Triangles, boundaries, and Spidey Senses: Ending relationships with difficult family members

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By: JD Hancock - CC BY 2.0
By: JD HancockCC BY 2.0
Remember that post about how to maintain a relationship with difficult family members? In response to that post, in the comments section there were a lot of questions from fellow Homies wanting some advice on NOT maintaining these relationships. Sadly, this is an area of life that I have some experience with…

I have a sibling, with whom I no longer have a relationship. Out of respect for my parents, I’ll spare you the details, but needless to say, I am unable to have a healthy relationship with him. So I’ve made what I feel is the best choice for myself, and cut him from our lives.

Oh, how I wish that was the end of the story. But unlike ending unhealthy friendships and partnerships, ending unhealthy familial relationships comes with a LOT more drama, added baggage, and hurdles to jump.

I don’t know if I can offer the definitive advice on the topic of ditching difficult family members, but I can offer up a few insights from my own years of experience…

The relationship triangle

With most family relationships there’s a triangle to consider: you + Difficult-Family-Member + every other member of your family. So be prepared for awkwardness. This means Difficult-Family-Member will be talked about at dinner by your parents, asked about at the holidays by your cousins, and you may be consistently asked to “just get over it” by your aunts and uncles. In short, Difficult-Family-Members’ ghost will continue to haunt your life.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

Learn about, institute, and stand by your personal boundaries. For example:

  • Do you want to not have any contact whatsoever with Difficult-Family-Member? Then block them on social networking sites, and set up an email filter to delete anything from their address.
  • Tell your family that when it comes to events, you will not attend if Difficult-Family-Member will be there. Acknowledge the discomfort and inconvenience, but don’t apologize. Be clear about your boundaries so that family members can plan accordingly.
  • Let everyone know what it would take for you to let Difficult-Family-Member back in your life, and that you will not accept anything less than what you need before anything can change.

Make peace with the fact that people will think you’re an asshole

Because of the aforementioned relationship triangle and the boundary settings, you may end up feeling like a toxic family member yourself. You will probably make your mom cry when she realizes that she may never have all her kids in one place together again. Or it’ll suck to have to lovingly tell your grandfather off when he gives you the “just get over it” speech. And it will always make you feel like a total asshole to not attend your cousin’s wedding or nephew’s birthday because Difficult-Family-Member is going to be there. It’s definitely going to be tough, but the key is owning your part of this, acknowledging that it’s uncomfortable, but harnessing the power of your Fuck-Off Fairy, and sticking to it. Which is where the next tip comes in handy…

Find a support system

When you’re in the midst of the upheaval (parental tears, grandparental side eyes), you have to re-set and remind yourself why you’re doing this. (To protect yourself? Your loved ones? To keep your emotions in check?) But sometimes running through the reasons alone, in your own head, isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a partner, or a friend, or even a fellow family member who can relate and support you in your decision. You are more-than-likely NOT the only person who’s going through something like this.

Get therapy

Okay, so you cut off all contact, you implemented your boundaries, you made peace with being perceived as an asshole, and you found a support system. So why is this still eating you up inside? The fact of the matter is: You were more than likely deeply and emotionally affected by an unhealthy relationship, and you may need professional help to sort it all out. A therapist can give you valuable outside perspective, and can be a great help in finding and upholding your personal boundaries. It might be pricey, but it’s so very worth it.

Focus on the positive relationships

Focus on the positive relationships you DO still have. Call up your best friend and remind yourself that your friends are the family you choose. The moment you start that downward negative-thinking spiral, give yourself a mental smack in the face and start thinking about a positive family experience: Thanksgiving with your favorite cousin, your adorable newborn niece, or that fun vacation you took with your mom. Send your energy out towards the relationships that make you warm and fuzzy in order to keep yourself from stewing in the negative.

Hone your Spidey Senses

For those of you have been in close quarters with an unhealthy family dynamic, you now have unfortunately fortunate deep insights into the minds and behaviors of the human beings you need to avoid. Instead of feeling violated by it, reframe it and use it as your super power! Help your friends through similar experiences, stop unhealthy friendships before they get too intense… hell, I’ve even predicted (and physically distanced myself from) bar fights before they’ve happened. Your “avoid this person” detector is STRONG, y’all.

