Rejecting Dysfunctional Family Rules

Rejecting Dysfunctional Family Rules

by Christina Enevoldsen

Compliance to dysfunctional family rules was survival as a child but it was self-betrayal in adulthood.

One of the most significant sources of pain and damage of my abuse comes from betrayal, especially from my parents.

The man who was charged with the responsibility to protect and care for me violated my innocence and trust again and again. The betrayal continued into adulthood when my father insisted to others that I was a liar and, with my mother, sued me for defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

My parents’ disloyalty extended to choosing to defend my ex-husband, a convicted child molester over me and my daughter.

And when my husband and I stood up to the abuse by our former pastor, my parents ended their relationship with us.

After years of estrangement, I confronted my mother last year about some of her betrayals. When I asked her about the lies she presented as discovery in the lawsuit, she justified them as something she had to do to protect their reputation. They were entitled to a good reputation, no matter what they had done. To preserve it, they were willing to ruin mine.

There was a time when I believed in their value and their rights over mine too. I believed that because of the way I was treated.

In my dysfunctional family, there were dysfunctional family values and rules to live by. To survive, I learned them well.

I learned my place. My role was to absorb the family pain and shame. One of the primary ways I did that was to carry the family secrets. I followed the rule by keeping silent about the abuse and maintaining the façade.

“Our family is so loving.”
“Our family is so happy!”
“I’m so blessed to have such wonderful parents.”

Another rule I learned is my parents’ opinions and desires are the standards that must be followed. Theirs was the obvious right choice. The only moral answer.

My feelings and desires were not only invalid, but they revealed my selfishness and arrogance. I was willful and prideful if I dared to want something else.

It was survival to accept those rules (and a multitude of similar ones.) All of the rules and values communicated that I’m not as important as they are. My place is to serve them.

Living by those rules caused me to betray myself over and over again into adulthood. I continually put them above me as though my life depended on them.

But I’m not a child anymore. Healing has empowered me to stand in the truth and I have new values and rules I follow:

I’m equally valuable as others.

My value does not go up or down based on how I’m treated. Nobody has the right to assign me value; it’s inherent.

My thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, desires are important.

I have the right to choose according to what is best for me.

It’s my responsibility to take care of me—and only me.

It’s not my responsibility to make everyone or anyone else happy. Happiness or unhappiness is their responsibility. So are all their other emotions.

If someone judges me as selfish or arrogant or anything else, that doesn’t make it true.

I don’t have to comply to be accepted or loved. If I’m pressured to comply, it’s not really me they accept anyway; it’s my service they accept. They don’t offer me real love; they don’t even see me as a valid person—only an object for their use.

If control is a condition of acceptance, it’s not a loving or healthy environment.

I’m free to leave an unloving or unhealthy environment (or any environment.)

If I’m ostracized or rejected in one community, I’m empowered to find a new, loving one. I’m not doomed to be alone.

What are the rules you learned in your dysfunctional family? And what new rules have you learned to live by now? Please comment below and contribute to the conversation. Remember to subscribe to the comments so you don’t miss any of the discussion. You can post anonymously and email addresses are always kept private.


I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification.  As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.

