“Band of Brothers” Phenomena in Toxic Families

December 4, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Recently, I was talking to someone about how growing up in a dysfunctional/abusive/neglectful family created relationships between the siblings similar to those bonds forged in wartime between soldiers on the battlefield.

I know that in my situation, being the oldest with three younger brothers, I felt an acute sense of responsibility to make sure that we all “made it out.” When bad things were happening, we comforted each other, helped each other pretend that everything was okay, and spent a lot of time playing make- believe games with each other. 

We also tried to protect each other from the abuse/neglect by being surrogate parents to each other; we each played different roles–peacemaker, villain, etc.–in order to “survive” the “battles.” Our loyalty to each other knew no bounds.

Unfortunately, this camaraderie, being the defense mechanism it actually is, eventually outlived its usefulness.  In fact, it actually became harmful to some degree .

As we grew up, some of us followed the path of violence and substance abuse, while others were able to find a new path. Those who could not make it on a better path became jealous, self-pitying, and manipulative. Those who did make it felt guilt for doing so, and because of the guilt, often allowed themselves to be taken advantage of–or even mistreated–by the others.

Through this process, I came to understand that some people really believe that the bad things that happened to them as children are what caused them to go bad–that their past has ruined their lives. They are unable to take responsibility for their own actions, unable to ask for or give forgiveness when necessary, and routinely exploit the guilt that they know their siblings feel towards them.

The “true” survivors realize that although those things did help to shape them, they also allowed them to see more clearly the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. They use those things to help them be better, rather than as excuses for doing poorly.

Of course, it’s very hard to see someone you love, someone you’ve experienced unspeakable pain with, make the choice to go down a bad path; you always want to save them, you always feel that you can’t leave them behind.

Not only do you feel that you need to help them, you also feel a tremendous guilt for “surviving” the “war.” Unlike real war, however, those that don’t really “survive,” are still there physically and you may still have to deal with them on a regular basis. 

That’s the challenge, then. Ultimately, you have to decide, if you’re a “true” survivor, how to deal with them and how to live your life without guilt over their poor life choices. When you can find a way to forgive your abusers, you can forgive yourself as well–for surviving. Then, you can let go of those who didn’t really “make it out” and who may be dragging you down with them as well.