When and How to Cut the Ties of Bad Family Relationships
What Is Family?
In just a few words... family defines us. Our first relationships were our family relationships. 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 cause 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, or the bad is abuse, that we have to evaluate the health of that relationship for our own wellbeing.
Unconditional love is the key ingredient in a healthy relationship; one of acceptance and expression, 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 unbalanced relationships 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, daughter, or step-family members.
If you feel that you have to cut ties, it's usually because you've 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 away from. 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. Remember, other family members have likely contributed to the abusive person's tactics as well. They may not be prepared to face that- you are disrupting family patterns. Be prepared and know that not everyone will understand your decision. It's important to find a way 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 to please the "family" or someone else in the family. Group enabling is sad but common within families.
- Consider the kids. If you have children, 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/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 own 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, not only within the family, but in our current relationships.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 else. 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 and shamed. Don’t let the family problems fall on your back. Do the roles you have in your current relationships (work and personal) resemble roles you play in your family?
- 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 healthy 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 for generations sometimes. 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 needed them with. When the child becomes an adult, they are able to set their own boundaries.
- How close are you? Often, moving away symbolizes a new life away from our family. It can ease tension by being located cities or states away! If the person you have problems with lives far away or you don't see them often, you can tolerate them only periodically and carry on with life as usual. A quick visit with the negativity and drama — maybe two holidays each year— might be manageable. If it causes too much pain and drama, keeping in touch (even through emails) may not be worth the hurt and pain.
- Is resolution possible? Some families refuse to speak about issues at all. Perhaps the same issues come up repeatedly then possible resolution may be a big, fat NO. 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 shamed and guilted if we express ourselves or our needs. Sometimes that pattern follows us into 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.
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. We may think of abuse as "this" or "that", but there are many grey areas where abuse is defined by us personally. Just as trauma doesn't have to be something BIG, it is something that we're personally unable to manage.
- 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, ruminating 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.
- Patterns repeat themselves. You set boundaries for instance, and the other person respects them for a couple weeks then completely disregards them or they keep coming back to ask for money or do them favors. It is their way to confuse and use emotional tactics to keep you "hooked".
- The relationship is only about borrowing money or bailing them out of trouble. Don't get dragged down with them or 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. The focus on their problems without concern for your time or how you are doing.
- There are negative consequences every time this family member doesn't get what they want from you. They find ways to punish you if you don't play their way.
- 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. In therapy, I ask clients if they could give themselves 6 months off from the relationship. This is often enough time to gain a better perspective.
- Heal yourself first. Sometimes working on ourselves and boundaries with others in our current relationships has a domino effect and can help give us the confidence to do the same within family relationships. Cutting ties for the sake of healing yourself is a worthy cause too. Instead of focusing on the other person, focus on your healing and you'll get much further in your personal journey and healing than you can imagine.
- 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. Check in with yourself; how you feel before you decide to go to a family event or see the family member. If your body is tense and you feel awful, respect that. It's often about listening to ourselves. Try skipping a holiday, not taking calls from the person if you don't want to. Minimize the feeling of obligation to them.
- Keep a neutral position. If certain subjects always end in argument, avoid them and keep the conversation neutral. If a family member insists you agree with them or insults you when you don't, keep your distance.
- 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. Keep the messages and announcements positive.
- 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 grief process. You will probably feel the worst when the first birthday or holiday rolls around, but you can prepare yourself by practicing self-care rituals as well as journaling. Remember that these unpleasant feelings are less harmful than if you had kept the relationship intact. Feelings like guilt and shame are part of the problem, and they are finally unraveling themselves and slowly being released. Many feelings you may experience were the way in which family controlled you. They must be released to heal.
- 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. Pretending and avoidance are common in dysfunctional families. Speak up!
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.