by Glynis Sherwood
Q: Why Go Low Contact? A: It’s Complicated!
People who have been scapegoated often decide to maintain low contact with abusive people for a variety of complex reasons. Current circumstances may dictate that some contact is ‘required’ or unavoidable with scapegoater(s) and/or their ‘allies’ for the following reasons: living in the same home; helping elderly / disabled or unwell parents and relatives who may or may not be scapegoaters themselves; shared property or business; living in the same small town; belonging to the same organizations/clubs/churches; attending family or other functions.
Contact may also be wanted with some extended family, but to get to them, you have to deal, at least peripherally with scapegoaters who are also gatekeepers. For example, desiring contact with nieces/nephews of abusive siblings; grandchildren of hostile adult children, or the more supportive parent, etc. You may also have concerns about the well being of these family members, given the dysfunctional family dynamics that surround them, and a wish to keep an eye on vulnerable family members.
Healthy vs Unhealthy ‘Low Contact’
The Goal of Low Contact is to increase personal control regarding the amount and frequency of contact with difficult to abusive people – aka scapegoaters, thereby managing peace of mind, and time, to the best of one’s abilities.
If you wish to maintain low contact, it’s important to get clear about your motivation and your emotions, as they will tell you a lot about whether your ‘why’ is sound or not. Be particularly cautious about being driven by fantasies of the relationship you want – rather than seeing the reality of what is. If you have been facing months or years of hostility, how realistic is it to stay in contact based on false hope? Assess the real toll, and benefits, of contact, period.
Other red flags include false guilt, shame, anxiety, loneliness or traumatic attachment (aka gravitating towards the ‘devil you know’). Healthy desire for low contact should come from genuine love, concern, and real potential to make things better based on mutual effort. Before you make a decision regarding contact, take time to be honest with yourself regarding healthy vs unhealthy intentions. Ask yourself the ‘What’s in it for me and the relationship’ question.
Low vs No Contact – Pros and Cons
My article on going No Contact describes it as the decision of “last resorts”, meaning that scapegoats have chosen to pull out of relationships that are destructive and intolerable to them due to unrelenting abuse, hostility and undermining. The pros of going No Contact in a nutshell involve respecting oneself enough to stop participating in harmful relationship dynamics, and creating room for healthier connections. The cons can include experiencing stuck grief over loss of family, (often family that never was), and loneliness. Few people understand the reality of family scapegoating, and as such it can feel like a lonely path for the individual who has gone No Contact.
How to Decide – Low Contact vs No Contact – the Scapegoat’s Dilemma
NOTE: No Contact can feel harder at the beginning, but can get easier as both sides adjust. Low Contact can be challenging longer term when people who either scapegoat or don’t respect you try to reassert dominance and control. If push back continues, scapegoats can choose to go to Lower or even No Contact.
How to Make Low Contact Work
- Ask yourself “Does this relationship matter enough to make an ongoing investment”?
- You decide where you will meet and frequency, and for how long, as well as what topics to discuss (Hint – neutral, impersonal). Set limits regarding # and frequency of phone calls, texts, etc. and stick to it.
- Determine through trial and error how much is enough/too much contact
- Decide on your bottom line regarding personal boundaries
- Don’t announce it. Focus on being quietly effective.
- Learn to say ‘No’
- Be prepared for challenges or blowback from people who don’t like to hear ‘No’, and to briefly but assertively defend your boundaries/limits
- Appear busy / Not easily available for others to assume they can take up or intrude on your time.
- Keep contact superficial – i.e. safe, neutral topics that will neither upset you emotionally nor give the scapegoater ammunition to use against you
- Be aware of toxic, manipulative dynamics such as false blame and projection from abusers claiming they are your ‘victim’
- Locate “allies in protection”, ideally in extended family. Who seems to sense there is something fundamentally wrong with the way you’ve been treated. Take your time with them to discover if they can truly be on your side
- Let go of the need for approval from unsupportive family members. Not only will you not get it, but you are buying into the flawed assumption that there is something wrong with you, rather than the abusive behavior they won’t own up to.
- Let your instincts and intuition guide your choices re contact. Learn to trust your gut.
- Face reality and admit who you are dealing with – abusers, so you can let go of false hope for a happy ending, grieve and move on to the better life you deserve.
- Do not be seduced by temporary improvements in the behavior of people who have mistreated you repeatedly. Focus on patterns and your feelings to guide you.
Finally, learn to observe – but not absorb – bad behavior, attitudes or psychological manipulation from others. Take time to detach emotionally and cultivate a calm, rational mind. Respond neutrally, logically and minimally to abusers. Don’t react to provocation, even though you may be feeling upset or angry. Keeping a flexible strategy in mind should things get worse – or better – will protect you in the long run as you will feel much less vulnerable to the whims of people who lack insight, empathy or accountability.
Scapegoating in Families: Intergenerational patterns of physical and emotional abuse, Dr Vimala Pillari, Philadelphia, PA, US: Brunner/Mazel, 1991
Child Abuse: Pathological Syndrome of Family Interaction, Arthur Green, Richard Gaines and Alice Sandgrund, The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2015
Need help overcoming family scapegoating? Therapy is Available by Video Worldwide. Click here to request a video counselling appointment
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor (BC), specializes in recovery from Attachment Trauma, Family Scapegoating, Low Self Worth, Anxiety, Depression, Complicated Grief, Relationship Challenges and Addictive Behaviors.