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Cutting ties with your family is difficult–and not what most people want. But sometimes it’s the only way to save your sanity and heal the emotional pain caused by a toxic* or abusive family.
Cutting ties with toxic family members is an act of self-care. Not something you do because you’re mean or spiteful. It’s something you do to protect your physical and mental health.
It’s never easy to cut someone out of your life. And when it comes to family, it’s especially hard to accept that a family member is creating so much stress, anxiety, and pain that you can’t continue to have a relationship with them.
This post is for all of you who are struggling to decide whether to continue a relationship with a difficult or toxic family member. You’re repeatedly hurt by this person, have tried tirelessly to repair the relationship, feel frustrated that nothing seems to change (at least for very long), you don’t want to give up, but you don’t know how to move forward in a way that respects and nurtures yourself.
When is it appropriate to cut ties with a family member?
This is a tough question and I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Consider the list of “toxic” behaviors below and how often you experience these issues with the family member in question.
Toxic people disrupt your life and other relationships with behaviors such as these:
- Invalidating or ignoring your feelings
- Undermining your relationship with your spouse, kids, or other relatives
- Creating drama or crises
- Passive-aggressive behavior (such as the silent treatment, deliberate procrastination, or criticism disguised as a compliment)
- Gaslighting (a powerful form of manipulation that makes you doubt your perception of what’s going on)
- Refusing to compromise
- Yelling, cursing, or calling you names
- Belittling your values, beliefs, choices
- Gossiping or speaking ill of you behind your back
- Making unreasonable demands
- Expecting you to help them, but they aren’t available to help you
- Threatening suicide or self-harm in order to get their way
- Ruining holidays and special occasions
- Playing the victim
- Not taking responsibility for their own behavior
- Refusing to apologize and if they do, it’s shallow, coerced, or fake
- Lacking genuine concern or interest in you and your life
- Volatile or unpredictable moods and behaviors
- Creating so much stress, anxiety, and pain that your health, ability to work, or general wellbeing are negatively impacted
- Interacting with them makes you feel worse
- They are always right (and you are always wrong)
People can change, but toxic people rarely do. They lack self-awareness and don’t take responsibility for their actions. And since they don’t see how their behavior hurts you, they refuse to change. Instead, they blame you and expect you to cater to their demands.
5 Reasons we struggle to cut ties with a toxic family member
I think we can all agree that no one deserves to be abused. So, why do we give our family members a free pass? Why do we think we should tolerate such hurtful behavior from them?
- We don’t see their behavior as abusive. Certainly, we know it’s painful, but we minimize it and make excuses. We hesitate to call it emotional abuse even though it clearly meets the criteria.
- Guilt. Family relationships are full of expectations – we’re supposed to take care of our aging parents, get along with our siblings, spend the holidays together, respect our elders, keep the peace, sacrifice ourselves to make others happy, and so forth. So, if you break from any of these expectations (cutting off contact with your family being the biggest wrongdoing in their book), you’re likely to feel guilty or like you’re doing something wrong. It’s essential that you realize that these expectations only make sense if you have a healthy family. They’re unfair, unrealistic, and harmful if you have toxic family members. It is not wrong, mean, or selfish to protect your wellbeing and sometimes the only way to do this is by distancing yourself from toxic people.
- Family loyalty. You were probably primed to feel guilty by being taught that family loyalty is a virtue – that you should be unequivocally committed to your family no matter what. Healthy closeness includes mutual respect and care; it respects individuality and your right to think and feel differently than your family. But loyalty is often used to try to control family members who are exerting their independence and speaking out against abuse.
- Fear. It’s understandable that fear keeps many of us in dysfunctional relationships. Ending a relationship is a big change and no one knows exactly how it will play out. It’s always easier to keep doing what you’ve always done, even if it’s not good for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t overcome your fears and solve any challenges that crop up. Give yourself time, compassion, and build a support system.
- Love. Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is that you genuinely love your family, despite all the pain and problems they’ve caused. Perhaps you want to help or take care of them or perhaps you shared good times and happy memories in the past. But, as we all know, love isn’t enough to make a relationship work – whether it’s a romantic relationship, friendship or parent-child relationship. Cutting ties may feel unloving to your family, but it doesn’t mean you have stopped loving them. Sometimes we love people, but can’t have a relationship with them.
Deciding to cut ties
It sucks to have to choose between yourself and your family members. It really does. But this is the reality. Remaining in a relationship with a toxic person is potentially harmful to your emotional and physical health and relationships (and may negatively affect your spouse and children, too).
The bottom line is that for many people, the only way to heal is to remove yourself from the abusive relationship. How can you heal if you continue to be abused?
Tips for cutting ties with toxic family members
- Acknowledge that it’s abusive. You need to stop minimizing and denying the harm that your family member has caused.
- Give up the fantasy that they will change.
- Grieve the loss of having the kind of relationship you wanted with this person. Grieve the loss of having the parent/sibling/grandparent that you needed and deserved.
- Get support from a therapist, support group or 12-step group, or friend who’s experienced similar issues with their family. (Unfortunately, many friends mean well, but don’t “get it” and inadvertently add to our shame and guilt with judgmental comments or unrealistic expectations.)
If you’re not ready to cut ties
It’s okay to not be ready. You shouldn’t be pressured into making a decision. Most people who cut ties, do so as the last resort. They come to this decision gradually over years of fits and starts. They cut off ties and then reconnect. They set boundaries and make themselves less available. Things calm down and they feel better, only to have problems escalate again. This is common!
There is no right way to deal with a toxic family member. Only you can decide how much contact is right for you. And you will know if and when you need to walk away in order to save yourself. Just know that it’s okay to end a toxic relationship – even with a family member.
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy of Canva.com
*The term “toxic people” is used in this article to describe people who consistently exhibit toxic or harmful behaviors. It is not the ideal term and I’d prefer not to label people at all. However, using this popular term allows people searching on the internet to find pertinent resources, such as this article.