This is the sixth and last installment in a series of blogs on relationship patterns found in dysfunctional families. We have seen how abusive families put members in roles and the way abusers dodge responsibility by blaming others and forcing children to become adults. The family system is built on lies running over personal boundaries and destroying any healthy sense of self in its members. These relationship patterns work together to form a web of what I call oppression. It is so pervasive, so overwhelming, that leaving the family culture feels impossible. 

As I drove up the winding path toward my parent’s house, the old, familiar dread formed in the pit of my stomach. My two small boys chattered in the back seat. What kind of mood will my parents be in today I wondered. I would know as soon as I stepped in the door. Sure enough, the air was oppressive and heavy with anger. My mother stomped around the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner. My father sat scowling in his recliner. Depression crept over me as I tried to think of something I could do to help.

Unsaid expectations

Unsaid expectations are the norm in an oppressive family and we are groomed from an early age to pay attention to them. These expectations lead to feelings of despair as over and over family members make us try to meet impossible needs. 

“Do you want me to set the table?” I asked my mother cheerily as my boys ran out to the backyard to play.

“Those boys didn’t even speak to me,” my mother said as she bent over a pot. 

“Oh, they’re just excited to be here,” I replied.

Sometimes my mother wanted them to say hello right away. Other times, they annoyed her. Today, I had guessed wrong. 

Confusion is another norm found in an oppressive family system. A type of bait and switch occurs and the child or adult/child must continually guess about the situation and what they should do.

People pleasing

I continued trying to figure out a way to make everybody feel better. “Do you want them to eat in the kitchen or at the dining room table with the adults?”

My mother changed the subject. “I don’t know why your father won’t help me. I’ve got all these vegetables coming in the garden and there is no way I can get them all in. It’s just too much work around here.”

Would she be happy if I helped her work the garden? Should I offer to stay so I could hoe a field that was out of control with plants that no one could possibly hope to harvest? Perhaps she could hire somebody. Would that make her happy?  My father had a business to run. He couldn’t help. Besides, he was as unhappy with her as she was with him. How could anyone possibly work in that gigantic garden of hers and have any hope of getting one-tenth the work done? It was hopeless. It was always hopeless where my mother and father were concerned. They set it up that way. 

Oppressive systems demand people pleasing and blame you for what you cannot control. What I was not able to see at the time was that my mother’s stupid garden had nothing to do with the situation. If it had not been the garden it would have been a thousand other things. She was always unhappy and constantly dissatisfied with her life. All of that had nothing to do with me, but from the time I have any memory, I was the one who was blamed for the deep anger she felt in life.

Covert Abuse

Every visit to my parent’s home was the same. Soon, my father would take me aside and start with his own litany of complaints. What did he want me to do? Agreeing with him wasn’t enough. He wanted me to make him happy….but how? The conversation went something like this:

“I’m really enjoying teaching this year. I’ve got pretty good students overall,” I said as I put on a happy face.

My father rolled his eyes. “Teaching is a terrible career. You’ll never get anywhere with it. Doesn’t pay anything and all you do is deal with problems.” (This after he told me over and over to major in education.)

Okay. He doesn’t like my career choice. Maybe if I talk about the new house. “We’ve finally finished the foundation and the contractors will be putting up the frame pretty soon.”  

“We’re supposed to be getting rain the next two weeks. Why did you have them start now? You’re going to ruin the foundation.” Always questioning my competence, my father never came out and said, “You’re a moron.” My parent’s never said, “We hate you,” or “We want you to fix us,” but that was always communicated loud and clear. And over it, all was a healthy dose of fear. I was far too terrified to ever speak up.

For the rest of the evening, I stuck to topics like the weather or asked my father questions about himself. After dinner, the boys played quietly on the floor while I sat on the couch, my mother frowning in silence. As long as my father could lecture about all the mistakes I was making, or veer off into some topic in which he felt himself an expert, he would continue to listen to himself talk and leave me alone. I watched the clock and waited for the first moment I could leave without causing questions. They hated me for being there, they hated me for leaving. They just….hated me. 

It’s been a long time since I engaged with that family system, but it has had an impact on my entire life. Unsaid expectations, insults, and impossible situations set the stage for heavy oppression making all my relationships and indeed my place in the world difficult.

The oppressive nature of an abusive family system leads to one place—hopelessness. Dread, fear, confusion, and depression are its companions. You never feel safe. You can never be yourself. You can never tell the truth, and you can never work through conflict.  

It is like carrying a huge leather suitcase filled with cinder blocks in each hand. I carried those oppressive suitcases for years until I could not take another step. I set them down out of desperation. I think most of us stay as long as we can in the hope that things might change. Sometimes they do, but most of the time, an oppressive narcissistic system by its very nature resists change of any kind. You do not have to live under it, however. The false narrative, false roles, lack of personal responsibility, no-talk rule, and the complete and utter lack of self-awareness do not have to be yours anymore.

You have a right to be at peace. You have a right to exist. You have a right to be who you truly are. Step out from under oppression and defy trauma, embrace joy. It isn’t easy, but it sure is worth it. 

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