Related Posts:
Stop Telling Me to Forgive My Abuser
Confronting My Abuser

Rejecting Dysfunctional Family Rules

13 thoughts on “Rejecting Dysfunctional Family Rules

  • October 30, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you Christina for sharing! I love reading everything you write! Your words help bring healing to past wounds and I am thankful I found your site and the courses you offer. I have so much to say so sorry ahead of time for the length…with so many people in my family knowing that the molestation was going on for years at the hands of my uncle, but choosing instead to pretend it wasn’t happening…a rule I learned was to keep my mouth shut and stuff it deep down inside which made me physically ill. But I had to in order to keep the peace. I took hour long showers as a child because I felt so dirty on the inside. I know now that is a side effect that other survivors have had as well. I didn’t even connect the showers with my abuse until about a year ago. I am almost 48 yrs old and I think I will always be peeling off the layers one at a time in my healing journey. My Dad and step Mom knew I took long showers and eventually had to put a timer by the door so I would stay within their time limit because the others had to shower. One of my sisters knew about the abuse and the reason behind the lengthy showers and she would cover for me if I was going over my allotted time. She’s always had my back on this and I’m thankful for her love. My Dad didn’t even know the abuse was going on til years later. *Oh, how I wished I would have had the courage when I was a girl to tell him but I was so scared. I think he would taken matters into his own hands and beaten the crap out of him. Once he did find out about it, he was
    retired and disabled and couldn’t do anything physically to him. But he did have a LONG talk with him. I lost my Dad 2 years ago and I miss being able to talk to him about it. He was my rock! As I write this tears fall…I guess with holidays coming up soon that is a huge trigger for me of past hurts. Every year there was a Christmas Eve party at my Grandma’s house. It was fun to get together with family and friends eating good food, and singing carols around the Christmas tree all while my uncle was there around so many children and I pretended everything was okay being happy and jolly in front of everyone. The parties stopped once Grandma passed away. I hold to the pleasant memories and forget about the bad ones. Such a difficult time of year. I’ve had to distance myself from so many so I don’t get hurt. Setting boundaries has helped me find peace. I found the courage to report the abuse to authorities 6 yrs ago. He admitted it but due to statute of limitations barred he
    got off. I stood up for myself when no one else did.
    I am reminded of the words of T.D. Jakes in his book: “Woman, Thou Art Loosed” where he states:
    “when you begin to realize that your past does not necessarily dictate the outcome of your future, then you can release the hurt.
    It is impossible to inhale new air until you exhale the old.” In talking about how many cases go unreported and are covered in a shroud of secrecy and that our silence contributes to the shame and secrecy…He also said that “he was forever coming home with a scratch or cut
    from schoolyard play, and his Mother would take the band-aid off, clean the wound and say: “Things that are covered don’t heal well.” Mother was right. Things that are covered do not heal well.”
    A rule I live by now is to share my story and not hide it any more, in hopes that it helps someone else. I am standing in my truth and standing up for the truth in ALL THINGS. And making sure my voice is heard because it was silenced for so many years. I also know with setting boundaries I can say “no” and that’s okay. I want all survivors to know you are loved, you are not alone and YOU ARE WORTH IT!

    • October 30, 2016 at 11:22 pm

      Woo HOOO, Leslie!!! Thank you for sharing your victory of standing in your truth!

    • October 31, 2016 at 7:53 am

      Dear Leslie, I am so proud to be your cousin and I also am so proud of you for letting this awful secret out. You will be helping lots of people who are being forced to keep the secret. I am glad you found the help you need and know that I am praying for you. Love you.

  • November 1, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Family rules:
    Deny anything is wrong.
    Always be loyal to The Family.
    Do not say anything that could make Dad look bad. He was perfect.
    It is selfish to think of your own needs.
    It is wimpy and weak to feel your feelings.
    You cannot trust your body.
    If it hurts you should be able to control it and deny your pain – both physical and emotional.
    Daughters must be virgins. Virginity gives a daughter value. Lack of virginity makes her dispensable.
    The rule that is wanting attention from me today is: my virginity is my father’s concern – meaning, he has authority over my body and I don’t.
    When I was 17, a freshman in college — I was visiting my parents on fall break — my father said he would pull me out of college and I would have to come home to live with them if I could not swear to him that I was a virgin.
    I lied to him on the spot. Very solemnly, I looked him in the eyes and said I was a virgin.
    I had just turned 17. The way I was raised was to keep me submissive and to believe I could never take care of myself. I did not know what else to do but lie.

    When I was 17, more than anything I wanted to be out of my parents’ house. After I lied to my dad, I started having migraine headaches and irritable bowel. I spent 2 more summers at their house working. After the 2nd summer, I believed I would kill myself if I spent another summer in their house — so I got married. I knew no other way to put space between my dad and me. The unspoken rule was that my body belonged to him until I married, then in his mind, it belonged to my husband.

    This morning, on a walk, I talked with my 17 year old self. She/I hated to lie – I felt it compromised my integrity in a basic way. I am loving myself, the younger me especially. I’m aware that this was yet another double bind. If I had told the truth, I would have either had to live in their house — and increased my risk of suicide – or hit the streets.
    Today I am being present to this younger me who was terrified and just trying to survive. I wish I had known I could leave home, quit school and somehow it would all have worked out. But I had no safety net. I believed none of my relatives would have taken my side. I didn’t know any friends who had any way to take me in.
    I didn’t have faith in anyone or anything to reach out and help me, because in my mind, my father owned the world. He was highly respected, immaculately groomed, perfect manners, well dressed, worked as an executive in the oil industry and had the respect of thousands of people; lay reader in the church, etc.
    One of the most traumatic abuse incidents occurred when was 16 – when my father “checked” my virginity. It was painful, humiliating and terrifying. I wasn’t even really sure what virginity was.
    He sexually abused me from a very young age, 3 or 4 – the abuse was violation – nothing seductive or affectionate about it. It was all about power and ownership of my body. The abuse was in other areas of my body that left my virginity technically intact. Like a physical abuser who doesn’t leave visible bruises….
    The cold blooded calculation involved, as I see it now, is shocking in and of itself.

