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Toxic Family Members: More Ideas from Islamic and Counseling Sources
“…Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship…”(middle of Quranic verse 2:185)
Many comments under my first IOU Blog article, “Tips to Deal with Toxic People from Islamic and Counseling Sources,” asked for more information about toxic family members. This is a challenging topic, since family ties are extremely important in Islam.
Our Prophet (pbuh) said, “The ties of blood are suspended from the Throne (of God), and say, ‘Whoso doth regard us, him will God regard, and whoso doth cut us apart, him will God cut apart.’” (Bukhari, Muslim)
He (pbuh) also said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him maintain the bonds of kinship.” (Bukhari)
But what if family relationships cause us severe mental, emotional, and spiritual harm? Should we continue to suffer? In my humble opinion, Islamic teachings are not meant to cause us suffering. Consider these two hadiths:
Verily, this (your) religion is easy, and none shall be severe in religion but it will overcome him: he shall turn it into a stone and make it a tomb. (Bukhari)
God did not send me to be harsh, or cause harm, but He sent me to teach and make things easy. (Sahih Muslim)
If toxic family members are harming your mental, emotional and spiritual health, you need to protect yourself from harm–especially if your relationship with Allah (swt) is being affected:
Our Prophet (pbuh) said, “A believer is not stung from the same hole twice.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
This article has three parts:
1) Islamic teachings about family relationships
2) Characteristics of toxic family members
3) Ideas to cope with toxic family members.
PART 1: ISLAMIC TEACHINGS ABOUT FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS
1. One of the main reasons that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent is to uphold family ties.
Before ‘Umar ibn ‘Absah became Muslim, he asked the Prophet (pbuh): “With what were you sent?” He (pbuh) said: “He has sent me to uphold the ties of kinship, to break the idols and to proclaim the Oneness of Allah, not associating anything with Him.” (Sahih Muslim)
In the story of Abu Sufyaan and Heraclius, Heraclius asked Abu Sufyan, “What does he – [meaning the Prophet (pbuh)] – enjoin upon you?” Abu Sufyan said, “He enjoins us to pray, give charity, be chaste and uphold family ties.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
2. Your parents must be treated with the utmost respect and kindness always.
And We have enjoined on man (to be dutiful and good) to his parents. His mother bore him in weakness and hardship upon weakness and hardship, and his weaning is in two years. Give thanks to Me and to your parents. Unto Me is the final destination. But if they strive with you to make you join in worship with Me others that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not, but behave with them in the world kindly, and follow the path of him who turns to Me in repentance and in obedience. Then to Me will be your return, and I shall tell you what you used to do. (Luqman, 31: 14-15)
You shall be kind to your parents. If one or both of them live to their old age in your lifetime, you shall not say to them any word of contempt nor repel them, and you shall address them in kind words. You shall lower to them the wing of humility and pray: “O Lord! Bestow on them Your blessings just as they cherished me when I was a little child.” (Al-Isra, 17:23-24)
A man came to the Prophet and said: O Messenger of Allah! Who from amongst mankind warrants the best companionship from me? He replied: “Your mother.” The man asked: Then who? So he replied: “Your mother.” The man then asked: Then who? So the Prophet replied again: “Your mother.” The man then asked: Then who? So he replied: “Then your father.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
May he be disgraced! May he be disgraced! May he be disgraced, whose parents, one or both, attain old age during his lifetime, and he does not enter Paradise (by being dutiful to them).
(Muslim and Tirmidthi)
He who wishes to enter paradise at the best gate must please his father and mother.
(Bukhari & Muslim)
3. Islam teaches us to treat our children with mercy and fairness.
Allah’s Messenger kissed his grandson Hasan when a man named Al-Aqra was sitting with him. Al-Aqra said, “I have ten children and have never kissed one of them.” The Prophet looked at him and said, “Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully.” (Al-Bukhari)
The Messenger of Allah said: “Treat your children fairly, treat your children fairly.” (Nasai)
4. The marriage relationship, overall, should be characterized by love, compassion, comfort and protection.
And among Allah’s signs is this: that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, so that you might find rest in them, and He has set between you love and compassion. Truly there are signs in this for people who reflect. (Ar-Rum, 30:21)
5. Showing kindness to your wife and family is highly rewarded.
The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best character, and the best of you are those who are the kindest to their wives and families. (At-Tirmidthi)
Sa’d bin Abu-Waqqas reports, “I fell ill at the Farewell Pilgrimage, and the Prophet came to visit me. I said, ‘O Prophet of God! I am suffering severely from the effects of illness, as you see, and I have wealth which I have none to inherit except my only daughter. Should I give two-thirds of my wealth for charity?’ The Prophet said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Then one-half (for charity)?’ The Prophet said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Then one-third (for charity)?’ The Prophet said, ‘Yes, one-third, and one-third is (also) much: verily it is better that you leave your heirs rich than that you leave them needy to beg from men. And you shall not spend anything seeking the pleasure of God except that you will (also) be rewarded for it, even for what you put into the mouth of your wife.’ (Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidthi)
