Cutting Ties with Toxic Family

Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members: An Act of Self-Care

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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:

  • Lying
  • Blaming
  • Criticizing
  • Manipulating
  • Overreacting
  • 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?

The healing process can begin when you end an abusive, toxic relationship

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.

It's okay to cut ties with toxic family

©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy of

*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.

Recommended reading list

Sharon Martin is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. She specializes in helping people uncover their inherent worth and learn to accept themselves -- imperfections and all! Sharon writes a popular blog called Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.

18 thoughts on “Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members: An Act of Self-Care”

  1. Thank you for your article about cutting ties with family, especially the part about loving them.

    I grew up in a very *deceptive* home. I had all material things and a good material life minus: affection, closeness, emotional support, validation, positive reinforcement. As an adolescent and teen, my mother ALWAYS sided with my friends in any disagreements. I realized this at a young age and switched stories so that she supported MY opinion/ side while believing it was my friends’ side.

    I was the peacekeeper, *good girl* and found my safe haven in academics and career where I always excelled.
    My older sister went the opposite direction and caused serious trouble from a young age. She began to abuse drugs in high school and, when under the influence, abused me both verbally and physically. She threatened to kill me a few times, once in front of personnel on the psych floor on which she was being held after an OD. They released her with no consideration to her threat that she would “hunt (me) down and kill me ifbit was the last thing she did and she had to follow me to CA where I lived”. She lived in a house my dad bought for her near them in western PA. My dad bought everything for her (including money for drugs, knowingly) to the point that she couldn’t qualify for welfare.. She never supported herself, though she was very intelligent and capable.

    At age 39, I was permanently disabled from an injury and never worked again, losing my safe haven and support system.

    I tried to break ties with them several times over the years, but having no career or family of my own made it even more difficult. I was/am also in a very empty marriage.

    My mother died in 2012. I returned to live with and help my dad in 2015. In 2016, my sister was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and moved into my dad’s house where we were living peacefully, aside from when she went off the rails and was verbally abusive to both of us. I tried to help. ALL extended family ran for the hills and would come nowhere near her, though they claimed to adore my dad and vehemently disbelieved that he had any culpability for her drug abuse. They were all very aware of her drug abuse for decades.

    He allowed her to chain smoke in his house and told me to leave if I didn’t like it. Shortly after her diagnosis, he was hospitalized with legionairres disease twice and the hospital incidentally found lymphoma and leukemia, which he refused to have evaluated or staged. He was 90 and I completely understood not wanting aggressive treatment.

    I struggled for several months trying to care for them while being sick myself. My husband came from CA to help for about 6 months and it got so bad on me that we had to escape after I finally got hospice and some support in. The ER is who finally got hospice in for my sister. Her oncologist was horrible. I was the only one who grasped the gravity of the situation with both of them having cancer and NOBODY besides myself as support. Of course, friends had all sorts of *advice* for me as to where to go for help, but nobody I know has had to try to get social services because they all have large families. Also, because my father had some income and assets, many services were not available.

    My sister died in July of 2017. My father died in March of 2019 after he did a complete U turn and told me he had cancer (he forgot?) and was talked into aggressive chemo and wanted me to return from Florida to help him. I have been mostly bedridden for the last two years since all of this and lost my own pain treatment when I missed an appointment in the chaos of taking care of them.

    I’m suffering from EXTREME guilt and grief. During the last 18 months, our 2 dogs, horse, and my father-in-law also died.

    My extended family has completely abandoned me because I spoke out about my father when they had the nerve to show up the day after my sister died after REFUSING to communicate or visit while she was dying. I did everything possible to help, but I’m the black sheep now.

    A social worker came to the house at one point to assess needs and she called it “a circle of crazy” between my sister and father.

    Here I am with absolutely no family remaining, an empty marriage (not a bad guy, but nothing in common and no closeness), very ill, no career, no home. I’m so scared and completely LOST.

    People seem to think that because I couldn’t be with them and had so much trouble, that I didn’t love them. NO. I loved them and am grieving not only the loss of my family, but the loss of ever having a healthy sibling relationship. I’m 56. My sister died at 58 or 59. It’s all a blur.

    1. It sounds like you have endured a lot of loss: the loss of a functional family, the loss of a career that helped you feel valuable, the loss of pets that you love and that gave unconditional love to you,,,plus the loss of your health. You were not born to be unhappy. No one chooses the hardship in their life when it comes from a family that you were born into.

      I understand. I came from a very abusive family. Both my close and extended kin were people that I would never choose as friends or neighbors. I was the bad one, the one who was chosen to be abused, the one expected to be the “good” one, the one who carries scars from years of family.

