Confronting The Double Standards In Emotionally Abusive Family Relationships

One early evening when I was 18 years old, I was trying to take a shower.  But my mother kept knocking on the bathroom door, calling out my name and saying something in a muffled voice. There were two bathrooms in the house and I was halfway through my fifteen minute shower, I didn’t know what she could possibly want. I kept asking “what?” while continuing my shower and she kept knocking on the door, saying “Caden?, Jake? [my brother’s name,] and then coming back again. Eventually something rose up from inside of me, and I was screaming louder then I ever had in my life, asking over and over again, “What??” and eventually she went away. Many times when I was a child there was someone on the other side of that bathroom door banging and shouting at me as they gradually broke it down or picked the lock to attack me; I was sexually assaulted in that shower multiple times, making it difficult enough to be in there without one of my abusers interfering. But at the time I didn’t know where that outburst had come from, I was confused, and when I dressed and opened the door, I was going to apologize to my parents and explain that I was just stressed out and tired.

Yet the moment I emerged my mother and father started screaming at me in unison, “Who do you think you’re talking to, how dare you, if you ever speak to me in that tone again…” So I just went back to my room, and forgot about apologizing to those miserable, hateful people. It was like trying to talk to a barking machine that would just start making automatic, repetitive noises whenever it detected a speaking voice. There was nothing I could say to them, I wasn’t allowed to have feelings, or bad days, or even just casually talk to them. My parents created a deeply abusive relationship with me, where I always felt at fault, but there was no supplication available. My apologies were never accepted, acknowledged, or deemed relevant to the issue at hand–they could never stop the rejection, the silence, the turning away and the judgments they used my behavior to reaffirm until the next round of raging and shaming would begin. My mother later claimed “I just wasn’t sure if you or Jake was in the shower” which is not a very compelling reason to make a scene and blame it on me when she could have waited.

Yet in my family, my older siblings and parents always acted like they could emotionally abuse me one second and then impose themselves upon me the next; like the moment we left each others eyesight, whatever they had done or said to me vanished, and they expected me to be nice, civil, to never ask for an apology or for problems to actually be brought up and worked out. They freely took out their bad days, moods, and hangovers on me. I never received an apology from my parents, but it was made very clear that what I did and said in our family would not evaporate, I experienced many sudden silent treatments and creeping emotional punishments that taught me I was on the losing side of the double standard in our relationship. If I didn’t aggressively self-censor myself and let everything that they did slide, it seemed like the world would come to an end.

But today I don’t believe in letting significant hurtful remarks and actions ‘slide,’ because I know at the end of the slide is a dark pit of indifference and the same old thing. It’s very common for people to describe “not blaming” our families as being “the bigger person,” but I don’t agree. When someone has hurt you, or more widely destroyed your life via abuse or neglect while others were abusing you, holding them responsible for their actions is a good thing, and it doesn’t make us small or somehow less then others. Not holding family members responsible for how they’ve treated you, and thus accepting that abusive, neglectful treatment without ever demanding accountability, apologies and substantive change doesn’t make you a bigger or better person. I don’t give my sensitivity, kindness, and energy away to people who abuse me anymore, I recognize that the world is not black and white, and I don’t have to treat everyone the same exact way in order to define myself as a good person.

Of course as the youngest in my family, my parents and siblings were the ‘bigger’ people in the relationship, but bigness did not mean they were right, correct, or kind. My parents and older siblings towered over a child and reacted in the most petty, cruel, and hateful way to millions of minor things. Once when I brought up to my sister during our final months of relationship how something demeaning that she had just said to me was part of a pattern for how she responded my whole life, she gave me this patronizing look and said “geez, you’re holding all this anger inside you about the past!” What that means is that she felt entitled to complete absolution and had no obligation to apologize for what she had done to me and make a complete break with that treatment. Everything that she had done was now supposed to be “the past” a vague, murky area that so many agree needs to be shunned and deleted. But every moment of a relationship is suffused by it’s entire history, and what bad times there were, and whether they were ultimately resolved, or in this case, not.

