How To Deal When Abuse Allegations Are Tearing Your Family Apart

Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images.
Many people know the story of Woody Allen and his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow. At seven years old, Dylan told her mother, Mia Farrow, and a pediatrician that her father had put his fingers inside of her while the two were alone in the attic of Farrow's Connecticut home. Although a state prosecutor said in 1993 that he had "probable cause" to prosecute Allen on charges of sexual abuse, he decided not to pursue the case (apparently to spare Dylan the trauma of appearing in court).
In the 20 years that followed, Dylan has repeatedly defended her story against people who don't believe her — this includes her brother Moses Farrow. (Dylan's mother and one of her other brothers, journalist Ronan Farrow, have been unwavering in their support.) And, in a rare interview on Monday, Allen himself asserted that case had "been thoroughly looked at 25 years ago by all the authorities and everybody came to the conclusion that it was untrue."
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The back-and-forth debate over what happened reveals a family that has fallen apart over sexual abuse allegations and other forms of possible violence. But the Farrows are neither the first family to go through this, nor the last. Figuring out whether or not you can continue to have relationships with family members who don't believe you — whether you're a survivor of abuse or have been accused — is a situation that many people find themselves in, and it's one that's difficult to parse.
"It's not possible for this to not be deeply disruptive to family members," says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a Manhattan psychotherapist who works with sexual abuse survivors. Instead of trying to save every familial relationship a survivor has, in his practice, Lunquist tries to help his patients identify which relationships can be preserved. It starts with figuring out who is and is not safe for the patient to be around, he says. "When we talk to people who are reconciling abuse, we say things like 'Hey, you're supposed to go hang out with your brother this weekend. Is he safe?'" What he means by that is: Does the brother believe the person's side of the story? Is he going to respect the person's boundaries — that they may not want to discuss or see their abuser? "If somebody asserts that they were molested by somebody in their family, it's not healthy for them to have that relationship with that person," Lundquist says. So it's important for family members to respect and facilitate distance.
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The support a survivor needs from their loved ones makes it almost impossible for a family member to take a neutral stance in the case of sexual abuse allegations, Lundquist says. It's tricky for someone to attempt to stay connected with both the accused abuser and the person who made the allegations, because if they try to keep a healthy relationship with everyone in the family, then it's likely that both the person who's been accused of abuse and the person who says that they were abused will feel betrayed, he says.
Besides dealing with unsupportive family members, many families in which this kind of dynamic plays out are suffering from multiple forms of dysfunction, Lundquist says. "Often, what happens is not that there's a fully functional family where all of the relationships are completely fine except for this one thing," he says. "Abuse never happens in a vacuum." So, in those cases, there may be other reasons that family relationships fall apart, as well.
But Lundquist would never tell patients that it's time to cut ties with a family member, even if they've determined that a person makes them feel unsafe. "Those are really big, high stakes decisions," he says. Although he doesn't tell his patients to stop seeing certain family members, Lundquist does often see patients create distance between themselves and the people they've deemed unsafe, and he feels proud of that as a therapist. It means that he's helped his patients understand what they need to feel safe, and that they're taking the steps to get to an emotionally healthy place.
"It's all about learning to know with certainty what's safe and what isn't safe and be being able to really stick up for yourself," he says. Even if you have to lose a few family members to get there.
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