      Make a choice today to do things that make you happy, that you like. If your husband is not a bad guy, you did better in that respect than many who came from a family like yours, I know it is hard not to have that connection with a spouse. Try to find the good even in that. He sounds stable if not a life match. Try to connect with him the best you can. If that effort fails, you can choose to stay or to go depending on how you want your life to look. You are no longer a child. You can choose now. Make an effort and then decide what YOU want, what is best for YOU.

      Children who survive bad families who speak as honestly and caringly as you do as special people. Value the things inside you and know that as an adult you survived for reason. Try to find that reason. Even if you are ill and disabled, find an outlet for your spirit to find something in your life that makes you joyful again, Even reaching for one small happiness can be the first step to healing your life as an adult. I know it can be done. It is not easy, but reaching for more might bring you some peace. Learn from the past, but please do not allow yourself to be defined by it.

      Even if it is small at first, try to live the life you want. This is your time.

  2. DEAREST BARBARA! I wish we could talk in person. Can you drive and do you have access to vehicle? If no, then interactions must be online, of course. I have so much to say. Bullet points to be concise:
    * Food & water, clothing, shelter; neglect is the other head of the two headed abuse/neglect monster; accept husband’s material provision and work to find things to be thankful for (sometimes “air”, “no cough”, “vision”, etc. — absence of negatives is most we can do); gratitude actually changes brain chemistry for the better
    * Pray for your husband, particularly his spirituality — ask for him to develop a hunger for God; I gave up trying for a real marriage at 25th anniv but began interceding for God to change him, in earnest — last few years husb suddenly started thinking about how what he said and did affected me, became aware his competitiveness-in-all-things was a hostile environment for me, relinquished most narcissistic behaviors (he is not true narcissist); decided to encourage me (after years of being a candle snuffer for my enthusiasm whenever I endeavored to create, plan, grow); printed off the Five Love Languages, posted by his desk, looks for kind things to do — God can and will change a person who seeks Him
    * GO to be with others if you can physically go, to a church, synagogue, temple, mosque which has small groups for your age/chapter of life or go to open AA meetings even if you never tasted alcohol (I assume you can’t afford counseling) where you can connect, hear others’s pain and be heard; find online communities where you can serve others and interact if you’re bedridden
    * Be sure to intercede for yourself as well. You are not alone. God is there, He LOVES you and He wants to relieve your pain, maybe one tiny step at a time.

  3. You were spot on saying it is difficult to heal from abuse when you are living in it. I believed lies and returned to my spouse, and somethings have not changed. It’s been over 10 yrs since my return, and feel it has been a mistake not healing. Very difficult and has impacted my health and spirit.

  4. How do you cut ties with a sibling who has manipulated your whole family? I feel like I am screaming underwater because nobody hears me. I left home and travelled the world at 19, because I couldn’t deal with the pain anymore. Upon coming home at 23, nothing had changed. I miss my parents, I miss my eldest sister. But I can’t be with them when there is a toxic family member there waiting to ruin my life.
    It is time to cut ties, this page was very very helpful at showing me that.

    1. read her other articles. dont explain yourself, you owe them nothing and what they think of you albeit erroneously, isnt your concern. harden your heart and walk away. do something for you! dont look back.

  5. Just wondering if you could address what to say to family relatives you may be questioning your decision that doesn’t add fuel to the fire.

    1. Perhaps, “This is what’s best for me. Thank you for respecting my decision”. I would not get into the reasons for your decision; that’s where people try to pick apart your decision and offer counter points as if you’re looking for their input. Keep it short and you do not need to justify your decision. You can even politely say that you don’t want to discuss it: “I appreciate your interest/concern. However, I’d prefer not to discuss this further. Let’s change the subject.”

  6. Thank you Sharon for posting this blog! It’s so spot on to what I’m dealing with.

    I have made a conscious decision (with the help of a therapist) to cut ties with my toxic sibling. Not only is she bipolar, but also has narcissistic behavior.

    She’s tried to guilt trip me not to tell people about how to process and heal from how her manic episodes over the years–14 to be exact has deeply affected me. She finds it ok to talk loud that our neighbors know that I don’t want her at home, as I don’t feel safe. I have moved out a few times and back at home (cultural dynamic and also stayed longer at home as mom at the time was being abused by my alcoholic dad. She never kicked him out or set up boundaries with him. I was afraid what will happen to her. That fear was ingrained in me for a long time. I’m 43, not married, no kids, and in the process of a career change. I was able to live my life–travel, go to college, and then go back for my Master’s. I’ve moved out only a handful of times, but not long enough to be completely on my own. I was able to get things in my life accomplished while at the same time being a pillar for my very emotionally unstable family. My dad stopped drinking when I turned 18. I think he knew that he somehow had to stop as it was a very chaotic dynamic.