I recall how my family never forgot a story about me that they could mock, scorn, and ridicule; my mother would tell her twisted versions of the same humiliating, insulting, lie-filled stories of my life over and over again. But of course they “didn’t remember” any of the sexual or physical abuse, and if I brought up the emotional abuse, even what they just said five minutes previous, the wall of denial put up was insurmountable. My sister had a very good memory for ridiculing me too, but times and events where she had greatly hurt me always conveniently drew a blank. But we aren’t wrong for being bothered by horrible things that were said and done to us, no matter when they happened, and it isn’t unreasonable to bring these things up and ask for them to be justly worked through. It isn’t wrong to bring things forward, to confront the architects of our childhood and demand a response.

There are many people we meet in life who when we try to set a boundary–to assert ourselves, say no, or that something they said or did made us uncomfortable and we don’t want it to happen again–will immediately walk away. They often portray us as being so volatile, difficult, and unpredictable that we aren’t worth coming around anymore because we could just blow up at them at any time. My older sister acted like this, to her our relationship could only be one where she could say or do whatever she liked without worrying about my feelings or how it affected me, and if I didn’t like it then I shouldn’t talk to her. In her view, I was responsible for her emotional abuse because I spoke to her at all. She also felt that because she thought she was correct about a topic of discussion (she often wasn’t) that that gave her a right to insult me as much as she wanted or could. But that isn’t true at all, and this sick, unequal relationship where I was treated like dirt was a model that she invented, and was constantly trying to reinforce despite my resistance.

Of course, I was once one of those people that instantly walked away myself. I’ve read that brains which were not damaged by abuse in early childhood development will release serotonin in response to social rejection, while damaged ones do not. I can see why it would wind up that way for me, because not only did I experience multiple traumas and decades of emotional abuse, when I was rejected at home, it was total-person rejection. Thus I was in no place to accept constructive criticism or rejection. Whenever someone had a problem with me, I instantly took it as a ‘piling on’ to all the trauma I had faced and that it was more evidence that my family was right about me. If I made a mistake, it wasn’t because the world is made up of many different people with individual perspectives, needs and boundaries in their relationships, it was because I was ‘always wrong’ and shouldn’t be around other people at all.

But as I’ve been healing and gaining more of a sense of myself, I see that it really isn’t too much to deal with other people’s boundaries, and nor is it for them to deal with mine. Despite what I was told in childhood, I’m not impossibly difficult, I’m not unreasonable; I’m not someone who can only expect tolerance at best. I’m someone who was traumatized for a long time, but I do have a right to expect mutual and healthy relationships with others and myself too. And just as importantly, I’m capable of maintaining them as well.   My first relationships in life are long since over and they are not the model I seek to replicate today nor do they predict what my future relationships will be like. 


About proudlysensitive

I'm a gay male survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
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31 Responses to Confronting The Double Standards In Emotionally Abusive Family Relationships

  1. I really like this article; very well explained. I am in a moment of seeing how I have difficulties to set boundaries with abusing people. One college at work is really terrible. I think is because I haven’t learnt to set boundaries or to allow myself to feel my feelings of disgust towards abusive actions from people (I have the tendency to over adapt to people, to be a people pleaser,…)

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Paseosinperro. I know what you mean about over adapting to people, I did that myself and it took me a long time to really find my voice.
      take care,

  2. Yay Caden!
    I Love your last paragraph so much. It is empowering and full of the truth. It ISN’T too much to ask for respect. It isn’t too hard for them or anyone! I LOVE the way you state your value here! This is the truth about real life, real love and freedom! Freedom from dysfunction.
    Great post!
    hugs, Darlene

