Holidays, Relatives, Relationships, and Reality – By Cynthia Occelli

The last time I wrote about ending harmful family relationships, I received a lot of negative mail from people who felt that one should stay close to family members no matter how abusive, violent, depleting, or toxic they are. Three years (and a ton of conversations and connections with women in destructive family relationships) later, I am stronger in my position and resolve:


Most of us were taught that titles like “mother,” “father,” “sister,” etc. automatically call us to be obligated, emotionally intertwined, and unconditionally loyal.

In healthy relationships, no problems arise from this teaching, but for the masses who are biologically or legally related to people who don’t love them, tear them down, or cause them harm, it can lead to a lifetime of suffering.

We attach tremendous meaning to relationship titles, and consequently, many suffer intense upset when people fail to live up to expectations. Bound by obligation, expectation, and guilt, many remain in unsatisfying relationships, tolerate unspeakable behavior, and endure consistently poor treatment.

Marriages, bloodlines, and familial or professional associations do not, on their own, create healthy or positive relationships. And the real value of a relationship is in its quality, not its title.

I have lay-down-your-life-for-sisters with whom I share no biological link and blood relatives that I haven’t spoken with in more than a decade.

It’s a blessing to be born to a family that actively loves and cares for its members, but many families don’t function this way.

I was born into a family with a few racially prejudiced members.  As a child, I struggled with the conflict between society’s familial images and my reality.

It shouldn’t shock us when we fail to meet the image of familial bliss. Families are an amalgamation of assorted personalities, capacities, and values. It’s natural that the full spectrum of wonders, maladies, and challenges are represented.

As the primary advocate, protector, and caregiver for you, you must make a choice when entrenched in a soul-sapping family situation:

1) work with the relative to improve the relationship (they have to want to work with you) or,

2) where the former isn’t possible, remove yourself from harm.

As I grew older, I realized that I didn’t have to remain in unhappy, or harmful situations. I didn’t have to keep trying to live up to expectations that came attached to the titles I had. I didn’t have to sit tensely at the holiday table wondering when someone would erupt. I didn’t have to feel guilty for not spending the day doing what someone else wanted while my heart ached. I didn’t have to feel inadequate for not being what someone else wanted.

I didn’t need to cause a firestorm of upset either. I could release myself and the label-wearer of all obligations, free myself from the upset, and let go in peace.

I went on to create a new family, brimming with people who have one thing in common, genuine love and regard for each other. Words can’t adequately convey my feelings for them.

Choosing to move away from harmful, unhappy relationships creates space for real, substantive connections. It improves one’s self-image and garners self-respect and trust. This confidence effortlessly attracts others with similar mindsets.  As a result, all of life changes.

Surrendering and releasing my biological family members also cleared a lot of the past struggles and negativity. In time, some relationships were reborn—on new and voluntary foundations.

There are situations where you may choose to compromise your peace and comfort to bring happiness to another (an elderly or dying relative, or a child, for example). If you make this choice, be sure to understand your motivation and do no harm to anyone—including you.

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