Ultimately, it’s been a long, hard road to gain my independence — a cycle of fights, tears, hurt feelings, anger, and therapy. But through the hardships, the end result — the peace of mind I’ve gained — has been very rewarding.

I’m doing the best I can, but this tricky situation is always hard, and I’m constantly learning. Who else has done the sad-but-necessary thing of ending a relationship with a family member? Do you have any more advice to give — books, resources, constructive tips? What did I miss?

Comments on Triangles, boundaries, and Spidey Senses: Ending relationships with difficult family members

  1. Does anyone have any advice as to what the last straw should be? As in (without detailing your own situation if you’re uncomfortable with that), what internal feelings are significant, etc. I find myself fantasizing about cutting off difficult family members but I’m just not sure that they’ve done anything “bad” enough.

    • It’s really hard to make that call and determine what is enough. My dude has gone through it with pretty much all his family and Megan is SO RIGHT about how tough it is. After watching him go through it (including the therapy side), I would say that the biggest thing is to feel like you have done all you can but there is no change and continuing the relationship is harmful to you or those you love (mentally or physically). My dude tried to be a good family member and put in the effort he could manage. Things did not improve. He would be sick and anxious anytime he had to deal with difficult family and be a wreck afterwards. That was just not a functional way to live. Megan is totally right that you should know what would be required for that person to be accepted back. What changes do you want/need? Could that actually happen? Have these difficult people shown any sign that they would be willing to make changes? If you’re shaking your head, I’d start preparing. And therapy might be best before you go through the point of cutting them off. Your therapist can help you with these questions. My dude went about it that way and when he made his decision, he was really ready to make it.

      • “My dude tried to be a good family member and put in the effort he could manage. Things did not improve. He would be sick and anxious anytime he had to deal with difficult family and be a wreck afterwards. That was just not a functional way to live. “

        This EXACTLY. While there was ultimately a final straw for me, looking back from where I am now, I wish I had made the call to separate myself sooner. My quality of life improved dramatically.

    • You know what? There doesn’t need to be one last catastrophic event to be the last straw. After suffering years of emotional abuse at the hands of my father and sister, I cut them both out completely. I worried that people would think ill of me because they hadn’t “done” anything – but that absolutely wasn’t true. There were years of mental and emotional anguish for me. It wasn’t nothing! There was no “last straw event” (like a big blowout fight or something) for me, per se. I simply decided that the relationships were not healthy, and that I was done. That’s all. I did not speak to either of them one last time. I blocked them on social media and stopped answering their phone calls. It may seem harsh, but it was absolutely necessary. I am happier and healthier than I have been in years. You need to do what’s best for you, and you do not have to explain yourself or answer to anyone else. You will deal with some pushback, but you must absolutely care for yourself first. Others may not understand, and when you are okay with that you will be ready.

      Best of luck to you!

    • For me, I have mostly cut out my brother. If he contacts me (and he won’t) I am polite and to the point; however, I refuse to contact him and I refuse to play into his egotistical games. If we are at a mutual event (rarely happens) I don’t talk to him and can’t even make eye contact.

      I tried for years to make that boy love me. I kept blaming myself when he would be horrible to me and promised myself that I would ‘try harder next time.’ 2 years ago, my mother pointed that out to me…she told me that my entire life she saw me try again and again to make him proud and happy but he was too wrapped up in himself to even respond. Once she said that, it really opened my eyes. I never realized that–but once she had said it, I looked back in my memories and realized she was right. It took me a few months to internalize it but then after he acted like an ass (and he had acted much worse in the past, tbh) I just stopped. Usually, I would do whatever I could to make him happy and ‘forgive me’ but that part of me just wasn’t there anymore. My feelings towards him had completely and totally changed.

      I don’t know if it helps you but it sure helped me to write it all out. lol

        • Cheers to this. My “enough point” was having to watch another family member go through all the same emotional turmoil that I had gone through. Seeing it all as an outsider was the thing that finally got me to distance myself. I realize now that I wasn’t being as protective of MYSELF as I was being of someone else. But sometimes that’s what it takes to be able to gain perspective, or to get you to finally take a stand.

      • That’s a really, really good way to look at it. Part of the reason I am thinking of cutting this person out of my life is because I’m engaged, and I’m worried that during the wedding planning process they will treat my bestie the way they treated me, which would be inexcusable. I never thought of putting myself on the same level of importance as my bestie.