    • Thanks Darlene! It’s definitely not too much or too hard! It feels so good to shed those old lies about ourselves that we were fed, and your writing has provided enormous help in finding my direction towards freedom. Thanks for reading and sharing.
      take care,

  3. Sherrie says:

    I don’t know if this is the right area or not but I have been ready you info for about 6 month and is very uplifting

    A little back ground:
    I have 1 sister that is 2 yrs older than me and has spend her life tormenting me. I have always wanted to be her friend. When we were young and in school she would tell everyone that she did not know who I was and that she did not have a sister. When ever I found join in anything she would destroy it. Example: When I was 7yrs old, down the road from our house was an empty lot where I use to go to play, I discovered an ant hill and started bring the ants candy and water. I was the kind of kid that loved everything. When she discovered this she covered my ant hill in ant killer and killed them all. These are only 2 example, the list goes on and on. A year and a half ago I finally went no contact with her. It has been a blessing but also very painful, I am in mourning for the sister I always wanted and will never have.

    My mother: She has spend her life going from 1 tragedy to the next and I have been her only support. When I was in the 5th grade I was the one she would have sit at the table while she cried and served me alcohol so that she would have someone to drink with and that was my life going forward. She never wanted me to leave home. At the age of 30 I finally broke free or I thought I had. I moved 1500 miles away and she would come and stay every other month for an entire month. I have an at home business so I was stuck there with her all day every day for the whole month each time she came to stay. I am a very social person and love to do things with my friends, When ever I was going out she would look sad and lonely, which in turn would make me feel guilty for leaving her.

    After years of this I couldn’t take it anymore and told her she can not come that often or stay that long. I told her if I had to I would leave my home and live in a tent in the woods to have my freedom, Now those were my exact words. Her response was ” I will find you”.
    How terrible it was to discover that my mother did care how I felt. After these blow-ups of mine I would always go back to what she wanted me to be.

    At the age of 41 I got married to a wonderful man, He is truly my best friend. I still continued to have problems with my mother visiting all the time and stay for a month. My Husband and I are very busy people, He works 6 days 60 hrs a week and our only day together is Sunday, I have told my mother this and that I wanted to spend Sunday alone with my Husband and that she would have to find something to do outside the house, She agreed. Then Sunday came, She sat on the back porch visiting with my husband until 2 in the afternoon when I finally told my husband “Lets go, we are going out to do something” at that point when we were getting ready to leave she finally left because she knew we wouldn’t be there anyway. She was only gone for a couple of hours and then came back. I have told her she can not use me for her life entertainment and that she needs counseling, she said she would get a counselor but has not in the 3 years after this. When I finally put my foot down, again and told her she could only come 2 time per year for 1 week she bought a house across the street and is always popping in.

    How do I deal with the chest pain associated with this, when ever I see her or speak to her my chest hurt and all I can do is try to hurry it up so that I can get away.

    Thank you for listening

    • Sherrie, thanks for reading and sharing some of your story. That is such a horrible intrusion on the part of your mother! The way that she steamrolls over your boundaries and personal space sounds truly nightmarish. My mother was also an alcoholic vampire, and I had to work hard to resist her efforts to use me once I moved out. I’m so sorry your mother has gone to such insane lengths to consume your whole life. But she has no rights over you today, I’m sure some people do have restraining orders against a neighbor who lives across the street. Just living there doesn’t mean she has a legal right to enter your house or your life, nor do you have an obligation to speak to her. I also experienced the physical symptoms (and maybe I still would today) when I was in contact with her, but I notice my overall fear has been decreasing as I’ve progressed in healing.

      take care,

      • Sherrie says:

        Thank You Proudlysensitive for listening and confirming that this is not normal, I seem to be having a very hard time with this because everyone that knows her thinks she is so wonderful and that I am so lucky to have such a caring mother. I am backing out slowly, which is very painful but I do not think I am able at this time to make a clean cut. I wish I was strong enough and brave enough to do that but I am not

  4. I’m 73 now, and those kinds of things happened to me all through my childhood. As hard as I work to put it all in the past, triggers can send me back in a snap. Thanks for putting this so clearly into words. I always feel like I’m struggling in the dark to figure it all out.

