In 2012, April Siese, now 29, ended her relationship with her mother after suffering what she describes as years of emotional and verbal abuse in a household with undiagnosed mental health issues and substance use disorders.
“My parents kept me in and out of treatment centres, group homes, and sent me to an abusive wilderness program,” Siese says. “I had a hard time coming to terms with the blame she put on me for some of her flaws, and finally got to a point of realisation that we didn’t have a good relationship, and we couldn’t restart it.”
Siese says it took years for her to learn that her childhood experience wasn’t normal.
“I naively didn’t realise that her regularly throwing out my belongings and preventing me from sleeping, gaslighting me, and putting me down (ex: regularly saying I’ll never be well enough to hold down a job or that I’m not worthy of trust and I’ll always be a liar and never good enough) was out of the ordinary and that normal, loving parents didn’t exhibit that sort of behaviour,” says Siese.
After a certain point, Siese called her mother and attempted to establish boundaries. “I said things weren’t working and that I would only talk to her with a mediator. I asked her to go to therapy, that I would be willing to, say, come back to California and go to family therapy with her, but I couldn’t go any further with our relationship as it stood.” When her mother didn’t accept her terms, and blamed Siese for “hurting” her, Siese cut off contact. “Occasionally she would send me long text messages about how regretful she was, send me emails about how she was doing and how much she was hurting,” Siese says. “I had to set up email filters and block her number.”
It’s extremely difficult to end relationships with or distance yourself from family members, whether they’re abusive or toxic parents, or members of a monarchy whose subjects won’t stop publishing racist gossip about you in the tabloids. Sometimes, it’s worth trying to work on and save the relationship, but in certain cases, cutting off ties is the best option.
Here are some tips on how to do it—but first, a note. Before breaking off your familial relationships, it’s a good idea to spend some time talking to a therapist. Everyone I spoke to in researching this piece decided to cut ties with their respective family members after years of therapy, so they felt confident in the end that they were doing the right thing for them. It might be even be helpful to seek group or family counselling, so your therapist has a better idea of the dynamic you’re dealing with. Point being: this isn’t a decision to take lightly. But if you do conclude that it’s the right path forward, we’ve got advice for you below:
Assess why you and your family member/s need to part ways
Every person, and every familial relationship, is different, and therefore people feel the need to take distance and/or cut themselves off from family members for different reasons.
“Each family has its own patterns of interactions and there’s a wide range of behaviours that can be emotionally damaging and harmful including scapegoating, gaslighting, marginalising or shaming someone, ignoring them, as well exerting control,” says Peg Streep, author of Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Your family member’s behaviour might trigger certain emotional and even physical reactions within you, like anxiety, panic, and depression. For instance, Alexandra White, 29, says she began experiencing serious anxiety whenever she spoke to her mother, with whom she had a very difficult relationship that got worse after her parents went through a messy divorce when she was in high school.
“After leaving for college, my heart would race on seeing her number calling me,” she says. “I would try and make our calls as short as possible. If I missed the call, I would put off calling her back for days. She wouldn’t take ownership of her side of our problems. By the end, even the thought of speaking to her made me feel nauseous.” White eventually cut ties with her mother in 2012.
If your family member abuses you physically and/or sexually, you need to seriously reassess your relationship with that person; if you need immediate assistance, you should call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. A family member who puts you in physical danger or subjects you to potential problems with the law should be treated with similar seriousness and urgency.
There are some less obvious red flags, though, like manipulative behaviour and emotional and verbal abuse, which could be harder for you to register as abnormal. “A little less clear might be when your loved one has a substance abuse problem,” says Robert E. Emery, PhD., a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of two books on divorce. “It can take a long time before you realise they have a real problem. Even trickier can be dealing with a personality disorder, which are hard even for professionals to diagnose.”
Whatever the issue is, if your family member is causing you psychological distress or behaving poorly towards you, it might be time to consider cutting ties.
Find a therapist, or another objective third-party professional who can help you
Cutting ties with family members is a serious step, one you shouldn’t take alone. A good therapist will guide you through the self-reflection necessary to assess your relationship with your relative/s; they might help you salvage that relationship and strategise around setting boundaries (more on that later). And if it can’t be salvaged, you can move on to estrangement with their assistance and backing.
