Recently, I sat down to watch the new sitcom Fam, excited to see Nina Dobrev play Clem, a New York City girl, far outside of the world of vampires. A few minutes into the show, I was already into it, cracking up and just so happy that no doppelgangers were trying to kill her — OK I’ll stop with the Vampire Diaries references. Then, when I was really sinking my teeth into it — sorry last one! — I experienced a sudden shift in emotion as we were introduced to Clem’s estranged father. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, it had been years since they lived together and Clem was only forced to seek him out after her 16 -year-old sister showed up at her apartment. While it was made clear how poorly he had always treated her, she still felt so guilty about not talking to him that she told her fiance he was dead, fearing judgement.
After he’s revealed to be very much alive, those around her become fixated on having him become a part of her life again, even suggesting he walk her down the aisle. Never is the idea presented that Clem did the right thing in separating from her toxic father thus creating a better life for herself. Instead his actions are designed to be funny, and the idea that she wouldn’t want him in her life is viewed as inconceivable.
As someone who has removed a toxic parent from their life, this narrative hit me hard, as it has every time I’ve seen it used as a plot device. Once again, I felt like my choice was being judged and, while I’m completely sure of my decision, I felt guilty. I had the same reaction while watching How I Met Your Mother years earlier as Marshall guilts Lily into reconciling with her absentee father. It makes me wonder, how many times will I have to watch this story played out as if I’m the bad guy?
To be clear, I’m not blaming these shows for my reaction. I understand why this storyline is used time and again in the media. Who doesn’t want to believe that any issue can be overcome between a parent and a child? Aren’t shows supposed to make us believe anything is possible? Unfortunately, outside of the TV screen, real life doesn’t always have a fairytale ending. Sometimes relationships fall apart and they don’t get put back together. While that can be sad, it can also be for the best. Regardless of whether someone is related to you, some people are too toxic to be allowed to remain in your life.
“Often, the media portrays familial estrangement as a problem to solve or a plotline to flesh out character roles,” Kryss Shane, a mental health professional, tells Collider. “As such, the assumption is that estrangements are temporary and easy to fix or end, if both people want to. This can create a stigma against anyone who is estranged from a family member where reunification is not possible or not healthy.”
Take Laura, 35, for instance. After a lifetime of her parents treating her poorly, five years ago she cut off contact with her family. “I am mentally stronger and happier and wish I had the guts to part ways with them sooner. This Hollywood notion that we need our family in our lives to be complete is not true. I am living a much more positive and fulfilled life without them in it,” she tells Collider. “It frustrates me watching this type of movies and shows. My parents returning to my life would not bring sunshine and rainbows. It would bring pain and heartache. So, no thank you Hollywood, I am happy without them.”
While some relationships are able to be mended, not all can and that’s OK to accept. “Sometimes, in cases where the relationship is toxic, boundaries are continuously ignored, or old wounds are often re-opened, it’s better to let go and make the decision not to participate in that relationship any longer. Whether or not a decision is healthy is dependent on a person’s individual needs and the specific qualities of the relationship, not on whether or not the relationship is with a family member,” Amanda Seavey, licensed psychologist and founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness, tells Collider. “Seeing reconciliation stories can be triggering or invalidating to individuals who have made the difficult decision to end a relationship with a family member.”
Demi (name changed), 25, has removed one parent from her life and has a strained relationship with the other, but she’s accepted these storylines as wishful thinking. “Watching the common narrative in T.V. in my situation hasn’t triggered me as I understand why it’s put forward to the masses,” She tells Collider. “Parents are supposed to love and protect you, so the idea that they can harm you, and that life can be better without your parents, is a hard concept to swallow for people, especially if they haven’t experienced the issue firsthand.”
Whether you’ve been triggered by these plotlines in the past or not, having coping mechanisms prepared can go a long way towards lessening their potential impact. “First, acknowledge that it’s being portrayed in a movie, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily real,” Kelley Kitley, LCSW, tells Collider. Movies and T.V. shows are under no obligation to show real life situations. I don’t think anyone was watching Dobrev being chased by vampires thinking, yes this, this is real life. Apply that same logic to more realistic stories.
Once you’ve separated real life and fiction, go over why your decision was the right one for you. “Engage in self talk and remind yourself why you are estranged, how it has benefited you and that the story you observed on T.V. is a fantasy, your reuniting most likely won’t look like that,” Kitley continues. “Be gentle with yourself. Movies can stir up a lot of feelings, especially when we are currently going through something similar or have unresolved issues. I always encourage my clients to talk about something that has impacted them in the media, write about it, or talk to someone you trust who understands your situation.”