When and How to Cut the Ties of Bad Family Relationships
What Is Family?
In just a few words... family defines us. It's a significant part of who we are to the core, because our past is an integral part of how we view ourselves and the world.
An interesting aspect about families is that people can tolerate more bad than good, and even a strained family relationship can be considered satisfying. ‘My family drives me nuts, but I love them’.
Families can simultaneously be the ones to cayse you distress, but are also there by your side in tough spots. That's a fair trade: Take the good with the bad. It’s when the bad outweighs the good, that we have to evaluate the health of that relationship.
Unconditional love is the key ingredient in a healthy relationship; one of acceptance, expression, love, the ability to agree to disagree at times, and mutual respect without having to change or control each other.
These are ideal conditions though, and for some it's never been this way with certain family members.
These relationships, when stressed or tense, are the worst to endure because family means so much to us personally and within our culture/society.
Unfortunately, many people are faced with the excruciating decision of whether or not to continue an unhealthy family relationship with a parent, sibling, grandparent, son, or daughter. If you have to cut the ties, it's usually because you feel you have endured years of discontent (or even abuse) and you have no other choice. Many who are reading this have endured too long.
Just because someone shares some DNA with you they get to take your stuff? Call you names? Demean you? Sabotage your relationships and career? No way!— Dr. Phil McGraw
Evaluating the Relationship
Chances are you've been evaluating the strained relationship for awhile, but committing to cutting the ties brings on feelings of guilt, failure, shame, emptiness, doubt, abandonment, and even grief.
Deciding to face these feelings and manage them is a brave step.
No matter how strained, intolerable, and/or abusive the relationship is, it's a difficult decision to make. Asking yourself the questions below can help.
- What's the history? Psychologists have an old saying: "The best prediction of future behavior is past behavior." Having extensive history is what hurts the most when breaking up with a family member, but if that history has been chronically negative, this can make it easier to make an informed and intuitive decision. It will be hard to let go of the relationship or put some distance between you if there were good times along with the bad. It can still be difficult to cut ties if it's been a long, torturous road. Even familiar abuse and patterns are hard to break. Sometimes it helps to put it all on paper— one column for positives and one for negatives—so that you can see both sides objectively. Or give a point system to each good thing and each bad thing. Sometimes a really bad thing is much worse than 10 good things. Watch our for patterns that show the relationship is getting progressively worse. Also, if they keep insisting they've changed, then keep your eyes open to determine if their actions show that is indeed true. Even if they have changed, the relationship dynamic can remain the same.
- Who else is affected by this relationship? Sometimes, breaking ties with one person means you could have the entire family upset with you, or that one aunt. Be prepared and know that not everyone will understand your decisions. It's important to manage other family relationships and evaluate the effects on others as well, but you are not responsible for everyone's feelings.Don't hesitate to cut ties if the only reason you are keeping contact is for other family members’ comfort. Group enabling is sad but common.
- Consider the kids. Explain in age appropriate language to your kids why they may not see their grandma or aunt for a while. Kids tend to get caught in the middle— some family members use them as pawn so be as honest as you can with them, considering they often know more than they let on.
- How is the stress effecting your personal life and current family? Many people get confused and think their parents or the family they were born into is more important than the family they build for themselves. This is wrong. Your original family should never get between you and your current family. Your wife and/or husband and kids now take precedence over your mom and/or dad, so don't tolerate original family members if they negatively effect your current family. Preferably you, rather than your spouse, should handle your family members.
- What's your role? We take on a label or role from an early age in the family unit. Sometimes we get stuck in that role and transfer it into our lives beyond the family. Breaking this role and it’s effect on our lives may require distance or cutting ties to make a clean break and change our habits. Often, moving away symbolizes a new life away from our family. Later this can cause issues between family or instead it can ease tension by being located cities or states away! Your role in the family could be "the baby”, the “troubled one”, “shy one”, “the black sheep”. Or you might be "the fixer“ and “mediator” - one who keeps the peace at all costs, taking care of everyone. Sometimes a family needs a “scapegoat”, one to blame everything on. Those willing to speak up, or the squeaky wheel, are usually the people who are ostracized. Don’t let the family problems fall on your back. If you choose to change your position within the family, it may require time and distance.
- How do they feel about you? The best indication of how another person perceived us is how we feel when we’re in their presence— more specifically, how we feel about ourselves in their presence. I know that I feel small, invisible, and out of control when around a certain family member. I realize that’s how they likely view me, either on a conscious or subconscious level. Ideally, family should be based on unconditional love. If you're not feeling the love, then what are you feeling? Sometimes it's helpful to ask yourself when was the last time you felt loved by that person, without strings attached. If you feel awful when that person is around, it's probably triggered by their ugly feelings about you. Picking up on subtle cues may help you realize the truth of that relationship. In other words, the feeling may be mutual, they just may show it in passive aggressive ways. Keeping that in mind, remember that it's not your fault they feel this way.