    • Thanks Julaine, I’m glad you got something out of this entry. I know what you mean about triggers, they always come up until we’ve really faced and worked through the pain.

      take care,

  5. Lora says:

    Hey Caden! what a beautifully expressed article. It touched my heart and soul in profound ways. It makes me so sad that there are so many of us that have received such poor treatment.

    I’ve come to realize in our family that my mom was the poison root that fed our family. She blinded my dad to her abuse towards my sister and I and he failed to protect us from her when we were children. Since my own healing and divorcing myself from my whole family, I am disgusted and disappointed by the way they treated us. I’m grateful to be away from them all but saddened by the wreckage I have to clean up. Thank you for being such a brave, brilliant soul. I hope you know how much your story means to all us survivors. Namaste!

    • Thanks for reading and leaving such great feedback, Lora! I like the way you put it; my mother was also the poison root in our family, though she created many other ‘rootlings’ spreading outward with her same dysfunction. And yeah, with healing does come awareness of just how much wreckage lies behind us, and that can be very sad, but it’s better then not being able to see it, certainly.

      thanks and take care,

  6. Kate Love says:


    This is my first visit to your blog. Thank you for sharing your voice and offering hope to others.

    I’ve begun blogging about my own recent sexual trauma and am committed to finding my voice in this journey. I appreciate your vulnerable eloquence.



  7. Miriam Mason says:

    Hello Caden, like Kate Love above me, I am deeply moved by your site, your courage and above all, your calmness. I am still in a really angry place around what happened to me and would like to move past that part. I’m no spring chicken and I often wonder if I’m stuck here. Your blog gives me a lot of hope that perhaps I am not. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Miriam. Personally I find that my anger is healthy and a really good tool for my healing; when I experience it very strongly, I often write it out to get to the heart of it, finding what triggered me today, what it brings up from my history, and in there I find my core pain and truth. That’s where my calm comes from, from having experienced all of those intense emotions. Anyway, I’m glad I could give you hope, I’m sure you aren’t completely stuck; healing is a long and non-linear process.

      take care,

  8. Jane T (ACT) says:

    Hi Caden. I’ve just discovered your blog and read this post. I admire your writing style and the way you’ve articulated your experiences and insights. I’d like to read all of your posts. Thank you for sharing your heart and life with honesty.
    kind regards,

  9. mandy says:

    Hi Caden, I hope you’re doing well! I was putting together a new page on my blog called Heroes In My Garden. It’s just a little way for me to say thanks to the folks who have touched my life since I’ve been blogging. It wouldn’t have been complete without you! ❤

  10. “It was like trying to talk to a barking machine that would just start making automatic, repetitive noises whenever it detected a speaking voice. ”

    This is brilliant writing.

    “…I experienced many sudden silent treatments and creeping emotional punishments that taught me I was on the losing side of the double standard in our relationship.”

    This, too.

    “But every moment of a relationship is suffused by it’s entire history….”

    This, three.

    The poster family for abusive narcissism, wherever they are out there in the world, have true competition in your relatives. It makes perfect sense that the slightest criticism and manipulation would spike your blood pressure even now: the tiniest jab into an open, unhealed wound hurts like hell. The walking wounded never truly relax because we can’t. It’s survival.

    The truth I found hardest to assimilate about narcissistic parents is that there will never be a transformation on their part. The saddest and most destructive aspect of NPD is that the narcissist doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with them: it’s all you. They will go to their grave denying everything, even the jarringly obvious, even if convicted by a court of law and a jury of their peers. When the codependent finally allows that cold, hard fact to sink in and stick, they learn the only way out is away.