    I was the accomplished one in the family while quietly and unbeknownst to us that after dealing with dad and his drinking growing up, my sister was showing signs of mental illness. She would create drama at school by gossiping and wondered why she would get into fights. As the years progressed, her behavior would change. We would hang out and she would get jealous when I tell her that I have to meet my friend. She would say “forget that friend.” When I would do things to create a healthy, happy life for myself, she’d find ways to sabotage it. I was without a car for 4 years and took public transportation.

    When the time came for me to buy a car, I showed her my car as we looked out the window. I thought she would show the same excitement. She said, “What? You think you’re better than me?” When I got accepted to grad school, I briefly mentioned this to her. She just gave me a blank stare. Any change that veers off from what she “isn’t doing” to her life is seen as a threat to her.

    She would manipulate mom and dad to rescue her when she just had a manic episode. She recently got kicked out of her studio apt. She wasn’t seeing a therapist nor taking meds. She doesn’t believe in meds or therapy although she’s tried.

    Dad was officially diagnosed with Dementia and he recently had home care for a back injury. It was after telling mom for about the last 10 years that there was a change in dad. Dad finally got the help he needed and I’m glad that I got a chance to be there for him when the Physical Therapist and Nurse showed up. I wanted to make sure that he got the care he needed. Luckily, they have been awesome!

    I cook dinner for my family and feel now as they have gotten older that I need to step up and support while I’m at home.

    What did it for me was when mom and I were trying to work out a plan as sis had nowhere to go. It was her landlord who contacted me by phone last week that it was re: my sis. She wanted to speak to mom and told her that she needs to move out. The landlord didn’t feel safe. She claims that my sister was about to attack her and the lady ran.

    I was able to coordinate a storage place, and hauling company–to get my sister’s things out. My parents are not decision makers so it’s been my role and I’ve developed a skill to “problem solve.” Sis thanked me a few times for taking care of that for her while she was in the hospital.

    It was at first heartbreaking to see that she spent a few days sleeping in her car (she can’t stay here as there’s always an argument that happens with sis). But she has stayed close by with her car. I look out my window to check on her. A bit worried when I don’t see her car.

    Mom and I had discussed that sis will only spend one night while she looks for a residential housing program. That didn’t happen as mom told sis a different story this morning without communicating to the family about her decision. She told sis that she can stay here temporarily until she finds a place!! I felt soooo hurt as mom disregarded my feelings and safety of how my sis gets–more so during an episode. Mom has completely forgotten that our apartment was where sis tried to kill herself! It was our place where I had to call 911 on a few occasions as sis walked into the kitchen and was picking up the knife. It was in our place where she walked like a baby catatonic and fought with dad that we had to call. 14 years of her madness is enough! Mom didn’t back me as all she thought was that she didn’t want her to be “cold and sleeping in the car.” I told mom I didn’t cause her illness. She got herself kicked out. I had the plan to move out by the Fall. But what just happened finally was my breaking point. No one in my family thinks my sister’s behavior is severe enough to setting boundaries. I have to take care of me now.

    Anyway, thanks everyone for reading. This is super long! Hope you all can find a way to heal from this and your own stories.

    We all deserve to live happy, healthy lives free from the stressors that we didn’t cause. I see a better life ahead, and that means moving forward to better opportunities and places. I will look back at this searching so hard in my mind’s eye to recall these events only to say…I survived that??

  7. “It sucks to have to choose between yourself and your family members.” – it NEVER sucks to choose between yourself and someone else. Choose yourself, ALWAYS. Choose you, there is no other choice.

