Cutting Family Ties

You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your future. If you’re contemplating cutting ties with a problematic family member, we’re here to help. Sit in as we hear real-life accounts from people who have been through it and expert insights on the devastating impact of toxic family relationships.

Alex’s* recent twenty-fourth birthday kicked off with the unwelcomed arrival of the annual card from her father. “Well Kiddo, if you got this far, it means another card didn’t go straight into the bin unopened – so that’s a result.” Four years ago, after years of emotional pain, Alex decided to finally cut off her dad. There’s a lot of talk about young people going no-contact with their relatives for the sake of their mental health, but for some the complications of leaving are just too much. We spoke to people on either side of the coin.

‘Blood is thicker than water’, or so the saying goes. But the actual phrase is ‘blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb’. In other words, our chosen relationships are more valuable than our biological ones. None of us agreed to be born into our families, so why should we have to stand by them?

In all relationships, our feelings towards someone are dictated by how they treat us and how we connect with them. A 2015 study by the University of Cambridge found the most common reasons for breakdowns in familial relationships include emotional abuse, clashes of personality and values, and mismatched expectations about family roles.

For Alex, all of the above were true. “My dad is just an absolutely vile person. He would dominate every conversation and did a lot of cruel things. He was never a real dad to me, so he would try to force the relationship through a lot of the things he did. If I kissed him, he made me do it on the lips. He wasn’t happy if I called him ‘dad’, I had to call him ‘daddy’.”

With her dad’s presence adding no value to her life, the doctor from Leeds saw no reason to keep the relationship alive. “I do recognise it’s a big step to have cut him off, but it’s the absolute right decision. I sent him a Christmas card in 2020 and told myself that was the last time I’d ever speak to him, and it was.”

The 2015 Cambridge study found 80 per cent of individuals who cut ties with family members thought it had a positive effect on their lives. Participants reported feeling “freer, more independent, and stronger”. However, the same study found those people are also more likely to experience reduced levels of psychological well-being.

For some people, whether it’s the stigma or practical complications, walking away isn’t such an easy task.

Clinical psychologist Geraldine Fletcher, says: “There’s a lot of different reasons why people stay in contact with toxic family members. They also may feel ashamed of wanting to abandon their family.

“There’s a big emotional pressure because even if your family is toxic, it’s all you have ever really known. And even if the relationship is toxic, there could still be a lot of love.” says Geraldine. “It can be even more difficult for certain people, depending on the culture, background and situation of their family.”

It’s due to his family’s finances that student Matthew*, 22 from Birmingham, feels he has no choice but to stay in contact with his dad. “One time I asked my mum why she wouldn’t just divorce him and she said in the most casual way “we can’t afford to”. I hate it, but I do need him financially and he likes to hold that over me.” These practical constraints have allowed Matthew’s dad to damage his mental health over the years. “He’s very emotionally
manipulative. He’s told me at least twice “you’re the reason I want to kill myself”, which is just what every teenage boy wants to hear.”

You should also consider how cutting off a family member could impact your life down the line. For Joanne* from Birmingham, her children were the reason she stayed in contact with her parents. “There’s been lots of times over the years when I thought I should stop all interaction with them, but my husband and I always carried on because we didn’t want our children to not have grandparents.”

It was when she had kids that Joanne’s mother started behaving cruelly towards her. “There were countless times where she would say vicious things to me and I never responded because I was too polite, but they would always stay in my mind. I would get in the car after dropping my kids off at school and would cry all the way to work.

“One of the final straws was when we got a call saying my father was at death’s door. Years later I discovered my mother had told everyone else in the family when the doctor gave him six weeks left to live. They had purposely withheld that from us. What I resented most was it prevented my children from seeing their grandad one final time before he died.”

It wasn’t until she was in her late forties that Joanne, 55, finally cut contact with her mother. “There were times when we tried not to see her so much, which we could see was much better for my mental health. But I’m glad we put up with her for all that time because when my kids got older and discovered what she was like for themselves, they gave me their support to fully detach ourselves from her. I finally feel content knowing they were a part of the decision.”

The nuclear approach of going no-contact isn’t your only option. After a lot of thought, Daphiny Kung, 24 from Vancouver, decided against cutting off her “narcissistic” parents. She had struggled to maintain healthy boundaries with them and believes her parents’ Taiwanese culture played a part in this.

“My mom’s father was very emotionally avoidant and resorted to physical discipline over any inconvenience, which is very normal in Asian culture. That’s naturally shaped her behaviour so she tends to let emotions build up and resorts to yelling and screaming. Whenever my dad is confronted with an issue, he lacks the tools to be empathetic to others and his victim mindset kicks in.”

In the summer of 2023, Daphiny was on the brink of cutting them off for good, but a trip to visit her dad in Taiwan changed everything. “Taking time away from the toxic environment at home with mom, and spending a longer period of time with my dad made me realise that my parents don’t know any better. I was finally able to not take pity on myself because of my “lack of normal family experience” but understand that what’s happened has happened. Once I was able to emotionally detach myself from the good and bad experiences with them, I started to take things less personally.”

Geraldine Fletcher, who has over 30 years of experience working with troubled families, explains that young adults often feel a natural inclination to reconsider their family relationships. “If you think about it, when we are born into a family, really that is our society.

We go to school and we do have other relationships and group structures in our lives but it’s our families that are the main influence and we don’t tend to question their norms.

“When you’re in your twenties and perhaps move out of the family home, you just start to see that there is another way, which makes you question what you always took to be the only way that life can be.

“The risk is that when you’re away from home, because you are out of context, you can feel almost like a different person. So as time goes on, you may really grow to feel the massive impact of the life change you instigated.”

We asked the expert for her advice for those of you feeling lost on what to do. “Ideally talk to a therapist, but if not then someone you can talk to in confidence, who can have a more objective opinion and who is concerned about your welfare.

“If it’s an abusive relationship then that’s a different situation entirely. But cutting off a family member is a very big change and a big loss, so it’s not advisable unless it’s absolutely necessary.” says Geraldine. “If there is love and positive elements to your relationship, but there are problem areas that might be possible to address, I’d say to give them the time and chance to test out their motivation and willingness to change. Try a more graded approach. It might start with a conversation, and if that’s not possible then you may want to set some boundaries. However, if all else fails then you have to get out, because ultimately we are responsible for protecting our own mental health.”

Whatever decision you choose to make, there is support out there for you. Speak to a professional. Speak to a friend. Whether you decide to put boundaries in place, or cut off your family member completely, the most important thing is to always put you and your mental health first.

*This person’s name has been changed to protect their identity.

If you feel you need to speak to someone about a difficult relationship in your life, here are some organisations that are there to help you:

Mind UK – call 0300 123 3393 or chat online.

Samaritans – call 116 123 or chat online. 

Stand Alone – estrangement support group & Facebook group.

Read more here

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