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

Cutting Ties with a Toxic Family Member: The Ultimate Act of Self-Care

 

Cutting ties with toxic famiy 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 Canva.com

 

 

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 Happily Imperfect for PsychCentral.com 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.

2 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.

  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.
    Coco

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