    I am grieving for this young woman in me – how hopeless and alone I felt, how abandoned and thoroughly betrayed by the people I loved – my family. I am having conversations with her – telling her “I’ve got your back now,” “I’m here with you,” “you are not alone anymore.”

    How different things could have been if I’d said to my dad, “No, I’m not a virgin. And it’s none of your business. If you stop paying for college, fine. Life will support me to find another way – possibilities for me to be true to myself will open for me.” If the me I am now, at 62, could swoop in and take this younger me under my wing. I am here now to give her/myself the parenting and loving guidance she never had.

    My parents are deceased now, which has made my life a lot easier. My brother and sister continue to deny that the abuse ever happened.
    Thanks to the support I’ve received in this community and Christina’s blog, I have gone no contact with them at last.
    I deeply appreciate the support group we have here.

    • November 1, 2016 at 11:40 am


      My heart goes out to the younger you. I understand that dilemma and especially the belief that your dad owned the world. How well put.

      The things you’re telling your younger self are really touching. I love hearing that. Thank you so much for sharing!


    • March 29, 2017 at 9:47 am

      Nancy. You are an encouragement to me. A young lady who went through almost to a T what you have been through. It all was done under the disguise of religion… My dad said over and over I was made for him and him alone. I will not go through it all because much of what you spoke about was my story as well.. I’m like you, telling that little girl that I’m good enough, that I’m not trash, that I’m not the problem.. wishing I’d left home. But the fear was so great and blinding.. I heard from so many friends you have the best family your so blessed.. still today I have people who say hurtful things because I have nothing to do with my family. They don’t know the truth and I don’t care to tell them.. A few years back I told my mom about what my dad did, she laughed and denied it all. Saying I’m a lier… at 30 sometimes the pain is so deep and the shame is so great.. but I’m healing and I want to thank God for helping me heal.

  • November 1, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Thank you Christina.
    When I think about my dad and his obsession with his daughters’ virginity – it feels like a different century, a different culture – the Middle East, the 1400’s…..
    I wonder how much this attitude persists in the US, behind closed doors.
    I wonder where he learned that? I know very little about his father and even less about that side of the family. Everything I’ve heard has suggested that my dad’s dad was cruel, mean, alcoholic, philandering, sarcastic – and I’m guessing he had PTSD from being a soldier in WWI.
    I see the parallels between how women are treated – and how the earth is treated – as a resource to be used – treated like property.

    It is so empowering to have “discovered” self-compassion. I sense that quality in your writing as well.

  • November 29, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    Another family rule—-Always PROTECT the name of the abuser/molester/rapist. This is so sick and also evil. The past 15-20 years some of the family told me that “some of the family/relatives knew that my mother and father were abusing me, but they did’nt want to say anything to others because they wanted to PROTECT the name of my mother and father. I could just scream….. To do cruel abusive things to a CHILD, then expect others to PROTECT your name is just plain CRAZY. We each have to PROTECT our own name ourselves by treating others–especially CHILDREN—with KINDNESS and RESPECT. We ALL have a CHOICE.

  • December 13, 2016 at 11:26 am

    I just wanted to say that, after visiting a few websites on the topic of childhood sexual abuse, none of them really fit “me”, until I came across yours.
    The environment you described growing up in, was very similar to mine. Thank you for sharing your story

