When reading the opening preface of a self-help book makes you cry, that’s when you buy the book.
And that happened to me twice when I read the forward of both Stop Walking on Eggshells and Toxic Parents. Reading these and several other books were the beginnings of me understanding how toxic parenting impacted my life. And sooner or later, I began to understand how the impact of that parenting had affected everything.
The most toxic thing about abusive parenting is the fact that for a person growing up with abusive parents, love is not the norm. And when love is not your norm, you don’t know how to love yourself as a norm. You sometimes take love in whatever shape or meagre quantity it presents itself. Or you become terrified to trust it.
JR Thorpe on Bustle has written multiple articles on toxic parenting, my favourite of them being 9 Signs You Have a Toxic Parent. As I went through this, I couldn’t help recognising the impacts that some of these had or could have had on my relationships. So I wanted go through and talk about each, just in time for the holidays.
While these are specific to non-monogamy, some principles may apply to all people in relationships.
1. You use non-monogamy to prove your worth
When you live with toxic parents who turn you into the parent, there are some people who will respond to that demand with unwavering perfectionism. You grow up quickly and you learn how to manage a lot. But your first definition of what love is and means is tied to taking care of people.
Most healthy adults have (or should have) an understanding of the appropriateness of asking for emotional support from people. We understand that it’s okay to go up to a friend and tell them you’re feeling down, maybe a close friend you can tell them you’ve been having suicidal thoughts. We confide things to our romantic partners friends, and chosen family that we don’t confide in strangers for a good reason. It’s not because we don’t care about strangers, but because having a relationship with someone gives you an insight into how heavy or not heavy an emotional support request may be.
When parents turn their children into their parents, they disrupt their learning of healthy boundaries and an understanding of a healthy ratio of providing and receiving emotional support. Those children learn that their value lies in providing emotional support. And when those children grow older and become non-monogamous, they may find themselves desiring partnerships where they provide emotional support.
And they become, as Bilbo says, like butter scraped over too much bread.
2. You end up bullied by partners
Thorpe points out that in toxic parenting, one suppresses their feelings in order to take care of and soothe the parents. Many people assume that because non-monogamy challenges the status quo that society provides in heterosexual monogamy that it’s inherently egalitarian. But don’t ever underestimate an abuser’s ability to twist anything to their benefit.
If you have partners you don’t spend all of your time around, who you see for only a few weeks, that is a lot of time and ability to hide their worst behaviours from you for years and years. In fact, you may never see their worst behaviours. Or the time that passes between seeing that partner allows for second guessing of your original feelings and allows them to continue doing anything that makes you uncomfortable.
Toxic parenting teaches you to ignore your feelings. And much of modern polyamory ‘advice’ will encourage this. The pressure to be ‘successful’ at non-monogamy as well as the treatment of jealousy like bubonic plague creates an environment where any negative emotion is best kept repressed — because who wants to be the wet blanket?
So if you have partners who bully you, who make you feel uncomfortable, you’re less likely to argue and stand up to them if you have experienced toxic parenting. And if there are large gaps between the times you see them, you may end up forgiving and forgetting slights, but the continual damage to your self esteem will still linger.
3. Silence becomes more comfortable
If you grow up in an environment where you are encouraged to hide something for a parent, it completely messes up your understanding of justice and fairness. It’s one thing for a grown adult to ask another grown adult who doesn’t rely on them for anything to lie and hide things, but it’s quite another when it’s a child relying on a parent for any kind of support.
And it also makes for a confusing ride trying to understand anything when secrets do get out.
I believe that within non-monogamy communities, people don’t speak out about abusive or toxic partners they have had for fear of looking ‘jealous’. And I believe that a desire not to shake the apple cart is embedded within many people who grew up with toxic parenting. When someone does finally shake the apple cart, those who grew up knowing you can love someone who lies and hides things are twice as confused.
Silence becomes the preferred way of coping and dealing with things, not only if you have been with someone who is toxic but if you hear that someone else is toxic. And while I strongly believe that witch hunting and ousting all problematic people from communities doesn’t inherently solve any problems, it’s much harder to talk about problems if you’ve always been taught that they should be hidden.
4. Guilt prevents you from setting boundaries
Thorpe notes that parents can control with money and with guilt, and in my opinion being controlled with guilt has a specific impact on people in non-monogamous relationships.
Whenever you’re doing something new, it’s a process of understanding yourself and your boundaries. One of the reasons I tell any newbie to non-monogamy to never create any rules where anyone has to obtain ‘permission’ for a new date or anything else is because sometimes when you’re doing something new, you don’t know that you have a boundary until it’s been crossed. And having to go back on something you previously said was fine creates guilt as well as sometimes resentment.
