Trigger warning for abuse, naturally. Moderation note: I describe my relationship with my parents here; I have absolutely no interest in your advice about what to do. It’s meant to illustrate my point, nothing more.
My relationship with my parents is… fucked up.
I’ve been mentally ill since elementary school, but after a few failed attempts (including one threatened suicide) to explain that something was wrong to my parents, I spent nearly a decade hiding that I was mentally ill and pretending to just be a fuckup who, like, chose to fail all zir classes and not have any friends.
So the revelation last year that I was mentally ill… in fact, that I was mentally ill enough to attempt suicide and be Baker Acted… well, it understandably came as a shock to them. They’re neurotypical, most of the people they have experience with are neurotypical, they have no idea how to cope with me. They’re overwhelmed, they’re worried, they’re afraid that they’ve been terrible parents, and they want me to stop being unhappy. So they ended up freaking out a lot and making some truly questionable decisions.
Not to mention that on a very fundamental level they have yet to grasp that mentally ill people have different needs than people who are not mentally ill. So if I ask my parents not to give me a hug when I’m crying because physical touch is literally physically painful to me, their response is fifteen minutes of “but I was just trying to help! I love you and wouldn’t do anything to hurt you! How can hugs hurt you, you’re supposed to like hugs when you’re sad!”, being over-dramatic and self-congratulatory about how they are NOT HUGGING ME LOOK HOW GOOD THEY ARE, and then forgetting a week later.
Of course, this situation could be straightened out if I explained to them what my mental illness means and what they ought to do. Except… my brain already believes my parents are Scary People Who Will Hurt Me. My instinct is to avoid whenever possible, placate when not possible. This is not a mindset conductive to setting boundaries or making them upset, the way I’d have to to point out that they’re treating me in a way that hurts me. So I am literally unable to give them the information that would help them.
This relationship is clearly unhealthy, because it leaves one half of the relationship in an anxiety attack every time zie contacts zir parents, and the other half concerned about why their child is suddenly SO DISTANT. But I don’t feel like it’s abusive. Abusive implies that there’s fault, that there’s an abuser and a victim; my relationship with my parents just involves some people with needs that cannot be fulfilled in the same relationship.
I think there should be space to say that a relationship is unhealthy without saying that it’s abusive. I like “unhealthy.” It doesn’t imply judgment; it reminds us that there are a lot of situations where no one is clearly at fault but everyone is unhappy. And you know what? Just because it’s not abusive does not mean that it’s okay.
I also think the construction of “unhealthy relationship” might help some abuse survivors, because it gives them a space to recognize that their relationship is fucked up when they’re not ready to admit yet that it’s abusive.
I’d also like to give permission to people in unhappy relationships to end their relationships. I think a lot of us tend to assume that we can only end relationships, or certain kinds of relationships like marriages or family, if People are doing Wrong Things. But if a relationship makes you miserable, you don’t have to stay in it. Not wanting to be in a relationship with someone is enough reason not to be in a relationship with them.