What If My Family Rejects Me? Part 1

Aug 22nd, 2010 | By | Category: All Posts, Diablog--Multi-Person Blog

by Christina Enevoldsen, Chris Kuhn & Ron Schulz

Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse believe their family to be supportive and nurturing—until they talk about their abuse. They are surprised to be rejected, ignored, ostracized or even threatened with violence. Ron Schulz, Chris Kuhn and I (Christina Enevoldsen) discussed how we managed our feelings and boundaries after facing family rejection.

Christina:  My father sexually abused me and traded me to other men. I repressed the memories for many years, but when I remembered the abuse and disclosed it, my mom pretended it didn’t happen and my father denied it. I was used to adjusting my behavior so nobody felt uncomfortable, so I accepted that we would pretend it never happened. We lived in superficial peace.

Many years later, my adult daughter reported her father (their former son-in-law, my ex-husband) for sexual abuse and everything changed. My mom called Bethany wicked and accused her of destroying the family. My dad justified the abuse by saying, “Bethany isn’t perfect—she’s shacking up with a guy.” They threatened her and offered her a bribe to stay quiet. That opened my eyes and I saw how much of an abuser my dad still was and how much my mother protected him. My daughter and I decided not to expose ourselves to any more abuse and cut off contact with them once they refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing.

Ron:  Somewhere around the age of twelve, I was sexually initiated by my older brother. His abuse continued until he graduated high school and went off to college. When I turned twenty-one, my brother died in his apartment mysteriously from a cerebral hemorrhage. After he died, I exposed him, reporting his predatory behavior to the family, however, my family was not pleased. I was ostracized, and later, one of my brothers (who later it would be revealed was also abused) threatened me with violence if I did not stop talking about it.

Chris:  My abuser was the adult son of my mom’s best friend, who also happened to be my piano teacher. The teacher’s house was supposed to be a place of safety, but her son routinely waylaid me on my way out after each lesson. The interactions escalated through the course of my tenth year. Toward the end of this period he felt comfortable enough to abuse me in my own home, too. Eight years later I told my mother all about it. At that point I was eighteen and she was somewhere in her forties. She denied that what I was telling her could possibly have happened. “No, Chris. That couldn’t have happened,” were her exact words. It would be another six years till we spoke about it again, briefly. To this day, twenty-eight years later, although I know she’s horrified, she hasn’t asked for any details at all. I love my mother, but this constitutes a painful gap in our relationship.

Christina:  It’s very common for families to reject rather than support the survivor. Sometimes parents reject the possibility that their child was abused because to accept the truth is too painful. Sometimes the disclosure brings up pain from their own abuse. They might also feel threatened—viewing it as an accusation that they aren’t good parents for failing to protect their child.

Many victims of sexual abuse are abused by family members. In that case, there may be divided loyalties. The survivor’s family may resist the truth because they don’t want to choose sides. The effect is that they do choose sides—the abuser’s.

In incest families the family system has a culture that protects itself by keeping the secret. They will sacrifice one member for the sake of the system. The person who wants change is often viewed as the enemy.

Ron:  I think it is of merit to note the distinct advantages and disadvantages between survivors being raised in non-incestuous and those raised in incestuous ones. Since I belong to the latter class, I can say that one of the hallmarks of type is refusal to validate and foster the health state of the emotional lives of its members, with disastrous results.

Because the incestuous family system is so mired in its own shame, it does not even recognize that its members’ emotional needs exist, and so as a result the subjects of these systems are strangled emotionally at a very young age, and never given the opportunity to learn within its aegis how to defend themselves against offensive behaviors mounted against them. I know this was the case for me, and how it contributed to my own deep seated self-loathing, which I carried with me for many, many years, even into recovery.

Chris:  At the time of my mom’s denial, her hurtful response helped to “jail” me. There’s no doubt I’m only liberating myself now, decades later. But what is even clearer is that the door out of this so-called jail is not the same one I came in through. The architecture of the whole building has changed. I cannot leave via some new response from my mom, the response I hoped she’d have given back then. Who knows why she reacted that way. I cannot judge her, even though there are still times that I’m angry that she didn’t (want to) believe me.