6. A wife is required in Islam to treat her husband with respect and dutifulness.
I asked the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him): “Who has the greatest right over a woman?” He (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Her husband.” I said: “And who has the greatest right over a man?” He (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “His mother.” (Al-Hakim – taken from Fiqh As-Sunnah)
When any woman prays her five, fasts her month, guards her body and obeys her husband it is said to her: “Enter paradise from whichever of its doors you wish.” (Ibn Hibban, Sahih per Al-Albani)
7. Kindness to relatives is an Islamic duty.
…Show kindness to parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, the neighboring kinsman and the neighbor who is not of your kind, the companion, the traveler in need, and to the slaves you own…(An-Nisa’, 4:36)
8. Reconciliation and Forgiveness are ideals that we should strive for.
Whoever pardons and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God. (Ash-Shuraa, 42:40)
A companion said, “I never heard him (i.e. The Prophet Muhammad) giving people permission to tell a lie in anything except in (three) matters: concerning war, making peace between people, and in the conversation of a man with his wife or the conversation of a woman with her husband, for the benefit and protection of their marriage” (Recorded in Muslim)
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Shall I not inform you of something more excellent than fasting, prayer and charity?…It is putting things right between people” (Sunan of Abu-Dawood, Hadith 2310).
Almost every family relationship will experience broken trust at some point. It is normal for trust levels to rise and fall over the course of a relationship. Some toxic family relationships can be repaired in the long run, but both people must be willing to work at self-growth.
PART 2: CHARACTERISTICS OF TOXIC FAMILY MEMBERS
Having problems with family members does not necessarily mean they are toxic. Relationship problems are normal and can often be solved by honest communication and problem-solving.
One question to ask yourself is, “Is this relationship harming me more than benefitting me?” If the relationship is more harmful, it may be toxic.
Two key characteristics of toxic family members is that they are:
2) Unwilling to accept any responsibility for their behaviors
Because of their unwillingness to take responsibility, it is difficult to repair relationships with them. Setting boundaries/limits is crucial. Part 3 of this article will discuss boundaries and other coping ideas in more detail.
Here are other common characteristics of toxic family members:
*Cause stress, anxiety, anger, confusion, exhaustion, and self-doubt in others
*Can make you feel like you are going crazy or that you are the victim of a psychopath trying to manipulate and control you
*Their behaviors are severely affecting your life and health
*Unlikely to understand how other people feel, or to even care.
*Self-centered and emotionally dependent
*Extremely negative and critical
*Emotionally abusive bullies
*Adept at sensing your weaknesses and will use them against you
*Passive aggressive (Passive aggression is “non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behavior. Instead of openly expressing how they feel, someone makes subtle, annoying gestures directed at you. Instead of saying what’s actually upsetting them, they find small and petty ways to take jabs at you until you pay attention and get upset” [see http://www.marcandangel.com/2015/05/03/10-things-to-remember-about-toxic-family-members/)
*Many become worse with age
Toxic people act in these ways because it works to get their needs met. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t continue acting in these ways.
PART 3: IDEAS TO COPE WITH TOXIC FAMILY MEMBERS
How to cope is complicated because every situation is unique. Here is a list of ideas. You should use your intuition and reason to choose the best course of action. Not all of these ideas will work for your particular situation.
1. Live for Allah (swt).
…But is it not sufficient concerning your Lord that He is, over all things, a Witness? (Fussilat, 41:53)
Place your hopes in Allah (swt), and not in people. Allah (swt) is All-Seeing and All-Hearing, and He will reward your for your patience and sincerity.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “The Muslim who mixes with the people and bears patiently their hurtful words, is better than one who does not mix with people and does not show patience under their abuse.” (Mishkat, Book: Ethics, ch. ‘Gentleness, modesty and good behaviour’)
If you focus on Allah (swt) and on earning His pleasure, then you will try to be a good Muslim regardless of how other people act.
Say: “Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death, are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds.” (6:162)
The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Do not be of those who do to others as the others do to them, and say that we will do them a favor if they do us a favor, and if they will be mean and unjust to us then we, too, will be mean and unjust to them. On the contrary, resolve that you will do good if the others do good, and if they do a wrong and act unjustly, even then you will not be unfair to them.” (Tirmidthi)
2. Try to show toxic family members kindness and understanding, but also limit your contact with them to protect yourself from their toxic behaviors.
