Ways To Support Your Partner When They Have A Toxic Family Dynamic

Let's face it: not everyone comes from a happy, cheery family that looks like something produced by Hollywood. In fact, Forbes reports that up to 80% of Americans consider their families to be dysfunctional. If you're on the opposite end of the spectrum, you might not be able to imagine a life without the strong bonds you have with your family members. That being said, it's very possible that you may come across someone in your life who falls into the majority, as specified by those statistics.

Forbes goes on to note that recent research suggests that 40% of people have experienced family estrangement at some point in their lives. Dysfunction — the word often used to describe family life by some — can represent different issues. Brown University cites addiction, violence, and exploitation as just a few examples.

If you were fortunate enough to grow up as a part of a happy, healthy family, you might experience a bit of shock if you learn your partner had the opposite experience. Over time, the differences you both experienced in childhood may even begin to create a wedge in your relationship. This can become worse if your partner still has a toxic family dynamic. Here is how you can learn more about this dynamic, as well as how to support your loved one.

Educate yourself on the toxic family dynamic

In order to provide the best possible support to your partner, it's important to take the time to educate yourself on the toxic family dynamic. As Relationship Helpers explains, "toxic" is often used as an umbrella term to explain people who are codependent or unable to uphold boundaries with those who have a negative impact on them. However, there are other characteristics that make up the toxic family dynamic.

As explained by the Chelsea Psychology Clinic, those who have a toxic family dynamic may experience favoring — one sibling might be favored over another, for example. A person with this type of family dynamic could also feel guilt or obligation as a result of being exploited by other family members. They might even exhibit physical symptoms as a result of the toxicity, such as fatigue, back and neck pain, and digestive issues.

Psychology Today notes that although it's normal to have conflict within families, the interactions and resolutions are what differentiate the toxic family dynamic. For instance, past research indicates that a person who grew up in a toxic household often interprets aggression as a "normal" part of family life. Over time, you might begin to notice these traits in your partner if they had this type of upbringing.

Be direct but mindful of your language

While you might be in shock over your partner's toxic family dynamic, Brides notes that it's important to approach the topic directly but delicately. "It's very important to address these issues directly," therapist Aimee Hartstein told the publication. "If you feel like your partner's family is treating you poorly or causing trouble in your relationship, you should have some clear examples and let your partner know immediately. If they are there in the moment, bring it up when you are alone." That being said, it's equally critical to be mindful of the words you use when you raise the issues at hand. For instance, referring to your partner's problematic family members as "crazy" might instantly encourage them to play defense. In turn, you could accidentally create a conflict within your own relationship.

While being conscious of your language as you broach the topic, consider discussing how the toxic dynamic has personally impacted you. This can help your partner understand where you're coming from and approach the issues as a team. Additionally, you'll be setting the foundation for a more productive conversation.

Maintain your own boundaries while being supportive

As HelloGiggles explains, it can be difficult to watch your partner engage with their toxic family without getting personally involved. Depending on how much interaction you have with your partner's family, you might even begin to be emotionally affected. However, it's critical to manage your own feelings without crossing any lines. "Be supportive and don't take on the conflict as your own," trained psychotherapist Silvia M. Dutchevici told the outlet. "Be mindful that you can't fight battles for a loved one. Maintaining healthy boundaries as a couple is more important than resorting to codependent tendencies like trying to solve the conflict or 'fight' for your partner."

Alternatively, focus on listening to your partner, and try your best to be understanding when they are overwhelmed. Additionally, avoid giving advice or your opinion on specific situations or family members, unless asked. In many cases, people are simply looking for someone they can vent to while stressed. "When people come from toxic families, they need people to validate their emotional experiences," therapist Michael J. Salas told HelloGiggles. "Rather than sharing what you think, it's most helpful to share your understanding of what your partner is feeling."

Create plans for handling toxic family members

It would be ideal if you could avoid your partner's toxic family altogether, but this likely isn't the case. That being said, you do have the option to collaborate with your partner on how to handle their family members when you have to come together. Bayview Therapy recommends determining how much interaction you're willing to engage in, especially in potentially emotional times, such as the holidays. One option is to put a cap on how long you'll attend family events.

You and your partner can also create a plan for coping before, during, and after events with toxic family members. Think about ways that you can manage your emotions in a healthy way, such as taking a breather when needed during the actual event. Before or after interacting with the toxic individuals, consider options like meditation to stay calm. Finally, remember that you always have the option to say "no" or decline any requests you feel uncomfortable with if they arise.

Understand what can and cannot change

Although you may not be comfortable or immediately accepting of your partner's family dynamic, GoodTherapy explains that this situation likely preceded your relationship. That being said, it's important to be realistic about what can and can't change in terms of the dynamic. For instance, your partner's relationship with their father — regardless of how toxic it may be — was established long before you arrived. Whether or not you agree with it, it's up to your partner to make changes.

As you consider discussing these toxic relationships and potential solutions with your partner, there are a few tips you can take into account. Understood for All recommends setting aside a good time to talk, and beginning the conversation positively — show your appreciation for your partner taking the time to address the topic. As the conversation evolves, stay focused on the issues, whether you're concerned about how your partner is being treated or the general family dysfunction. Together, you can brainstorm potential ways to handle toxic familial relationships.

Seek professional help if necessary

Those who have toxic family dynamics or grew up in a dysfunctional household are often left to deal with the unfortunate repercussions. For instance, PsychCentral notes that a person who experienced dysfunction as a child at home may become emotionally scarred as an adult. They might also adopt distorted beliefs about themselves, such as unworthiness.

Psychology Today explains that many people who have a toxic family dynamic may also experience psychological bullying from other family members. For your partner, this might evolve into anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress. In these instances, you both can benefit from seeking professional mental health services to handle the situation. A professional can also help you understand the treatments available, as well as how to cope with the stress associated with toxic relationships. The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that it's important to be sensitive — emotionally and physically — when you present the topic of mental health assistance to your partner. Resistance is not uncommon, but you may be able to effectively counter it by identifying the benefits of treatment options, like therapy.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.