Christina:  We can’t always know why our family fails to believe, comfort, and support us. Even knowing why doesn’t really solve anything. They can’t undo the harm that was done to us. With or without our family’s support, it’s still up to us to heal.

Chris:  I told my brother about my abuse a few months ago. For thirty years he’d had no idea. He was shocked, of course, stunned. Then he said, innocently, “Well, when you’re all better, we can talk about it some more.” It’s very easy, as a survivor, to get mad and feel hurt in such situations. It’s all too easy, in fact, to misread his concern and discomfort about what happened to me as a rejection of me. The real message, though, is that he cares and that he is fearful of saying the wrong thing (thereby immediately saying the wrong thing).

I’m not suggesting it’s like this in all families or all conversations. Surely many if not most families really do shun surviving members, and that is never the survivor’s fault and it’s often a tragedy. But there is room for us survivors to look at and to be conscious of how we receive communication from our families and to ask ourselves about the intention of our mostly-ignorant interlocutors rather than fixate on what actually comes out of their mouths. Words are spoken and then they are heard. The same is true of silence.

Christina:  Our family may blatantly reject us in a way that is abusive, but sometimes the rejection is out of insensitivity, fear, and ignorance. They may cause us pain, though they don’t intend to. In the early stages of healing we are very sensitive to other’s reactions. Because we haven’t developed the security in ourselves yet, so much weight is put upon others to respond ‘correctly’. If they don’t provide the response we need, we feel rejected.

When we’re in so much pain, it’s often difficult to remember that others have needs, too. People are their own persons, though we sometimes reduce them merely to the role they play in our lives—or rather the role we want them to play in our lives. That doesn’t make them the enemy for protecting themselves. And it doesn’t make them bad people.

Chris:  To some extent I did become my brother’s enemy when I told him about what happened to me. I took his conception of the world and our childhood and shattered it. I transferred some of my burden onto him. I brought my abuse out and said now you have to help me carry this. That’s not my fault. It isn’t his either. It’s life. It is difficult. I can know these things and not be ashamed of them.

But, as we talk about the children in our surviving adult personas—as we try to liberate ourselves from the repressive jails our families built for us—perhaps we ought to think also about the children in the adult personas of those whom we are now asking to help us and suffer with us. It’s delusional to think our inner kids are repressed but theirs are free. They are not. Other experiences have made their inner children captive also. Different reasons, different degrees.

Ron:  I’ve found it very beneficial to my own health to not raise myself up by tearing others down. I no longer have a need to do that, and in that regard, I am back at the wheel.

Christina:  Ron, that’s a great point. When we get hurt, we have a tendency to judge the other person’s actions as wrong. But we don’t have to label them “bad” to justify setting boundaries. If we have a family member who is hurts us, however innocently, we still have ‘permission’ to withdraw. Sometimes we don’t feel comfortable walking away from a family member or family system unless we can ‘prove’ how offensive they are. Yet the truth is, we can walk away at any time. As you said, we are at the wheel.

It’s difficult to evaluate a situation while we’re in pain, so backing off is needed to see the truth. Those boundaries provide us with a sense of our own control and safety while we assess our feelings and find clarity. Healing is extremely difficult without that. Often, it’s an old wound we are reacting to and we will continue to be sensitive until the original pain is healed. Boundaries enable us to do that.

Learning those boundaries in my own life has helped me recognize other’s boundaries. Just as I can choose to separate from them even if they haven’t done anything wrong, they can do the same with me.

I have friends who have responded to my disclosure by backing off. There’s something about my information that feels threatening to them and withdrawal is a natural response. I don’t take it personally; I recognize it as self-protection. I completely support that, the same way I support my need to withdraw from any real or perceived harm.

