Recipe for Breaking a Family
The key ingredients are a narcissist and voodoo doll
Your family is imperfect and dysfunctional (ok, you probably already know this universal truth about family). What you may not doubt is its indestructibility. Your family is not indestructible either, nor is it safe from a good wrecking by a skilled wrecker.
If you’re shaking your head vigorously from side to side (“No, not my family!”), try a simple exercise. It might just expose the family fault lines — e.g., secrets, underlying tensions, insecurities, bad lessons, betrayals, unmet emotions, normalized bad behavior, character weaknesses — all of which could lead to your family’s rupture.
Ask family members about their experiences and thoughts on the family: “Hey, cuz, what do you think of the fam? What’s your experience been like?” Ask about family history: “Do you remember when…? What was it like when…? What was grandma like?” Do a bit of “innocent” digging.
Don’t limit your survey to the members with whom you’re most connected. Expand your reach. Go beyond the immediate family. Vary your questionees. Ask the family members who might have a reputation as the silent ones, or who have been on the periphery of family, or who tend to be judged in subtle or not-so-subtle ways — you know, the family outliers and scapegoats. These are the quiet observers who will reveal a truth different from yours.
The answers you hear may surprise you. In fact, you may not like them at all. You may wish that you had never asked.
The responses may seem to reflect the history of another family. Some may even unearth family secrets you were never aware of. You’ll shake your head in bewilderment and surprise, and tell yourself that your experience was nothing like this other family member’s or you’ll deny what you heard.
It’s discombobulating. Nobody likes it when their realities and notions about family are shattered. When different from ours, people’s impressions and exposures about family — especially, our family — can rattle and threaten us.
Alongside your confusion and disbelief, you may be tempted to minimize or invalidate the experiences of the family members who didn’t give you the answer you had expected, or you may defend the people or actions that might have rendered that family member’s experience less than positive or even traumatic. (As a side note, you should question why you feel compelled to do this.)
Like Mine, Your Family Is Destructible
Your family may seem indestructible to you because its history, behavioral patterns, and dynamics have generally worked in your favor. When you learn that somebody else’s experience in the family was stressful and heartbreaking, you may feel threatened or guilty that your positive experience happened at the expense of somebody you love.
Confronting real feelings about family may result in losing the privilege you’ve enjoyed in your family’s hierarchy or destroying an essential support system in your life or fragmenting your confidence and knowledge about yourself and your family. This is why many family patterns go untouched and unresolved for generations. Nobody likes to go near familial fault lines — they’re potent!
Your family may also seem indestructible to you because the right ingredients have never come together to shake the ground beneath it. There isn’t one family out there without flaws — many families are open about this truth — and there isn’t one family without cracks in its foundation — this, as a truth, is less addressed and generally ignored. The right ingredients may be as straightforward as an in-law — a new addition to the family with a different set of family ideas and habits — or as unexpected as a global pandemic like COVID-19 to expose and test the fault lines of a family.
I never believed that my family was perfect, though I often pretended that it was from the outside. In my family, there was a lot of movement towards sweeping things under the rug. Keeping the peace and saving face was the family priority, so my family didn’t learn how to defend itself from threats, exercise its right to be free, or please itself before pleasing others. This had consequences for my family and, for me, it was stressful, anxious, and emotionally draining.
Despite its imperfections, frustrations, and dysfunctions, my family was comprised of decent human beings, and I believed that it was bound by reciprocal love, loyalty, respect, and accountability.
I was right; I was wrong. The love was there, but the loyalty, respect, and accountability were spotty. And all it took was an in-law member to gain entry into my family, become aware of the cracks in its foundation, and aggravate them. This aggravation caused trembles, tremors, and the eventual disintegration of my family.
The Potent Mix
Here’s the recipe that broke my precious imperfect family:
- 1 narcissist
- 1 enabler of the narcissistic behavior
- 2–3 scapegoats (add more than one in case one gets wise and establishes boundaries)
- Uncountable emails and texts harassing the scapegoats
- 1 secret alliance with a scapegoat’s egomaniac and stalker ex-boyfriend
- 1 voodoo doll
- 1 shocking dark secret
- 1 innocent secret twisted and exploited for the narcissist’s gain and power
- 1 saucy Kim-Kardashian style black, lacy panty photo posted on Instagram
- 1 major betrayal preceded by smaller betrayals
- A pinch of love
- Lots of blame
- 0 loyalty
- 0 real apologies
- 0 accountability
It took approximately five years for the recipe to have its desired effect: fragmented, crushed human beings who once felt whole and belonged to a seemingly unified family.
In due time, love might be my family’s saving grace. My family has been through a lot in five years, watching itself fall apart as a result of a newcomer’s choices and behaviors, but I have observed enough to conclude that our love for one another might eventually lead to reconciliation and a reunited, though changed, tribe. Fault lines may shrink, but the damage done is never fully repairable.
The recipe that broke my family taught me not to indulge in victim-blaming. It’s not just my family. All families have cracks; thus, all families are potential victims to a good wrecking. Intuitively, we all know this. We defend our families tooth and nail because we know where the possible eruptions are and we want to control and protect them.
Who are we when our family falls apart? What do we do when our family is at our feet in pieces? What is our role and purpose? Where do we go? These are tough questions to ponder and answer. It’s much easier to do what we normally do — avoid movement around fault lines and maintain that sense of safety and indestructibility, no matter how shaky and deceiving it is.
A former academic, Fabiola Gallerani works as a literacy practitioner for vulnerable adult populations. Outside that time, she writes and publishes on Medium and other publications on varied topics inspired by unexpected moments and personal life experiences — family, gender-based violence, education, relationships, and anything inspiring and heartbreaking in between.