“No one should consider breaking off ties with a family member if they haven’t done a lot of self-examination,” Emery says. “If you haven’t, you need to. If you have, and finally realised it’s time to act, well, then it’s time to act, not to doubt yourself. As always, getting an objective, outside perspective can help, whether you’re consulting a therapist, perhaps a lawyer, or some trusted, truly objective friend.”
Not only will therapy help you set boundaries and make serious life decisions with an impartial sounding board, but a therapist could serve as an important support system, both when you’re ready for a familial breakup and sorting through its aftermath later.
“Working with a gifted therapist to be able to see the patterns of interaction in your family of origin and their effect on you is the certainly the best route,” says Streep.
Set small boundaries before making a full break
It’s important to set boundaries in any relationship, good or bad, and it’s possible your family member/s will be open to working with you if you vocalise what’s going wrong. “You want to talk this out, and try to set up some rules in the relationship,” Emery says. “Start by putting some really clear boundaries around it, and having a pause rather than end.”
So, for instance, if you feel that your family members frequently try to use you for money, you could tell them, “I still want a relationship with you, but can no longer support you financially.” If you find yourself put in the middle of your parents’ vicious fights, you can tell them you will no longer serve as their mediator.
If your sister argues with you over Donald Trump, ask that she no longer discuss politics with you. You also need to be prepared to actively enforce those boundaries—if, for instance, that aforementioned sister brings up Trump at family dinners, even though you asked her not to, it’s fair to leave the room, the house, etc., or take whatever step necessary to show her you’re serious.
Of course, every situation is different, and sometimes relationships require more drastic boundaries. “If your family member has a real substance abuse problem, physical violence has occurred, or there are threats happening, or there’s something trickier at play like a personality disorder, then it’s really time to say, ‘OK, I need to have some real clear rules here,’” Emery says.
Those rules are situation-dependent, of course. “You may need to limit your contact, or cut off contact completely, including blocking your loved one’s number,” Emery says. “You may need to stop giving them money or other support like coming to the rescue when they’re distraught, intoxicated, or in trouble with the law. Or maybe you feel you still need to help, but you’ll only go so far. You’ll contact their therapist or bring them to the ER, but after that, you let the professionals take over.”
And, once again, if you believe you are in immediate danger, please call 000 or Australia’s Domestic Violence Hotline at 1300 364 277.
Do note that even if you do separate from your family, reconciliation could be possible, especially with the help of a therapist or mediator. The break might give you some time to heal and reflect, leaving room to repair the relationship later.
If you still you think you need to take more significant action, it’s a good idea to seek family mediation or family therapy, if you haven’t tried it already, provided you’re not dealing with an abuser.
“I would always explore a joint counselling session (if the other party is willing) to see if some talking out and working out possibilities exist,” says Carl Pickhardt Ph.D, the author of WHO STOLE MY CHILD? Parenting Through Four Stages of Adolescence. “In many cases, the person you find hurtful or objectionable may consider you the same, so joint incompatibility is something you share and may be able to build on.”
It’s also helpful to have a mediator so there’s a third party present to hold everyone accountable, to help you negotiate terms and boundaries, and to provide an objective perspective on your relationship with these family members, one you might not get from your therapist in one-on-one sessions.
Communicate the break clearly, and stick to the terms you set
If you’ve spent time self-examining, tried to set small boundaries, and/or gone through mediation and still think a break-up is the answer, you should let the family member you’re ending the relationship with know what you’re doing. Don’t ghost them. (Again, unless they’re an abuser—in which case, it’s best to come up with a course of action with your therapist and mediator first.)
“Everybody, even a difficult person, deserves a clear explanation for what’s happening or why,” Emery says. “Once you’ve figured out what you’re going to do, that’s the starting point.”
Before you cut things off, decide exactly what you want the parameters of your relationship to be. You can cut off all contact if you think that’s the best route, or limit contact to certain circumstances, days of the week, frequencies, etc. For instance, in 2018, Rafael R., now 43, decided to take some distance from his mother and stepfather after decades of suffering significant abuse at his stepfather’s hands. He confronted his mother face-to-face and told her their relationship could not continue as it stood.
“I told her I did not want to have anything to do with my stepfather, that there were things that happened in my childhood that at the very least I had to lay on the table,” Rafael, who chose to withhold his last name for privacy reasons, says. “I said, ‘The result is that you and I can’t really have a relationship until these things get worked out, and I can’t work them out for you. This is how things are going to be from now on, and I’m sorry that it’s come to this point of place.’”