    • I am about 99% sure that I’m going to end my relationship with my mom. After years of problems with her, and countless discussions about the problems in our relationship, we agreed a while ago that whenever we have a problem with each other, we’re just going to sit down and have it out, whether that means yelling at each other and then talking or just talking everything through, so we’ll have a better understanding of each other and can figure out what needs to be done about whatever issue we’re dealing with. We’ve had that discussion many, many times, but my mother has problems with drugs and alcohol, so her temper is really finicky and she doesn’t remember a lot of our talks, regardless of subject matter. I’ve dealt with her harassing me over social media and cutting me off from my entire family, and after a recent incident I’m pretty sure that I would be much healthier mentally if I cut her out of my life.

      So in short, for me, the last straw was her repeatedly going against the one thing we’d agree to do in order to fix our terminally f***ed up relationship. (Example: Instead of telling me when she’s annoyed or mad about something I did, she’ll post about it on Facebook or send an e-mail telling me I’m horrible … with the entire family as recipients.) I’d put in all the effort I could and she’d give nothing. The more I think about it, the more I realize that she has been more toxic to my mental health than anything else. I haven’t made the move and flat-out told her about my decision yet because I’m still not 100% sure about it, but I do think that it’s coming — if not now, then sometime soon.

      • Good luck finding a way to do what’s best for you. Remember – you have just as much of a right to enjoy your life peacefully and if that means doing something that people disagree with, that’s okay if it helps you live better.

    • For me, the last straw was my abusive mother telling people that I was a horrible mother and that she was going to try to take custody of our girls. Nevermind my dear husband, of course. My parenting sin? Having the kids babysat during the day while I had a wicked 5 day case of gastro. They spent 3 days with their beloved nans, coming home to sleep, while I was sick. To top it all off, she called one of our daughters autistic, like it was an insult.

      She’s in our lives, on a very restricted basis, but only because her parents are very sick. We’re trying to make their last years as pleasant as possible. If she’s cruel to the kids, then we’ll cut her off again.

    • My last straw was when my mother tried to kill me then called the police when she realised I was still alive, lied to them and got me arrested before I could gather my thoughts together (they didn’t press charges in the end they got to the bottom of what had really happened but it was terrifying). It was a control game to her. That was when I stopped making excuses for her behaviour. I was 17. She has serious mental health problems and I’d been her main carer for years, she expected me to go home the next day. I didn’t. I stayed with friends, hung up when she called me at work, and have never spoken to her again. The rest of my family were very supportive as they had had issues with her years before when she distanced herself from them (she has major paranoia amongst other things). It felt at the time like the world had ended, like I was never going to be able to go on with life, but with distance and positive life experiences I have become stronger and I agree that you can spot trouble as a result of experiences with certain toxic relationships. The biggest hurdle is learning to trust anyone ever again afterwards, and to not over-react when you see a slightly similar situation that might not unfold the way you think it will.

    • I’m still struggling with this. I cut a family member out of my life a few months ago and they made changes in order to be included at my wedding and I let them back in cautiously with boundaries. Things since have been technically “better” but I still feel very strongly that if I were to have kids, I would not want them around this person. I have actually seriously considered waiting to have kids until after this person has died. I have to ask myself, “Why am I willing to expose myself to someone who I would not expose my children to?”
      That’s a question I am working through in therapy; but the article above touches on a lot of the reasons. I strongly suspect that when I get to a more emotionally healthy point that the relationship will end. There doesn’t have to be a “final straw” you just have to find the strength and the peace within yourself to let go. It’s HARD. But the only “excuse” you need is your own happiness. Best to you.

    • You know what? There doesn’t need to be a last straw. This about this statement:

      “Let everyone know what it would take for you to let Difficult-Family-Member back in your life, and that you will not accept anything less than what you need before anything can change.”

      In that context, all that is needed is for you to draw a boundary that works for you, and say “if you step over this boundary we are done talking.” I did this with several family members who were very loving but also very opinionated and controlling, and had several years of phone hangups and quiet Xmases and such. After a few years of that, one of the said family members agreed “okay, no more X” and now we are fine. Another family member? Not so much.