  8. Thank you Sharon for such a nice article. I’m gradually calming down now, after an unpleasant conversation with my mother.
    I have to say I had the thought of “cutting tie” since I was in secondary school. It is really a terrible memory of my childhood. Physical abuse, moral kidnapping, endless blaming, unreasonable control and humiliation, I still can’t forget those curse words.
    As an Asian mother, she is extremely strict with my academics. And I still remember once I got a B- in my Maths, she pointed to the window and shouted that I should jump from there (17th floor), and I had no reason to live on this planet. “Why you don’t kill yourself?”, this sentence is a lingering shadow and I believe I would live with this nightmare, for my whole life.
    Even though I’m an adult now, I still feel frightened to contact her. I used to feel ashamed when sharing things with my friends as I had never been listened, all I would receive in my childhood was blame and “I told you should/ don’t do that” and “you deserve it”.
    Last year’s winter holiday, I came back home for a short visit. Because of the pandemic, I had to stay at home for two moths. I thought I could deal with the broken relationship, and tried a friendly and sincere conversation with her. However, she became uncontrolled and burst into anger, denying all the hurts she had done to me and cursed me for being ungrateful and too sensitive. Yes, everything is my fault. And I don’t deserve any independent thoughts or feelings as I’m always an appendage of her.
    During the harsh 2-months, I knew something was wrong with me, no appetite, headache, weight loss, and all night with tears. As long as I closed my eyes, her words kept echoing in my mind. I went to a therapist, I told her I was diagnosed with moderate depression and anxiety. No exception, I deserve it. She said all I need to do is to go outside and make friends, and this is the punishment from God.
    I was always thinking why it is me? I knew I’m not alone, there must be so many children are suffering from the toxic family. Its just hard to accept the truth. Since “people can change, but toxic people rarely do”, it is really the time for me, myself to make some changes.

  9. I would love to know what you think about Bowen / Family Systems Theory. Total cutoff, according to Bowen, strips the options from both parties to grow into a new way of relating and to practice a new set of skills. There will always be people who you’d rather keep a bit of distance with, but when it comes to close family members is there really science that shows that cut-off is the best in the long-run? Would love-with-limits possibly be a better plan for many of these painful situations?

    1. Hi Amy,
      Yes, having a healthy relationship that includes love and limits would be preferable. (I don’t know anyone who wants to be estranged from their family.) The problem is that some people are unwilling or unable to accept limits and that often leads to abusive or harmful behavior. In which case, estrangement may be the best option—at least for a time. Estrangement isn’t always permanent. Many people have episodes of estrangements and varying degrees of contact with their families throughout their lives. And if everyone involved is willing to do their own work and come back together with the capacity to listen, empathize, respect, and compromise, they may be able to work on healing and rebuilding their relationship.
      If you’re interested, you might find some interesting resources and research in this article:

    2. I’ll answer too. yes! I cut my bipolar addict 4 time felony sister off more than 10 yrs ago. I had 10 yrs of peace til my older brothers wife joined forces with my bipolar sister to repeatedly attack me again.
      my sister had moved in and out of my home for more than 30 yrs. I did it to help her kids and give them a stable environment. but after the kids were grown she kept moving back in, til the night she came home drunk and pushed me backwards down a flight of stairs. I was able to catch the railing so I’m still here to talk to you. that was the end, cut her off. since then shes bad mouthed me, lied about me, recruited friends to harass me,had me falsely arrested for assault when it was her boyfriend that gave her a black eye, and now an evil and mentally unstable sister in law is helping her. they’ve had me falsely arrested and taken me to family court. all charges were dropped and I got the protective order…Thank God for court appointed attorneys. . I had 10 yrs of peace before they started in on me again ( insert sister in law) . I dont speak to them, dont try to defend myself against the lies, or react to FB posts about me. and I wont. thank God I have one older brother who is sane who sees it and has also cut our sister, older brother and his wife off as well. you have to. theyll never change. I can go on with so many more details but you get the gist. WALK AWAY

  10. I needed this more than I ever thought possible today. I knew both my parents had really toxic really bad qualities about them but I didn’t know it was this bad. To make a long story short my parents are being horrible manipulative narrow minded condescending and just cruel about me getting married. I live in Indiana and they live in California, I was supposed to go over there for me and my fiancé’s wedding. They met him earlier this year and really loved him, so fast forward to this past week and I was discussing the wedding with my parents. I told them I want a different kind of wedding, a gothic one with a black dress and some lovely red roses and some Edgar Allen Poe thrown in there, pretty much the Addams family. Nothing too insane or extreme, very soft romantic kind of gothic aesthetic. My father flat out told me he will not walk me down the isle in a black dress, he told me I would be the laughingstock of my town if I have anything less than a traditional wedding. There’s more to it but thats the big thing, my mom is playing victim and that I’m this horrible terrible monster that just crushed her dreams on how my wedding will turn out for her. They’ve been manipulative controlling cruel condescending demanding blaming just evil people for most of my adult life, which is crazy that I still love them. I also have a disabled younger sister who they use to control me into just letting them do or say whatever they want. I’m losing my mind, it’s only been a week since I talked about the wedding to them and I’m already losing my sanity my patience and just my spirit for having a wedding. I’m exhausted.

    1. My heart goes out to you, Elisabeth.
      Sadly, weddings, new babies, holidays, and all kinds of major life events/celebrations often bring out the worst in families. Whatever, you decide to do, I hope you and your husband-to-be can joyfully celebrate your marriage and have a happy, healthy life together.

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