality WILL create such conditions; I’m saying it CAN.
It's common for families to upset or annoy each other. We bite our tongue on little matters. Let a comment roll off our shoulders. But what happens when we’re figuratively or physically abused, gaslighted, etc. by someone who fails to hold themselves accountable? Or disrespects how we live – our sexuality? Our chosen profession? Or brings a toxic smog that makes us feel like we need a breathing treatment just to get through a meal together? We’ve spent decades trusting family above everything . . . but maybe we shouldn’t.
Empathy and boundaries. USE THEM. They won’t fix everything, but they’re a lot less expensive than regular breathing treatments. Plus, they empower us to champion our own well-being and model healthy behavior. Empathy is brilliant. We can comprehend someone’s behavior or viewpoint without agreeing. To me, it feels like a superpower that everyone can use but that many don’t. And boundaries . . . well, what a wonderful way to set expectations on how people speak to and treat us. We use empathy and set boundaries for children, right? Why is the concept so different when applied to adults?
Empathy feels second nature to me, but boundaries still feel somewhat like I’m speaking Spanish. I can order myself a hamburger or tell you that I’m sad, but I can’t carry on an elaborate conversation. Yet unlike my Spanish skills, I continue to work on my boundaries. I’ll share a “no bueno” moment that prompted a lot of reflection, empathy, and boundary setting.
Several years ago, I calmly and privately questioned a family member over a bold, incorrect statement made during a family dinner. It quickly escalated into the person blowing up at me and storming off. Their significant other was close behind and threw a few choice words at me. The only person I felt truly seen by that evening was my cousin – who runs circles around most adults with her maturity, mind you. She said our family doesn’t make waves, and my choice to address an issue was atypical for our clan. Between my cousin’s support and my empathy, I formed a baseline understanding of why others acted the way they did. And, from that point on, boundaries became the name of the game with those two family members. When I saw them, I’d be civil. But otherwise, I chose not to engage.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow, all that over one fight? If I did that, I’d have no one left! What’s with certain generations and ‘cancel culture’ these days? They need to be more mature. Brush it off and move on!”
Often, a single night doesn’t prompt a drastic response. In my situation, friction was present with both family members for years. It was exhausting. It also made me sad. Sad that you can idolize someone as a child but later find you don’t recognize the person. You question if you changed, if they changed, or both. It can be disappointing to realize the person you thought you knew isn’t there, at least not anymore. That you can grieve someone who isn’t physically gone. And that you may have grown so far apart that they potentially feel the same way about you.
But boundaries and relationships can shift over time. I’ve had instances where a family member and I disagreed on a topic extremely important to me and where I needed distance to digest. I wondered if their way of thinking had always been like this, yet where a situation had never drawn it to the surface. It can feel perplexing to try and reconcile who you thought someone was and who you see in front of you. And you might never figure it out. But you might be able to find a way to have a modified, arm’s length relationship with them. Or perhaps you might keep a “civility only” mentality while simultaneously wanting happiness for them, which feels weird yet also peaceful. But whatever relationship style you choose, don’t sacrifice yourself in the process. Be truthful and kind to yourself. And allow it to spill over into how you approach relationships with others.
If you’ve made it this far and not scoffed at my thoughts, I hope you have a few takeaways.
I hope you feel less alone and/or guilty for feeling emotions that contradict a blind faith in family. Family can offer powerful support, but toxicity lies dormant in thinking that because someone is family that you have to keep them in your life and overlook egregious behavior.
Boundaries are healthy, and an unfavorable response to a reasonable boundary may often be a sign of the other person’s unpacked baggage.
How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you. (Rupi Kaur) The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. And it will inform all your other relationships to some degree.
As I wrap up, I ask you to accept that you can value family and simultaneously hold each other accountable. They are not mutually exclusive. You can also love family members and keep them at whatever distance works best. Trust yourself to know what is right (for you, your child, and your partner), and do your best to create relationships that reflect it.
Meet the Author
Brittany Bagnato is a Pittsburgh-based dog mom and mental health enthusiast. She fosters through Paws Across Pittsburgh and manages their LinkedIn page. Brittany has spent the last 10+ years working in finance and is currently taking a pause to assess what is next for her professionally. Ideally, her next role will sit outside of finance and align more closely with her passions: dogs, mental health, writing, and gender equality.