      There doesn’t have to be a “cut the thread wipe your hands walk away” moment. You are Worthy of Being Well Treated. You are worthy of saying “this is the behavior I will endure and this is the behavior I will not endure.” And you have every right to stick to your guns until the family understands.

      Sending love, luck, and light.

    • My breaking point came when I got a wonderful full-time job after a 1 1/2 year unemployment disaster streak and out of the blue my in-desperate-need-of-professional-help relative called me and angrily said she had hired a lawyer to remove me from the home because I had gotten a job. She doesn’t even live with me!

      I’ve wanted to get out for a LONG time because the manipulation, harassment, half-truths, outright lying, bad attitudes….it’s no way to live. But I was able to make this my breaking point because I finally had the means to get away…and I will be, possibly within the next couple months.

      I’ve thought about a restraining order and was even advised by legal counsel to do so…but I’m still mulling it over, not because I want to keep contact, but because I might be able to cut her out of my life without needing to fill out the paperwork.

      My rule of thumb now is that I’d rather lower my standard of living (tiny apartment, less income, I suck at cooking) if it means raising my quality of life (you mean I can answer my cell phone without fear now?? Yipee!!)

      I wish you all the best! *hugs of support*

    • That’s a tough call Little Red Lupine. I have gone through periods where I have been estranged from both my mom and my dad. The short of it was that when I was 23 I found out my dad was an alcoholic and had always been one but now it was getting increasingly worse and he was beginning to abuse prescription drugs. (which led to some insane fights between him and my mother, with she and I fearing for our safety). He went to rehab telling us he hadn’t been drinking for a month, was checked out and taken to a hospital because it turned out he HAD been drinking the whole time and was going through withdraw. That was when I cut him off. It wasn’t an intellectual decision and it wasn’t because I didn’t love him, it was because I JUST COULDN’T. That was it, I hit a wall. I supported my mother through the divorce and craziness that ensued. Then SHE began drinking and lying and having the cops called on her (which my younger brother told me about as she never brought these incidents up). The final straw was when she screamed at me in a restaurant because she was jealous of the relationship I was developing with my half-sister who had been given up for adoption and I had just recently met for the first time. Again, what it came down to was I JUST COULDN’T EVEN. Not anymore. She resisted at first and then accepted it.

      Throughout all of this I had an amazing therapist who helped me develop boundaries and work through my issues with my parents and their alcoholism. After a couple of years she helped me realize that I would crushed if my father died without my talking to him so he and I slowly re-began our relationship through much talking and apologizing (even though he wasn’t sober). My mom and I talk again as well but she respects me MUCH more now and hasn’t emotionally or verbally abused me since.

      This was a looooong reply but what I’m trying to say is when the time comes to end a relationship, YOU’LL JUST KNOW. And also, that just because you decide to end a relationship forever doesn’t mean that you may or may not find yourself exploring the possibility of opening that relationship back up but with different boundaries and self-protections. You need to do what is right for you and tune out the rest who say you’re being selfish.

  2. Oh wow. This has come at such a tough time in both my and my partner’s families, and seeing that others have been through similar has been a real comfort, so thank you for that. To write everything has happened for us both to cut ties with certain relatives would take far too long. But in short there was abuse in my partner’s family, and we were betrayed by someone in my family who we trusted as much as our parents. For us, considering the circumstances, deciding to remove these people from our lives was easy. What has been hard for us, was choosing whether to keep or remove those who have either supported these people, or refused to acknowledge that what they did was wrong. Eventually we made decisions that were not popular but our lives have become so much better for making them. I say ‘better’ and not ‘easier’. It’s never easy being in a divided family, especially when there’s divisions on both sides! But making the decision to protect ourselves from the nastiness of others has honestly been the best decision we ever made.

    I think if any relative makes you feel less than them, or unworthy in any way shape or form, it’s time to get some distance between you. Some people are inherently selfish and oblivious to the feelings and plights of others. You shouldn’t be made to feel inferior at the hands of someone who is meant to be your family. Whether to remove them completely is always down to the individual situation and is ultimately your decision alone. But if having them in your life is nothing but a negative influence, then maybe it is time to close that door.

  3. Thank you for this post. I’m glad to know I’m not going through this alone.

    Good luck to other OB homies in creating a safe and loving family of your choosing.