    Find a new family–make one. Start with your valuable, diamond-like self and spread out from there. It happens, it really does. It just happens so damned slowly.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts with me. You’re right, these sick people will never see reality, they just think “oh, but you did X, so you DESERVE abuse.” But that’s not true, and the fault of abuse still lies with the abuser, no matter what. People like my mother chose many decades ago to sympathize with the people who abused them and become their ghosts, and that’s the end of that. But it’s definitely not the end of me, I also beleive in making my own family and am doing it!

      take care,

    • I just reread my comment above and realized something more about the walking open wound analogy.

      When you’ve got open wounds (I’m using “you” in the general sense), especially emotional ones, you move through the world in a hyper-vigilant state, always tensed, always reactive, always on the lookout for anything that might scrape along that painful spot and trigger it again or make it worse. This uses up a buttload of energy, so much so that there is very little left for other aspects of survival and growth. It’s like treading water forever.

      It also puts you in a one-down position, forcing you to self-identify as broken, weak, or just generally disempowered. Never has that position been so clear to me as in my narcissistic hypochondriac mother. In order to control people around her, she must stay in a constant state of injury or illness in order to keep that sympathy rollin’ in. The punchline is that her unhappy emotional state from all this manipulation produces enough stress to cause actual physical deterioration. Neener, neener.

      I know a little something about that. My physical constitution is normally almost nuclear in its strength and vitality. In college, I was carrying a full load of courses, body building and playing power volleyball almost every night until midnight, and partying every weekend until the wee hours while still staying on the Dean’s List. In my twenties, I started my own garden design and landscaping company, worked up to 14 hours a day in godawful heat and cold, still was bodybuilding every night, and used my one day off to solo climb a mountain. (Colorado is awesome.)

      I started to get injured and sick here and there but I ignored it and pushed through because the philosophy of Suffering Is Necessary was so culturally ingrained in me that it never occurred to me that six colds a year and sixteen Advil a day might be my body’s way of saying, “Yo. Stupid.” I had always gotten points for my ability to tolerate/ignore pain and suffering (a handy little trick I picked up from my NPD family) and I was really enjoying the adulation of my peers for it. My favorite subcontractor at work used to say, “You look like a woman but you work like a man.” I thought I had arrived.

      My ill health gathered momentum like a massive avalanche bearing down on a village until the impact finally woke me up: I had deadly bronchitis, a Traumatic Brain Injury, and my adrenals crashed all in the space of a year. My lungs and noggin healed but adrenals are a funny organ–they are in charge, along with many of their organ buddies, of handling stress. When they’re sick, they respond to every little thing as if it were the end of the world and shut down the entire system as a safety mechanism.

      So, back to what I was saying about being a walking wound in a constant state of stress….

      • Thanks allthoughtswork, for sharing and for your compliments. PTSD can most definitely wear us down. I know what you mean, I also learned to ignore my body (or even treat it with contempt) after being abused and neglected in childhood. But of course that doesn’t work, and things caught up with me too. I’ve found that working with my acupuncturist on a lot of body/energy work has been really helping me to heal, connect with me body, and move away from the fatigue and inflammation I began to experience a few years ago due to the trauma. It is so freeing, and I’m glad that I certainly won’t end up like my abusive mother either.

        wishing you good health,

  11. Nadia says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this essay. It is so refreshing to find such an evolved and nuanced analysis on emotional abuse, and one that is so affirming of the integrity and humanity of the survivor. I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts and have been having some similar ones of my own for a long time. I strongly relate and can’t tell you how much I appreciate the validation.

    The worst my parents have ever been able to say about me is that I’m “difficult.” That is because I’ve always been one to speak up, simply as a self-preservation instinct. But it is counted against me. Otherwise — good grades, virtually no reckless behavior at all, not even the stuff you’d expect with any teen. This is because there was no room for me to be anything but the absolute model of restraint and even today, at 40, I still try to unlearn unhealthy self-criticism, perfectionism, and compulsive “helping.” This is going to sound weird but a part of me still doesn’t quite believe that grown ups around me are competent in basic ways.

