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Ask Sahaj: My mom wants us to continue to see family who abused her

(María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration; iStock)
4 min

Dear Sahaj: My mom was horribly abused as a child. She has started to share with me (F34) and sister (F28), which is fine and we are processing that. We have an agreement to not share this information with anyone else, because it’s her story, not ours, but she wants me and my sister to continue family ties and relationships with her abusers (our family). She shared she has moved on and does monthly potlucks with some of them. Some family have noticed we are acting cold to them so we just lie and say bad day at work or something else we make up. Help.

— Family Secret

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. She’s given advice about setting boundaries with your parents, friends who keep mispronouncing your name, and relationship problems.
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Family Secret: It makes sense that you and your sister need time to process this new and devastating information. Remember that while this is new to you, it’s not new to your mom. Regardless of whether you agree with or support how she engages with your family members, you have to trust and accept that she is doing what is best for her.

It’s okay if your needs are different than hers right now. You aren’t obligated to spend time with your family just because your mom wants you to. Your mom may want to maintain the equilibrium of the family, or not make a big deal of this, but you are allowed to have a reaction and need time to process.

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I imagine it was difficult for your mom to finally share this information, but I am curious about why she decided to tell you now. Did something happen to prompt her to talk about it, and she wanted support from you? Or did she just believe you finally deserved to know? Often, people keep secrets out of fear or shame. By gaining clarity about your mom’s motivation and her emotional reasoning behind maintaining the secret, it can help you navigate your role.

You’ll want to consider how you want to set boundaries — if any — with your family. Be honest with your mom about how this is impacting you and your view of certain family members. For example, ask your mom for support in avoiding family gatherings, if you need time to assess how you want to move forward.

You can respect that this is your mom’s story to tell and you can still be affected and need support. Remember that loving someone does not mean swallowing your own needs to make them comfortable or happy. You can be clear and kind about taking space without providing explicit explanations about why you’re doing so.

Taking care of yourself may also look like reevaluating and setting new boundaries with your mom. Do you only ever talk about this now? Or, alternatively, did your mom share the news and then refuse to discuss it again? Exploring how to address this news while also not letting it overwhelm your whole life is key to finding healthy ways to move forward as a family.

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I also must add, without knowing the extent or details of your mother’s situation, that you should consider what your role is in protecting others. If the abuser is still alive, and there’s a chance they are continuing to perpetuate abuse, I would encourage you to talk with your mom and sister about how to protect others who are vulnerable to the same experience. This isn’t an easy situation to confront, but denial about what’s at stake could lead to more harm being done.

Family secrets can have a huge impact on the stories we’ve told ourselves about love, trust, and our ancestry. They can transport us to islands where we feel disconnected and alone. They can burrow inside of us and increase our levels of stress and anxiety. As you navigate how you want to move forward, it’s imperative that you take care of yourself: eat well, hydrate, get enough sleep, and don’t isolate yourself from other relationships and activities that bring you joy. I encourage you to find ways — and people — who can support you. If not a professional, then you and your sister may want to figure out how you can support each other.