  4. I don’t know if the original article also addressed this, but as someone who’s recently been cut off by a family member (sister-in-law blocked me on Facebook and won’t return my messages), please make sure the difficult family member knows WHY this is happening. If you can’t tell them in person, send an email or make arrangements for a third party to communicate your message. My sister-in-law made no efforts to tell me what I did or why she wants nothing to do with me, and I have no idea — it’s been a rough few weeks while I think over everything I’ve said or done that might have been inadvertently offensive. And it makes me less willing to try to change — I feel like I shouldn’t have to fix the problem she caused.

    • Totally! One of my bullet points in the article is Let everyone know what it would take for you to let Difficult-Family-Member back in your life.

      My thinking there is that, if you don’t feel comfortable having direct contact with your family member, that at least your message can be communicated to them by someone, with either the idea of possible reconciliation, or the hope that your family member might want to use it as a growing experience.

      • This is such an important point! If Difficult-Family-Member truly feels “toxic” to you, then as a form of psychological protection (and maybe even physical safety) it may be necessary to tell others what the situation is with you and DFM, rather than telling DFM directly.

        Sometimes there really is a bad guy or bad gal (it’s nice to think there isn’t, but sometimes there really is) who you need to avoid at all costs.

    • I am so sorry to hear that you’ve having a rough time, but I’m not sure I agree that there needs to be communication when you’re cutting someone out for good.

      I mean, it SUCKS what is happening between you and your sister. I really hear you on how much it sucks to not know what’s going on (and, I mean, I think it’s likely that it is her problem and has nothing to do with you, especially if she didn’t communicate anything to you… you really don’t have to take responsibility for her feelings or the situation when there is no communication). But folks who are in abusive or otherwise awful situations really don’t need to give explanations to those who are harming them, so this isn’t applicable to everyone (just to be clear: I am not saying you did ANYTHING to your sister at all, I am saying that the advice of telling people why you’re cutting them off doesn’t work for every situation, especially when abuse is involved).

      I hope that you find some peace with what is happening. If your sister does come back into your life, you have every right to set your own boundaries with her based off of this experience of her disappearing.

    • I’m so sorry. You said your sister-in-law, is there a family member in the middle you are directly related to that you can talk to? (Like, if she’s married to your sibling or if you are married to her sibling, etc.)

      • Yeah, she’s married to my brother, so I’ve talked to him and to my parents about it. My parents just have theories, and the sense I’ve gotten from my brother is that she just doesn’t like my personality. His exact words were “she thinks [me and my husband] think [we’re] better than the rest of the family.” But since she won’t talk to me, I don’t have a way to tell her how very very much that’s not true.

        Anyway, shitty situation for all parties. Would have been a lot easier if there’d been some communication previous to her cutting me off.

  5. you know what I love the most about this post? that Megan owns her response to the situation. with family drama, we can never really know who’s at fault (we all play our own parts, usually), and i love that she doesn’t point fingers or get into a blame game. to me, this shows a profound respect for her family… even as she’s dealing with what sounds like a really challenging situation.

    in my experience, this kind of “owning it” is a sign of real maturity. i think everyone dealing with this kind of family drama should aim for this level of personal responsibility.

  6. My husband had gone through this in the last year with a sibling. The only thing I would add would be to avoid getting sucked into the petty games that some people will want to play. We make it a point to never bash the sibling or bring them up just to rag on them. Staying an adult in the situation makes it a little easier for other family members to accept the situation.

  7. “You were more than likely deeply and emotionally affected by an unhealthy relationship, and you may need professional help to sort it all out. ”

    A powerful thought, Megan. Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. There is a message board on a site that I otherwise am horrified of, but the message board is pure gold. It’s full of thousands of people who have been through dealing with toxic family members. It helped me see the situation as it was instead of how I’d been programed to see it. They helped me stop rug-sweeping, stopped being a doormat, set boundaries for my sake and for my kids’ sake, just helped so much! If you Google “dwil foo” you will find the board. Don’t let the site it’s hosted on scare you off, it’s really a hidden jewel of that site. You don’t even have to post to be helped by the board – just lurk and you’ll learn so much.