Though Rafael no longer speaks to his stepfather, he does still communicate with his mother, but they are not as close as they once were. “I have a very civil relationship with her. It’s not anything you would consider familial,” Rafael, says. “We text each other every few days and that sort of thing, and I’m going to miss her very greatly when she’s gone, because she’s my mum. But there’s no deep relationship there.”
Once you pinpoint your boundaries, Emery says, you need to stick with them. “The most important thing is that before you enter into any of this, you have to be resolved with yourself that you’re doing the right thing and that you’re going to follow through,” Emery says. “If they keep texting you, you might block their text. If they show up knocking on your door, don’t let them in. You need to be secure in yourself and your resolve that this is the right thing, not just for you but for your family member, so you’re not enabling them.”
Expect a ripple effect
When you end a relationship with one or some family members, it will probably affect your relationship with the rest of the family. “When you cut ties with a family member, you affect the whole extended family, not just that relationship you seek to leave,” Pickhardt writes. “For example, one of the adult children refuses to be around another and now remaining members, parents for example, may not like this new separation and distance created in the family.”
Do tell the family members you wish to stay in touch with that you still want to have a loving relationship with them, and that you won’t pressure them to take your side. White, for instance, is still close with her father and brother, though she says her brother was put in some difficult situations when she stopped speaking to her mother. “My brother still has a relationship with her, and she would put him in the middle and make him try to make me feel guilty about not speaking with her, to which I would have to ask him not to get involved,” White says.
Of course, sometimes your other family members won’t respect your decision, and attempt to get involved despite your request that they not. “Both sides of my family are very liberal but have traditional Catholic core, and something you can’t turn your back on is your family,” Siese says. “My relatives refuse to separate our relationship from me not talking to my mum.”
You may therefore have to set boundaries with extended family members as well. “They don’t have to like or agree with the boundary separation you are setting. They may strongly disagree,” Pickhardt says. “You are doing this for you, not them, and their lack of support may just be the collateral damage you are willing to pay.”
You may still have to see and/or talk to your estranged family members in certain circumstances, which may be very difficult. Siese saw her mother the summer after she ended their relationship, at the funeral of another close relative. “The first person I saw when I walked into the bathroom at the church was my mum,” Siese says. “It went horribly. I felt like I had to mitigate her emotions, and left myself open to playing therapist and grief counselor to my mum.”
Still, Siese maintained her resolve, even when her mother tried to change her mind. “She said, ‘Well, maybe you can come visit,’” Siese says. “I didn’t really say anything to that, and things kind of stayed as they were.”
Give yourself the space and permission to grieve
It’s hard to end any relationship, and ending one with a family member, especially a parent or child, is particularly fraught. “It’s incredibly difficult both because we value and prize family intellectually, but we have our own cultural attachments as well,” Emery says.
“It’s coming to recognise, ‘Maybe my mother isn’t the person I wanted her to be or hoped she would be.’ It may not be a loss of a real relationship if that relationship is troubled, but a loss of the hopes and dreams of what that family might have been.”
If you were seeing a therapist before you ended the relationship, it’s worth continuing counselling to work through issues of guilt or loss; if you weren’t in therapy, you may want to consider starting it, if you’re financially able. For instance, White relied on therapy to help her work through her troubled relationship with her mother. “It took a lot of therapy for me to understand that just because [my mother] gave birth to me, it doesn’t mean I owe her for the rest of my life,” White says. “I’ve been able to just try and work on myself and not worry about a relationship with a person who I have no control over.”
Feelings of guilt and/or loss are normal; you may never really feel a sense of closure. “I never felt like I was able to completely speak my piece [with my parents],” Siese, who eventually ended up cutting ties with her father as well, says. “I definitely wanted answers from them. But that’s something that’s not going to happen. You need to be aware of that—just because you removed a difficult aspect from your life, it doesn’t mean other problems are solved.”
Make sure you’re giving yourself space and permission to let yourself feel the feelings. “There’s definitely an element of grief. There’s definitely an element of loss. You have to honour and respect that,” Rafael R. says.
And know that even if you’re not able to maintain a relationship with the family you were born into, it doesn’t mean you don’t have people around you who can and will love you and who you can and will love in turn. “In terms of advice I wish I had gotten, you’re not alone if you cut off contact with your family or choose to end a toxic relationship with a family member,” Siese says. “Your chosen family can sometimes more than fill that role and there are other people who can relate to your experience.”