Many toxic family members are going through difficult times. They may be suffering from health and/or emotional problems. You can try to show them understanding to the best of your ability. If they request something from you, you can respect their requests (as long as they are reasonable and permissible in Islam).
3. Take care of yourself and know your limits.
Our Prophet (pbuh) said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings, the nights.” (Bukhari)
Remember to not “overburden” yourself. Take care of yourself by making duaa to Allah (swt), exercising, and expressing your feelings to a caring person. Many stress experts believe that the stress caused by other people is the most damaging of all stressors.
Take responsibility for your happiness by finding ways to cope and relax.
Also, do not take the toxic behavior of family members personally. They are the ones with a problem, not you.
4. Find peace in truth and wisdom.
As quoted above, Allah (swt) is truly the Witness of all things. When someone is behaving unjustly to you, find peace in the truth of the situation, knowing that Allah (swt) is enough as a Witness.
5. Sometimes it is best to be silent.
Our Prophet (pbuh) said, “Whoso believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak good, or keep silent.”
If you are not sure that what you are about to say to a toxic family member is “good”, then perhaps it’s best to keep silent. When a family member is angry or disrespectful, he/she is not in a state of mind to listen to reason anyway.
If you are feeling angry, you may say something that you regret.
Show forgiveness, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the foolish (Al-’A’raf, 7:199).
And obey Allah and His Messenger and do not quarrel for then you will be weak in hearts and your power will depart, and be patient; surely Allah is with the patient. (Al-Anfal, 8:46)
The Holy Quran 8:46
Our Prophet (pbuh) said, “It is sin enough for you not to cease quarrelling.” (Tirmidthi)
6. Listen to your intuition and use your reason.
Use your intuition and reason to decide how to respond to a toxic family member. Many psychologists believe that intuition is simply your past knowledge and experience coming out in a fast message; this definition of intuition can also be called: wisdom. Islam teaches us to use our reason and to gain wisdom from our life experiences.
It is He Who has created you from dust then from a sperm-drop, then from a leech-like clot; then does he get you out (into the light) as a child: then lets you (grow and) reach your age of full strength; then lets you become old,- though of you there are some who die before;- and lets you reach a Term appointed; in order that ye may learn wisdom. (Ghafir, 40:67)
For example: Use your intuition to decide when is the best time to talk about an issue with a family member.
7. Set and enforce boundaries and keep your distance.
Every healthy relationship has some boundaries. Boundaries are limits that you set with other people.
Examples: You can set boundaries about how often you will meet or talk to toxic family members. You can tell family members what kind of behaviors you will not accept from them. If a family member does not respect your boundaries, then you need to have some kind of consequence, such as leaving for some time.
8. Seek support.
Surround yourself with positive people who care about you and support you. Use your support systems to help solve any problems you are having with toxic family members.
9. Sometimes it’s best to speak directly to toxic family members.
Again, use your intuition/experience to decide when it’s best to speak more directly to a toxic family member about his/her behaviors. You can respectfully explain to them what they are doing that is disturbing you.
Examples: You can say, “I feel insulted when you say…” You can also ask them, “That’s interesting…Why would you say that?” You can explain to them that you will not tolerate dishonesty, manipulation, or rude behavior.
10. Do not feel hatred towards toxic family members.
The Prophet (pbuh) advised a companion, “Son, if you are able, keep your heart from morning till night and from night till morning free from malice towards anyone…O my son! This is one of my laws, and he, who loves my laws verily, loves me.” (Bukhari and Tirmidthi)
Hating family members for being toxic only brings more toxicity into your life.
11. If their toxic behavior becomes physically abusive, it’s a legal matter that must be addressed.
Physical abuse is never tolerated in Islam. Consider the following hadiths:
Those who abuse their slaves cannot enter Paradise. (Tirmidthi, Ibn Majah, Ahmad)
An owner slapped his female slave in the face, and the Prophet ordered him to free her as compensation. (Muslim)
A’ishah (the Prophet’s wife) said, “The Messenger of Allah never struck a servant of his with his hand, nor did he ever hit a woman.” (Ahmad, Ibn Majah)
It was asked of the Prophet: What do you say (command) about our wives? He replied: Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them. (Abu Daud)
Showing kindness to family members is highly rewarded, but at the same time we need to take care of ourselves so that we can be kind, healthy people in the long-run. If your mental health is suffering from the effects of toxic family members, you should treat yourself with kindness and protect yourself from harm. Also remember that you are not alone and that many people suffer from toxic family relationships.
You will be a happier person if you can avoid toxic family members and set boundaries. Setting boundaries is not easy; it means saying “no” and limiting contact.
Just because people are related to you does not give them the right to be hurtful and dishonest. Family members are supposed to love and support one another.