  9. This is so perfectly, beautifully expressed. Thank you, OP, for writing this. Thank you, OBH, for posting it. Our hang ups with family run so deep, and making our lives better without them is sometimes the only option, but it will never be easy.

  10. Has anyone dealt with this when you choose not to tell other family members why you’ve chosen to cut this person out? I’ve chosen to (mostly) remove a family member from my life and it really bothers some of my other family members that we’re not in contact. I fully anticipated that not telling anyone would mean some confusion, but recently, it’s gotten pretty personally painful. My family members think they’re just pushing me to be more sociable and familial, but it’s a knife in an old wound to me.

    • There hasn’t been much I’ve found yet to do for this, other than talking to the friends I’ve chosen to tell about why I cut out the family member. It helps me feel better a little bit to have at least one person to talk to. I’m also thinking about discussing it with a counselor eventually. But for me…even if I were to tell my family the why, the likelihood of there being any positive outcomes from that is small anyways. Wish you the best of luck with it though, cause I know how hard it is to seem like the “bad” one (when you’ve actually been the one hurt) to your family.

    • I’m not sure what happened that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, but is there even one person in your family that you could share your reasons with? Maybe just the highlights? If you have one person you can trust to share with, who would *not* share with the rest of the family, they can become your ally and help stand up for you. In a lot of situations, this can make all the difference. You might start by writing down, for yourself and no one else, the reasons or the story behind why you have cut someone out of your life. This will help you clarify things and see the situation somewhat objectively in order to logically list what went wrong and what you need. Then you can choose what you can safely share with your ally.

      If there isn’t someone you feel comfortable asking to be your ally, then it’s time to enforce some serious boundaries with the rest of your family. Let them know how much it hurts you when they try to be helpful and get you to smooth things over with the offending party. Let them know that you did not make this decision on a whim, and you are not going to suddenly decide to forget the offense on a whim either.

      Also, if there isn’t someone in your family that can act as an ally for you, then I would really consider finding a professional to talk to regarding the incident and the current family fallout resulting from it all. A counselor or therapist will be really good at helping you set up boundaries for your family, and may be helpful in other ways as well. I am particularly poor at setting boundaries and talking with a counselor really helped me to finally feel confident in setting them up and enforcing them.

    • A lot of the people I’m cutting out are getting cut because I can’t share my reasons for breaking off contact with my abusers. Some of my family members live with my abusers or have otherwise tightly bound, unbreakable relationships. I’d rather lose contact with people I love than either put them into the worse situation of knowing the truth about their son/brother/husband and having to keep my secrets or risk them endangering me with disbelief (eg telling a violent, dangerous person what I’ve been saying about him or trying to “fix” things between us). It’s not a good answer and it leaves me with little biological family, but it’s what I need to do.

  11. I’d like to add that it gets better with time, and to hang in there.
    For me, it was my dad, and while my parents were divorced and my mom felt like it was okay for them to be separated, she kept telling me “He’s always going to be your dad” and “Doesn’t it make you feel sad that you won’t see your dad anymore?”
    But I actually got over it sort of quickly, and I felt relief more than anything. I had to tell my mom a few times “I’m not really sad about it” before she let me be
    So if you’re in the difficult part now, or about to commit to the familial breakup: it’ll be okay. People will get used to it. You’ll be better off in the long run.

  12. Does anyone have any suggestions for how to cope with being “the difficult family members”?

    Here’s the deal: my older brother and sister-in-law cut off my entire family right after they were married. When my parents asked them what we had done/what we could do to reconcile, they said, “You know what you did, and you have to apologize.” My parents said that they were truly sorry, but they weren’t clear on how we all went wrong. Their response: “Then your apology doesn’t count. You can’t apologize until you apologize for what you did.” After a lot of awful bickering (in which they told my mother that they didn’t care about her cancer diagnosis, etc.) they stopped speaking to my parents, and me.
    Then they cut off my other brother.
    Then my sister-in-law’s entire family, too.

    It was confusing and hurtful, to say the least. We’re all pretty sure my brother will never come back to us, and we’re all starting to be okay with that, sort of. But we’ve all been left with self-esteem issues, too – worried that we’re capable of causing incredible damage to our loved ones, without even knowing it.

    I suppose there’s not much to be done, other than to discuss it amongst ourselves and go to therapy, eh. But if anybody has a great idea for helping us make peace with our situation, I’d definitely appreciate it….