People growing up in toxic environments have had their boundaries crossed six ways from Sunday more often than not. And when people don’t respect your boundaries as you grow up, you learn that it’s better not to have them. You may find in many cases of sexual assault that people don’t fight not because they want what’s happening to them, but because it makes logical sense to minimise the impact of something terrible happening to you by disconnecting yourself from it.
People starting off in non-monogamy get told constantly to communicate, but there is an underestimation of how difficult communicating is when you have no idea what to communicate. Things seem fine in your head but the reality of it when it happens can be difficult to manage. And ‘permission’ given to a partner feels like it can’t be taken back and even when it can, those growing up in toxic environments may be too guilty to set a boundary even when they need to.
If they have learned from their parents that their own autonomy creates a guilt trip, they will learn to guilt trip themselves when they do something that might upset someone else. They learn to hate themselves for someone else’s feelings. And if you grow up in this kind of environment, you’re going to find it incredibly difficult to say ‘no’ to anything, even if you’re scared and unhappy because saying ‘no’ has always made you ten times more scared and unhappy than you were before.
5. You struggle to ask for what you want
It’s quite an ironic thing to be forced to grow up early but never having the autonomy or independence of an adult. And that discordance has an incredible impact on how you function in relationships. I can manage a lot more than some people. I work and have worked multiple jobs as an adult, been described as ‘scarily efficient’ by employers, and can hold myself more than well in a verbal debate about any topic I feel passionate. And yet, I find it difficult to ask for directly what I want.
This isn’t about self-esteem. This is about survival. While I appreciate RuPaul’s catchphrase that you can’t love someone else without loving yourself (though I could be interpreting it wrong), I believe the reverse is true. When you don’t love yourself, it’s much easier to love others ‘selflessly’. But none of us are robots and we all do have needs in life. And eventually that means asking for what you want.
If you’ve always been given responsibility but never independence, it’s quite easy to take on the challenge of providing support to as many people as possible without ever asking for anything for yourself. Your adult decisions have been undermined, as Thorpe says, so you learn not to have any.
Asking for what you want involves having autonomy and you have learned that having autonomy is something that makes other people unhappy. You begin to fear making your partner(s) angry if you ask for what you want. And, in my experience, if you don’t ask for what you want and you can’t get it by manoeuvring the situation so you get what you want anyway, you will eventually just implode of out need.
6. Your boundaries seem to wax and wane
Again, when you’re doing something new, your boundaries may shift because you’re learning where they are. But if you’ve grown up in an environment where your boundaries were trampled on, you learn to shift them when they become inconvenient to others.
This is something that makes total sense growing up in a toxic environment. Learning to become strategic about your boundaries might be the only way to stay sane in an environment where a parent has a screaming rampage at you for forgetting your medication by an hour one day and then wearing mismatched socks the next.
But when you’re actually trying to figure out where your boundaries are, it’s like pinning a tail on bucking bull. And add to that your inclination to question your gut instincts, delegitimise your feelings, and added encouragement from newbie polyamory advice to think your bad feelings are jealous baggage… you’ve got one confusing concoction I’d like to call, ‘What the hell am I actually feeling? I can’t tell anymore.’
You don’t even have to have a toxic partner who reacts to your boundaries by claiming you’re jealous when you’re not! You can have a perfectly healthy partner who supports you and accepts that your boundaries may change over time and who respects that. But if you’ve been raised by someone who gets mad at you when you have any kind of boundary, you will still feel the anxiety and fear of anger that may never show it’s face, which will make it less likely for you to assert them in the first place.
7. You accept personal digs as jokes
Thorpe’s description of someone being told that they are the ones that are flawed for not laughing at jokes designed to dig at them is applicable in so many life situations, but especially in relationships.
Another fantastic book that made me wise up to the toxicity of a relationship I was forming was Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft and I think it’s a must read for every human being. One of the best passages includes a woman describing her husband going on a mad rampage and she blames herself for inciting him. Lundy asks her whose stuff he destroys and she has a lightbulb moment where she realises that the only stuff he destroys are her things and that he never takes part in the cleanup.
Abusive and toxic people do not start off by slapping you across the face. One in four women in the UK experience domestic violence during their life and 30% of domestic abuse doesn’t even begin until pregnancy and existing abuse can often get worse in pregnancy. That’s because the number one goal for abusive people is to isolate you. And once they have you incapacitated, their real face shows.
Small digs at your self esteem are warning signs and red flags. And if you’ve dealt with them all of your life and learned they aren’t a big deal, you will gladly ignore them in relationships. The added complexity due to non-monogamy is that I’ve found that additional partners may gaslight you even further.
You would think that if an abuser was dating three people who were friends with each other, and started becoming abusive to one of those people, the others would step in and realise what was happening. But in fact, the opposite can happen. The other two don’t experience what the abused one does and tells the abused one so. The abuser claims that they don’t have any problems in any other relationships and so the abused person becomes the ‘common denominator’ and therefore, the problem, not the abuse.