Chris:  The simplification of a world into us and them, into survivors and non-survivors, into perps and victims, makes me uncomfortable. Life is not static like that. When we pretend it is, I feel we’re really saying we’re done living, done fighting, done surviving. At that point, all we really want to do is fondle simple answers and gloat about how good it feels—we pretend, in other words, to alleviate our pain. But it seems to me more like a rejection of our pain, which is different…and not a viable survivor strategy.

Christina:  I agree. That view of “us and them” is useful when we’re in survival mode, but as we regain our personal power, we don’t have that same need for such black and white thinking. Yet in the early stages of healing, it’s a very useful tool. In survival mode, we are in constant fear. Everything and everyone is a potential threat. I think it’s very helpful to set boundaries very high and very far out, to the point that it may seem unreasonable to others. However, it’s not healthy to live there.

As I worked through my anger, I got to the place where I didn’t see my abusers as all bad anymore. I was able to see the good qualities without losing sight of the bad ones. That’s when it got really painful. The anger protected me in some ways from acknowledging the pain. It created a useful boundary that helped me for a time until I was ready to go on to the next stage in healing.

Just because I recognized good qualities in my abusive parents didn’t mean I reconciled with them—I’m not hopeful that reconciliation will happen. But stepping back allowed me so see things clearly, which affirmed my decision to separate.

Ron:  Until I resolved the anger and resentment that accumulated through years of reinforced shame I was destined to repeat the cycle of self-blame for failing to yield to their demands that I not ‘rock the boat’. One day, though, I realized that I could never honor that request, and it dawned on me that I had a choice: that I could remain affiliated and continue their denial and refusal to address the issues, thus remain complicit in their attempt to suffocate me by degrees, or I could step away and salvage whatever was left of my life.

I am not saying that I have ruled out the possibility of future interactions, but for now, I cannot condone their need to avoid the pain of growth, and so I have chosen to remove myself from the situation for now.

Chris:  Ron, “It dawned on me that I had a choice”: your words are pivotal. I sometimes wish we had a different name for “survivor”—maybe “chooser”?—something that tips the balance of this chapter in our lives always forward. Each situation requires ongoing choices from us, different responses at different times and so on. The common thread is this idea that we are back at the wheel.

Christina:  Yes, the bottom line is that we have a choice. We aren’t those vulnerable children anymore, dependent upon others for survival. We don’t have to continue to allow our relationships to be defined by others. We can choose what type of relationship to have with family members and if they don’t want the same thing, we can opt out. We don’t have to label them “bad” to separate from them and if we choose to separate that doesn’t make us bad. Our abuse invalidated our power to choose, but recovery includes taking back that power.

Related Posts
What If My Family Rejects Me? Part 2
What If My Family Rejects Me? Part 3
My Parents Are Dead (To Me)
Unfriending My Abuser
Standing Up to Dysfunctional Relationships
How Do I Disclose My Abuse?

Does this resonate with you? Please join in by leaving your thoughts and feelings about this topic and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments.

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18 comments
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  1. Thanks Christina, Ron and Chris,

    Great blog. I appreciate all of you sharing from your hearts on an important and close to the heart subject.

    Patty

  2. This was very helpful and knowing family support or no support does not denounce what you survived. You still survived regardless and so can I.

  3. what a great blog, as i was reading it many random thoughts popped into my head, mainly yeah i aint done that yet or i have done that but what really struck me is how far the three of you have travelled so far.
    my journey has taken the long route, mainly down to my refusal to see that i can change, i can do what is needed to not be my family and pass on their ways. helped because i had done alot of work in survival mode and gained the mental insights that you all speak of. yet being a parent has opened up a whole can of worms that i havent really dipped into yet. the good news is that i have made the 1st step in sorting out the last daily intrusions into my present life, i made the appointment with my doc, did what he requested by the next day and have been back and discussed what i had written, not spoken, about. he has sent my letter to the appropiate people he thinks maybe able to offer me some options in moving forward in the box that is my like till i was 7 yrs old,
    it because of the insights i have gained from people like the three of you that has helped me make this blind leap. i have the mental cogs in place now i have to find the causes of the behaviour so i can alter the reactions now.
    thank you all so much