    • I think this is the key statement: “we’re worried that we’re capable of causing incredible damage to our loved ones, without even knowing it.” Maybe if you appeal to them with that issue it might (for lack of a better phrase) help them help you? If you frame it as “I have NO expectation that you’ll accept me back into your life, if that’s not something you’re prepared to do. But I’d love for this to be a learning experience for myself. If you could help me learn from this, I would appreciate it… Though totally understanding if you don’t want to.”

      Other than that, I don’t really have any other advice other than what you already said: therapy and supporting each other.

      • Yeah, I think this is great advice. “I recognize I may have damaged things irreparably with you, but I hope you can give me feedback so that I can learn from the pain I caused you and make an effort not to inadvertently do it again — either to you, or to anyone else.”

    • I’m not sure you all “did” anything. It sounds like – from how they cut off her family too (what are the chances that both families will do something so awful to a couple that both need to be cut off in their entirety? Possible, but not likely) – that this was about them, not you. By all means approach them with the words keyed out below, but if it’s more about them than you, there’s not much you can do.

      I say this because I have a friend who did the same thing. First she cut me off, saying to some that I offended her by saying something I’m pretty sure I never said, and that even if I did say it, years on I can’t figure out how it could have been so horribly offensive that there would be no chance of ever making amends (although I was open to hearing about how, so I could work on myself). But…I’m still pretty sure I said no such thing! She then said to others that we “had a big fight”, but we didn’t. I moved abroad, she came to my going-away party, then we e-mailed while I was abroad – friendly emails – until she just abruptly dropped off the face of the earth and closed that account. It takes 2 people to have a fight, and I honestly don’t recall any fight.

      She, and her husband, cut off everyone else, too. Some harshly, some confusingly, some inexplicably, some quietly, but they all got cut off. Eventually she came back to a few friendships (don’t know about him and don’t care).

      For years I mused on this, until I realized – hey, she cut everyone off, not just me, in various ways with various excuses or lack thereof. This isn’t about me. This is about her.

      This story wasn’t meant to take attention from your story, but to complement it and empathize, and make a point: you may have nothing to apologize for, because it may not be anything you or anyone else has done at all.

        • Dentata, we have THE SAME situation in my family! My brother has cut most of us off after re-marrying, & despite our asking very clearly & calmly to have him explain the ‘why’ to us, he says ‘you all know why!’ or ‘I don’t have to!’. Frankly, I have come to the point where I feel that he wants us to keep chasing him, wants us to keep feeding his drama, etc, because he’s somehow enjoying the feeling he gets from manipulating and hurting us, over & over again. And you know what – after 5 +yrs of this, I’m not playing anymore. If he can’t find the maturity to explain his feelings to us, then he is not a person that will probably ever accept any apologies, explanations, etc. I’ve made it clear to him, multiple times, that I love him, that I hope he comes back into our lives, and I send him a b-day & Xmas card each year, trying to ‘keep the door open’, but frankly, if he never walks back through it, it’s his problem, not mine. His behaviour is toxic. Mine’s been nothing but expressions of genuine concern & willingness to try. What hurts more than anything is seeing how it’s affected my parents – they are broken people now. They will never get over his rejection. Many times I have been tempted to get in his face & scream my lungs out at him – and I never do. I know if he sees one ounce of anger or frustration from me, he will say, “A-ha! There you go! My family is NUTS! They are jerks!” Anyhow – all I can say is, sometimes there is no fix. Sometimes you just have to make small efforts, and settle for realizing that maybe you aren’t the one in the wrong.

  13. Dealing with something along the same lines: my man has been talking about cutting out his father, not because 0f anything he does now, but because of how terrible things were when he and his siblings were growing up. Alth0ugh his dad is a much better person now, my hubs has been ‘un-repressing’ a lot of things since we had a kid of our own, and doesn’t want that negative influence on the little guy.

    The question is, how can you handle this if there isn’t anything the person can do that would make things right? I’m also not 100% sure that I want to cut off everyone from that side of the family, but that is essentially what w0uld happen, and supporting my man is super important to me. How can I back him up while still maintaining contact with ‘innocent bystanders’ (his uncles, grandparents, etc, who are really great people)?