Not to mention, the two people not experiencing the abuse, even if they wanted to say something, may feel like by doing so they are somehow trying to be a ‘controlling’ partner or acting out jealousy. Or, the worst case scenario, the other two are just as abusive and toxic and the third person is well and truly on their own.
8. You don’t believe someone is okay
If you grew up with a toxic parent who hid their true emotions from you and then unleashed holy hell when you broke a plate, you stop being able to trust when anyone tells you that they are okay. Passive aggressive behaviour or having a parent who is passive until they explode out of proportion with aggression will make you constantly fear the impending storm. And the calm will make you fear it that much more.
Even if there is not a toxic or abusive partner in sight, you will still worry about the impending cataclysm, so much so that you need constant affirmation from your partner(s) that everything is okay, that they are not mad at you, that nothing bad is going to happen. And what’s even worse is you can then further self-attack yourself for needing so much validation. Especially in a non-monogamous world where everyone is encouraged to handle their own emotions independently.
I blame my ‘constant vigilance’ for my discomfort by even the suggestion of jealousy. In my own relationships, I avoid situations where I may feel jealous, not because I’ve ever really felt particularly jealous, but because the fear that I may suddenly become jealous is so anxiety provoking that these situations are just as uncomfortable as they would be if I were jealous.
And that’s because, should I become jealous and need to ask my partner to stop doing whatever they are doing, I will never be able to be truly comfortable with their affirmation that they are perfectly happy to do so and won’t be angry at me. Even avoiding these situations, I find it incredibly difficult to trust that my partner isn’t angry at me, that I haven’t done something wrong, that I’m being a good enough partner. You name it.
Once you’ve had people tell you they are okay when they are definitely not okay, you don’t trust ‘okay’ anymore.
9. You don’t think fears are worth addressing
People sometimes tell me that my parents, despite their actions, do truly love me and want the best for me. And that’s because they grew up in an environment where they may have argued with their parents because they knew that disagreeing or even disobeying them would not result in the end of their relationship with their parents. People with toxic parents can’t say the same. And sometimes toxic people like to go out with a bang.
If you are used to loving someone you are afraid of and dealing with a large amount of fear regularly, your brain copes with it better by lowing your sensitivity to it. You don’t think anything of being afraid in certain situations because your meter for appropriate fear has be recalibrated to the environment you grew up in, rather than the environment you’re in.
That’s even more compounded if anxiety and paranoia have been ways that you have coped in the past. Most of my anxiety is around redirecting my fear from something I can’t control to something my mind thinks I can control. Anxiety is a mirage that makes you feel like worrying is productive, that panicking is progress, and that you can fight and flight all at the same time. If you’ve been afraid of everything, you don’t know whether your fear is warranted or not.
Newbie non-monogamous advice will tell you to communicate your fears and worries to your partner(s), but you may feel like you don’t know if your fear is worth communication. Are you just freaking out pointlessly? Or is your fear real? When my anxiety is at it’s peak, I go around in circles. I second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh guess myself. I don’t do anything because I become so confused at which thought is anxiety and which thought is me. And I’m left with an incredible urge to act out in some way that relieves my anxiety.
That’s where a lot of ‘rules’ come from that aren’t designed to do anything but relieve anxiety, but which may become obstacles in the future. Some rules and boundaries have a good point and purpose, but sometimes they are a symptom of an underlying problem. No amount of rules will stop anxiety or jealousy. And ignoring your fears won’t necessarily make them disappear.
So what now?
Just as Thorpe says, toxicity isn’t a death sentence. Learning about the impacts of toxic parents on your development can be depressing because you can find yourself scrolling through study after study of how abuse and adverse childhood experiences permanently impact children.
But none of this was taught to you in a single day, week or year. You learned this gradually. And you will have to un-learn it gradually. It’s a difficult and long process, but reading books about toxic parenting can help.
I plan on writing a follow up article to this on specific ways you can address the nine things I’ve pointed out in non-monogamous settings, but for now, I advise anyone who believes they may have had a toxic parent to check out the following books:
- Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
- Toxic Parents by Susan Forward
- Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson
- Surviving a Borderline Parent by Kimberlee Roth, Freda B Friedman
- Stop Walking on Eggshells by Mason, Paul, Kreger and Randi
and last but not least:
- The Revolution Starts at Home by Chen, Ching-In, Dulani, Jai, Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi, Andrea Smith
If you liked this article…
I have written The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy designed as a starter book for someone who is new to non-monogamy and/or people struggling with anxiety in polyamory. You don’t have to be anxious for the book to help, especially as it comes with not just a bit of advice but activities for you to try on your own or with partners to help ground you.
The book is now available for pre-order from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be released late June 2022.