  4. Lora,
    That’s a great way to summarize it, “family support or no support does not denounce what you survived.” That’s SO true! We give our family so much power. So many survivors act as though our abuse needs to be verified and empathized with by our families to move on. But we need to do that for ourselves anyway, no matter if the whole world stood with us. We are so accustomed to thinking like we did as children when everything was dependant on our family’s support. I still thought of myself as a vulnerable six year old for much of my adult life because the abuse and neglect made me stuck. It wasn’t until I understood how empowered I actually am that I could be free to have healthy relationships or to walk away from the unhealthy ones. Thank you so much for adding that!
    Hugs,
    Christina

  5. Family of Origin: Just because “it” started there, does not mean “it” has to end there….

  6. Carol,
    It’s so exciting that so many things are clicking in place for you and that so many improvements are taking place in your life as a result. I love what you said, ” I can do what is needed to not be my family and pass on their ways”. That’s a major benefit to healing. It not only frees us, but our children. When I broke free of unhealthy patterns and relationships, it was so much easier for my children to do so. I had already modeled such sick behavior to my kids, but modeling healthy behavior influences them, too. That just adds to the reasons to celebrate your progress!
    Hugs, Christina

  7. Ron,
    I love that statement! “Family of Origin: Just because “it” started there, does not mean “it” has to end there.” YES! Our physical life may have started with them, but sometimes to live our life, we have to separate in whole or in part. The ‘gift’ of life is no gift if we are not free to choose how to use it.

    Thank you so much for co-writing this blog with me!
    Hugs, Christina

  8. Christina ~

    I can so relate to everything you said as well as everyone else. I have never endured physical or sexual abuse, but I have endured emotional/psychological abuse huge!

    “The survivor’s family may resist the truth because they don’t want to choose sides. The effect is that they do choose sides—the abuser’s.”

    This statement hit me huge. I ‘came out’ in full with everyone in my family, really for the first time about my mother’s abuse via e-mail about three weeks ago. I was told by my sisters that they, ” … don’t want to hear anymore of my crap.” They said that they felt like I was trying to get them to choose sides (of which was never implied or stated nor intended in the letter. I even reread my letter to make sure I didn’t give that impression and there is no indication of what they read into it.) They said that they don’t want to choose sides, but little do they know, that just stating that says they chose her side. My mother singled me out from when I was quite little and the abuse slowly escalated, becoming worse and worse, and more and more severe and way more frequent. In the end I felt outright hated by my mother. I have not had my mother in my life now for over 10 years. My painful truth that this ‘treatment’ was not normal is when this popped into my head after she humiliated me in my home at my son’s birthday party (leaving me in tears yet again): “No matter how much you do and no matter what you say, you cannot make her love you.” My heart sank even deeper.

    I am working through so much pain right now. I didn’t expect my siblings to take sides at all – I didn’t even expect sympathy, but I was hoping for some level of understanding which I did not get. A friend of mine told me today that I should contact the one sister I was close to and I told her that I’m not ready to do that. It’s too weird now knowing how she really feels about my ‘coming out’ with full story. Now that I really know how they feel about me and the abuse, I think distancing myself for awhile would be a wise and healthy thing until I know what to do.

    I loved this post in that it gives me great comfort in knowing that if I’m not ready to engage in a fake relationship – then I don’t have to. My sisters expect me to have relationship with them, as long as I don’t talk about our mother or the abuse, to have a good time with them pretending like nothing is wrong. I told them that I cannot pretend. Maybe they can, but I can’t. This post was most empowering for me – and it was a God-send in that my coming clean showed my sibling’s true colours. I now know what they really think and its so nice for me not to feel like I have to walk on eggshells around everyone when I’m with them. And I don’t have to hear their snide remarks like, “Some people should just get over it.” Grrrr.