- Are there any boundaries? One thing many families have in common is a lack of boundaries: People say what they want, do what they want, and respect is nowhere in sight. That can work for some. However, its unhealthy to equate a lack of boundaries with unconditional love. Specialists agree that for children, having boundaries gives a sense of being loved, and childhood is where some of the mayhem started between family members. If you're still undecided about cutting off the relationship, setting boundaries now can show you where you stand. Although, it is more difficult to set boundaries with family than with any other people because patterns are ingrained. As a child, you quickly realize adults set not only the rules, but the boundaries (or lack of) as well. We were often taught unhealthy boundaries from the people we need them wit. When the child becomes an adult, they are able to set their own boundaries and may not well-received by others in the family.
- How close are you? (Literally and figuratively.) If the person you have problems with lives far away or you don't see them often, you can endure it easier and carry on with life as usual. A quick visit with the negativity and drama — maybe two holidays a year— might be manageable. But if the strained relationship is with a close family member, then they usually mean more to us and therefore, the hurt takes a bigger toll. In this case, keeping in touch (even through emails) may not be worth the hurt and pain. It is more difficult, of course, to break close family ties, but those can be the ones that damage us the most.
- Is resolution possible? If the answer is no, then it may be time to move on. Sometimes the answer is no right now, but can change later down the road. Don't bother hashing out major issues between the person and yourself— you've probably tried this in the past and walked away with a big heaping serving of that person's denial, hostility, and self-preservation. As children, we are powerless against family members because we're too young to have a voice or coherently understand and express our feelings. Sometimes that pattern follows us to adulthood. Remember, any decision can be temporary. If the ties are cut right now, they may be mended later. Cutting ties isn't always an open and close, final case.
One more thing: Sometimes, instead of having an issue with one person, the problem lies with more than one or even an entire branch of the family. In that case, it's best to evaluate the issues as a whole. It could be that letting go of an entire chunk of your family is necessary. .
It takes only one person to change a relationship- this concept was first introduced to me in the following book during a time when I felt powerless and helpless in a very difficult family relationship. Complete with "tests" and solutions. Ultimately the decision to cut ties, or choose how you navigate a difficult family relationship falls on your shoulders. Find out exactly where you stand and where you go from there by examining your perspective, role, and responsibility in the relationship. .
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.— Brene Brown
It's Okay to Say Goodbye When...
- The relationship is physically or mentally abusive. Don't downplay the effects of these kinds of abuse, especially long-term. It may take counseling to realize you've been abused.
- It causes enough stress that it affects important aspects/areas of your life, like work or home life.
- You find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about the sour relationship and losing sleep over it. Don't underestimate how lack of sleep and stress effect your health.
- The relationship is one-sided when there is no valid reason why there isn't some effort made by the other person.
- The relationship is only about borrowing money.
- The family member is taking you down with them or constantly demanding favors or asking you to bail them out of trouble. Don't get involved in risky business and legal trouble, even if they are family.
- The person is using gossip to manipulate and control you and/or other family members against you.
- All contact with them is negative. They only call to bring you down and put you down, too.
- There are negative consequences every time this family member doesn't get what they want from you.
- They play childish games— the silent treatment, blame games— and there is no talking to them. It's their way or no way.
Most people know intuitively when it's time to cut ties. Listen to yourself.
Cutting people out of your life doesn't mean you hate them, it simply means you respect yourself. Not everyone is meant to stay.
When You Decide to Sever Ties with a Family Member...
- Try it out... less contact through calls, visits, and emails. This is especially important when the relationship represents emotional ties. Breaking the pattern of mental/psychological abuse helps to shed light on how the person effects you so you can make clear-minded decisions.
- Heal yourself first. Cutting ties for the sake of healing yourself is a worthy cause. I did this for a year and surprisingly got much further in my personal development and healing than I could’ve imagined.
- Set a few boundaries/ skip a holiday. Sometimes it's not necessary to cut ties, just adjust them. Even giving a few ultimatums is okay. I suggest skipping a holiday you’d usually spend with this person. People become so stressed during holidays because they feel obligated to all family members. Take back your holidays!
- Keep a neutral position. If certain subjects always end in argument, avoid them and keep the conversation neutral.
- Limit contact to times when something major happens. Send an email to let the family member know you are pregnant, someone died, you got a great new job, or you're moving to another state. You might consider including them on family group emails, but avoiding one-to-one exchanges.
- Know that it's difficult. Death is final, but cutting ties is like death without the closure. Give yourself the love and time to grieve because cutting ties is a process. You will probably feel the worst when the first birthday or holiday rolls around, but you can prepare yourself by just expecting difficulty and practicing self-care rituals as well as journaling. Remember that these unpleasant feelings are less harmful than if you had kept the relationship intact.
- Focus on who you have and who you are. Having a good support system of friends or other family members makes cutting ties easier. Maintaining your values is a part of who you are. Knowing who you are, what you stand for, and who supports you is your North Star, your compass.
- Don't pretend everything is okay. Don’t minimize your thoughts and feelings by pretending everything is ok. When applicable, talk to other family members about your situation. Let them know you will be avoiding contact with this person. Briefly explain why, and don't back down.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.