  • January 9, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you for your site. I am having a tough time. I sent my parents a ten page letter outlining the hurt and specifically stating what I need from them; a recognition of the hurt and pain my dad’s abuse of me as a child has caused me. He will not admit that he did anything like that to me. He was an alcoholic and I really felt that it wasn’t the real and aware him that did those thing to me, but he still did do that whether under the influence of alcohol or not and I told him he needs to take responsibility for that. I am not free, not free to be me, to be whole, to deal with the hurt. I told him what happened to me as a child when I was 18, he spoke with our pastor about it who advised him to apologize whether he remembered it or not for my sake. He did that, but it did not feel genuine and no follow up was made by him or my mom. My mom had called a counselor without my dad’s knowledge at first but when they said they would have to report it to CPC, she retracted it for fear that they would take my younger brother away. My dad was upset at her for calling and no one ever spoke of it again. My dad bought me a car when I was studying to get my license and they were helping me pay for college. I started working for my dad as his office manager for his construction business when I didn’t have the confidence to get a different job on my own. I loved my dad but also hated him. I hated that I had these very clear memories from the time it happened until now of him molesting me and making me feel uncomfortable (there were a few incidents that were all weird and I think I was between the ages of 6 and 8 when I shared a room with two of my brothers, but I don’t know exactly how old I was). My dad quit drinking when I was 11 and I I wasn’t able to go to anyone until I was 14 and I couldn’t hold the truth in any longer. I told my older sister who was 22 at the time and moving over 12 hours away up north. We had shared a room together for about 4 years I think. I am one of 9 kids and my oldest sister whose 13 years older than me and oldest brother 12 years older moved out of the house when I was 5. My oldest sister was like a second mom to us and looked out for us. I felt abandoned when she moved away. I can’t understand why I shared atom with my brothers and why my mom didn’t protect us from my dad when he was drinking. He used to read my brothers one a couple years younger and the other a couple years older, bedtime stories. He sent them to bed afterwards but had me stay. I was always right next to him under the covers and he only wore his underwear. I was so scared and frozen. Once he French kissed me and told me not to tell anyone, that it was our secret. When he stopped drinking nothing happened again but I was always afraid of him and being alone with him. I was able to finally move out on my own when my husband and I got engaged, he paid for me to be able to stay in our apartment for a couple months before we got married so I could experience living on my own. I don’t want to write anymore right now but I am thankful for my loving husband encouraging me to get help and to be honest with my feelings and face them. I don’t want my family to be ripped apart but I don’t want things to be swept under the carpet any longer either, I feel dead inside when I ignore this and don’t deal with it and like life is just passing me by.

  • February 8, 2017 at 9:19 am

    Hi Christina,

    You are such a light and a blessing. I have been reading your site for a while now for guidance and you have helped me more than you know. I finally found the courage to confront my father and my mother about what had happened and recently I went public with it. And sure enough, I received an immense amount of support from friends and relatives, my mother and half sisters are the ones who are angry that I am “ruining the family” for going public with such a private thing. It was my own mother who told me I was lying. The sting of her disbelief and anger towards me hurts me now more than anything my father ever did because I love my mom. It took me so long to come out with this secret because I wanted to protect her.

    I used to love writing as a child and it helped me while I was going through my years of sexual abuse by my father. I lost that love for a few years and now it’s come back with vigor as I pour my heart and soul into my writing. I feel like the words just come out of me sometimes and I want to continue to share my healing journey with others.

    My blog has direction has changed since I came out with it. I am creating a resource page for other survivors and I would like to link to your website. You are such a wealth on information.

    Thank you again for your courage and strength to inspire and help others. I hope to follow in your footsteps. I’m Asian, and my culture is a culture of silence and very shame based. I hope to empower other women to overcome that and find their voice.

    Thank you again. Do you do any live events or workshops? I would love to attend and meet you in person. Sending you constant love and light. Have a beautiful day.

    Here is my story if you would like to read it.

    What’s your email address? I would like to reach out to you if possible. Thank you

    Much love, light and healing,

  • March 27, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    I must say these experience you all went through is not an easy one. For me it is very painful to read because I have not dealt with my abuse.

  • August 25, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    Old rules:
    Be patient. (The abuse will end. …until next time.)
    Be compassionate. (It’s not his fault. He didn’t mean it. Forgive him.)
    Take care of each other. (Don’t tell anyone what happens at home. Deal with it yourselves. And you, especially you, let us use you as an emotional punching bag.)
    Save face. (Smile. Act happy. Never tell.)
    Make us look good. (Don’t ever make us look bad. Never. Not even a little bit.)
    Follow Jesus. (If we go to church and turn to God, none of this is real anyway. And no one could ever tell what happens at home.)
    Let him. (He’s tired. He’s sorry. He’s worn out. He didn’t mean it. He didn’t hurt you. He feels bad when you push him away. He provides for you, don’t tell him no. He’s not hurting you. He only did it once. He didn’t do that, don’t lie. He didn’t do that; if you tell anyone he did that we’ll get in a lot of trouble. He was just upset. He never gets his way anyway; its his turn to do what he wants.)

    Didn’t pull of veil of denial off the memories until about a week ago. Haven’t gotten to new rules yet.


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