    Thank you so much for this post … I could almost cry because of how it makes me feel so emancipated! It confirms again that I don’t have to do things anymore to make others happy … what about my happiness?? I have recently come to realize that my happiness is also important. It’s not my job to fix what’s broken in our family. It’s not my job to make sure everyone else is happy. Emancipation is a wonderful thing to experience!

    God bless you all for choosing to NOT be quiet … for choosing to be light for us who are desperately trying to struggle our way to recovering from the effects of abusive people!

    Sorry this is so long … but I really hope this communicates how grateful I am for folks like you guys – your words are a healing balm even to this soul! Keep doing what you do!

  9. Amaryllis,
    I’m so delighted to know how helpful this blog is to you! This comment of yours made my cry, “I loved this post in that it gives me great comfort in knowing that if I’m not ready to engage in a fake relationship – then I don’t have to. My sisters expect me to have relationship with them, as long as I don’t talk about our mother or the abuse, to have a good time with them pretending like nothing is wrong. I told them that I cannot pretend. Maybe they can, but I can’t. This post was most empowering for me…” I’m so grateful to be able to share things that empower others. Thank you so much for sharing this!
    Hugs, Christina

  10. hi christina,
    yep seems like i had stalled becasue i couldnt see how to get ovr some of the family barriers yet reading OSA and darlenes EFB has helped me lots. it gave my head somethings to sort out, accept that it was ok to let go of the relationships that aint workin n not feel guilty about puttin my thoughts n feeling 1st. so yeah im lookin out for myself a bit more now. strange really

  11. My family totally rejected and disowned me when they realised I was seeking to escape the family home and no longer be their personal punch bags. I was the family member sacrificed to keep the incest secret. But I choose to be quiet no more and to get my life back somehow!!

  12. Such a gift this is! Every word. “Survivor?” Yes. “Chooser?” Definitely! What an empowering concept! You are just wonderful! Thank you all for bringing light to my path! Really, thank you!

  13. Patty S–I’m so delighted that this resonated with you. Thanks for your encouraging comment! Christina

  14. I found this site after being told by my mother that, “They were having a 60th Anniversary party but I didn’t need to come because I would just be uncomfortable.” Reading that others have experienced the same situations makes me feel less alone. Thanks to all those that have shared.

  15. Kelly,
    I’m sorry for how your mother treated you, but I’m glad you know you’re not alone in this. My mother’s rejection really took me by surprise. I had this idea that I came from a loving family so I wasn’t prepared for that at all. When I looked back, I started to see our relationship for what it was. I saw that she was acting the way she always had. It’s been a painful journey to grieve what I never had, but I’m so glad to see the truth now and to be free of that sick system.
    Christina

  16. Kelly, I’m sorry your family treated you like. But I’m glad OSA could be of help to you. :)

  17. I recently went through a devastating divorce, and somwhere along this road felt it was time to disclose repeated sexual abuse perpetrated my my mother’s father when I was just a small girl. No one believed me. My female family members insisted I was lying, or had been over-medicated due to major depression and that this caused false memories. This, of course, was not the case at all. Childhood friends knew all about it. I wasn’t medicated back then. I was told terrible things about myself, but the worst was that I had lied. What could possibly be my motive? People who may never have experienced childhood abuse may have no concept whatsoever about how debilitating and ruinous it truly is. It destroys trust in those who are adults and caretakers. Some say I should have kept my mouth shut. I didn’t, and now I feel even more depression and betrayal. My parents say I am living in the past…just get over it, and look toward the future. While part of that is valid advice, victims must go on somehow, total rejection of your child is not acceptable. Abuse is a shameful topic to most people. Sadly, my admission resulted in the total and complete alienation of my family. Right now, I do not know for sure if there is ever any healing from this kind of abuse. It’s bad enough to have to have gone through it, but then to be disbelieved and ostrocized is just as criminal as the abuse. Thankfully, I found this site, and it has offered some comfort. I pray every single day that someday I will feel better about this whole situation.

  18. This was incredibly helpful and insightful.

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