    It is still a struggle to overcome the double standard you describe. For example, I have been aware that I’m expected to have a totally perfect memory so that I can, I don’t know, present a convincing case in court? It is an exhausting way to be in a relationship — the memory keeper — especially when I tend to view the other person as conveniently forgetful.

    Lastly, here is a blurb I wrote last year after a triggering incident with a neighbor and in the wake of the 2013 “bullying” controversy involving NFL player Jonathan Martin:

    In an abusive dynamic, well-meaning acquaintances of the victim might want to know (1) why not fight back? and/or (2) why not just leave? Here’s part of the answer, at least from my experience. Why not fight back? Because the force of the blow-back will likely knock the victim down flat if not kill her. It’s literally not worth it. Also, the victim instantly loses credibility that way. S/he gets unconsciously perceived as unstable. As a result, the situation becomes viewed more as “he said/she said” rather than abuse. The victim has to maintain an inhuman level of self-restraint, and self-consciousness, in order to be credible. Why not just leave? Because sometimes it is just as stressful and difficult to leave the situation as it is to stay. And when you’re in it, it’s hard to think clearly.

    Your essay gives me courage/strength. It’s the first I’ve read on your blog and can’t wait to read more.

    • Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts Nadia, I’m so glad you took something away from my essay. I know what you mean about having learned to compulsively take care of other people (and be hyper-aware of things they may forget); I learned that pattern with my alcoholic mother as a child, and it is tough to shred, especially if now people ‘expect’ you to keep up a role you’re trying to move away from. I’m sorry you’re in that situation today. I can relate to what you say in your blurb also–that’s actually something I’ve been writing a post on recently! It’s so horrible to have to work so hard against being what someone else already falsely believes you to be.

      take care,

  12. Barbie Beaton says:

    Hi dear friend of same circumstance. I applaud your resolute conviction. I became aware of the emotional abuse from my family just months ago. I’m 43. The years of repressed emotions came exploding out in the form of PTSD. I don’t know your age, but you deserve a happy life, with or without serotonin. (That’s my humor talking.) I’m just beginning my happy life. Cheers!

  13. Kristen says:

    As a victim of life long abuse at the hands and mouth of my older sister, I thank you for this essay. I too was not permitted to be angry, upset or misbehave. The consequences were emotional invalidation, belittlement and being called at one point an “asshole” by my father and told “he was sorry I was born.”
    These things leave permanent scars.
    The worst thing my sister ever said after my husband beat me within an inch of my life. She stated clearly an unequivocally that I “..deserved it…” and when I responded that “…she was just sorry he didn’t succeed in killing me.” she was silent at the other end of the phone. Of course she denied ever saying this and our parents believed her. Why would I ever make something like that up? The emotional blackmail, and verbal abuse at my parents end whenever I set boundaries or expressed my wishes to avoid her were and are just as painful now as in my childhood.
    Now she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and I just can’t bring myself to care. I feel badly for her children, as she is there mother, but as a sibling…nothing. This lack of any emotion on my part will splinter me from my parents and brother forever, but I have learned, through many many years of therapy that my self preservation matter far more than what any of them want for the sake of appearance or family harmony. I am not now and nor will I ever be again that scapegoat who is treated like dirt.

    • Hi Kristen, thank you for sharing. What your sister said to you is beyond unacceptable, and that she and the rest of your family denied it afterwards is horrible. You’re right, no one spends their time ‘making up’ damaging, traumatizing things that people have said to us; though of course I was accused of doing that many times as well, by careless abusers who constantly attacked me without thinking they needed to take responsibility for their words and actions. I’m sorry that your family will also judge for not feeling anything when the sister who said she wished your abusive husband had murdered you dies in the hospital. But I’m glad you are able to stand with yourself even if that is alone in the context of your family.

      Take care,

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