    • I have zero contact with my dad, but am still in contact with family members on his side. My husband has always been super awesome and supportive about this. In our case, it’s been pretty easy — we go see the family when we know my dad won’t be there. I did have to very patiently explain to my family a few times that there was nothing my dad could do to change the situation, but either they finally started to get it OR they wanted to see us more than they wanted to argue with me, because it never comes up now. I even go so far as to ask that they don’t even relay information about me or my family to him, and as far as I know they haven’t.

      In my opinion, the best thing you can do is make sure your husband knows you’re in his corner, and then let him lead the way when it comes to the rest of his family. If his family tries to pull you aside to discuss the situation or ask if you can talk to him about it, just politely reiterate that you support your husband, and this is a decision the two of you have made. I have no idea what his family members are like, but mine aren’t super pushy so this has been all we’ve had to do.

    • This is my story: but so is this: and I want to second what Stephanie says here, too. Sometimes there is no making it right, period. That may mean you lose an entire branch of the family tree, or it might mean that you lose that one leaf. My mother and I can exist in the same room at family events, like the wedding of a cousin, but we don’t spend any time together, and we know nothing about each others’ lives. My aunts and uncles, to varying degrees, understand (or don’t, and try to make peace, out of misplaced best intentions).

      I was terrified I’d lose my whole family, but that didn’t happen. I have closer, better, richer relationships with my aunts and uncles and cousins, even my baby brother, because I’m not spending my entire existence walking a highwire to keep everything looking like it was going to be ok. Some of my family wishes things could be repaired, and I don’t mind them wishing things could be better. I wish things could be better, still, sometimes. But my husband and I made clear to everyone that we love them, regardless of our relationship with my mother. My sister decided she couldn’t speak to me and my mother, so she chose my mother. So did one of my brothers. I didn’t even know he was getting married or had a baby until my uncle sent a mass email. I lost a chunk of my immediate family by making this difficult choice, but I was happy to find that my extended family was intact. My husband and I spend holidays as fully participating members of the big Irish clan, and we mostly ignore or avoid my mother and sister and they mostly ignore and avoid us.

      All that is to say this: my husband followed my lead with my family, which was extremely important to me. It was very, very hard to pull the plug, though I have no regrets. It was easier because he supported me. If he had tried to keep my sister updated despite our estrangement, I would have felt terribly betrayed. Your mileage may vary, but I would discuss with your husband how he feels about the innocent bystanders and how he’d like to handle family events and information. If he feels like it’s great for you to keep grandparents updated on your awesome life, then you’re golden. If he’d feel betrayed, you really need to work out the parameters of what’s ok, what’s at stake, and what’s out of bounds.

      Lastly, when you have that conversation (or set of conversations, as emotions are want to evolve over time) consider discussing that his uncles and grandparents have known his father even longer than you have, and than he has. They likely have a deep understanding about personality and temperament that not only can reassure you both that it’s not you and your relationship with his father, but that the man’s life and outlook that have brought you to this path. Your guy may be able to find solace in shared experiences with the older generation, and you may find that you have allies among them as pained observers who also want to back him up. Finding and being a support system is hard work, and I send you all the best as you work through it.

    • As someone going through this on the other side (I’m the one currently deciding whether or not to cut my dad off), I want to offer my perspective on partners helping each other through this issue. My dad is almost a split personality- he loves his family, but he is also emotionally and physically abusive. Growing up, he and I butted heads almost every day and I never thought our relationship could be anything but volatile. It wasn’t until I got physical space by moving away for college, then emotional space by achieving financial independence after returning to my home city, that we’ve been able to reach a sort of peace (though it’s never quite lasting). My boyfriend has been with me throughout many of these transformative years so he knows the affect my dad has on my mental health, and my struggles to become more assertive. But since his parents got divorced when he was a baby and his dad ignored him for most of his childhood, he has almost no relationship with his father and has a hard time understanding why I’d want to throw away mine. Don’t get me wrong, he fully supports me standing up for myself and has told my father he needs to respect me. But he is very vocal about not letting my past affect my present, and wants me to stop letting my dad’s actions upset me so much. This attitude has had two conflicting affects on me:
      1. It made me hurt and angry. I felt my boyfriend’s opinion to “be grateful I had a dad at all” and let go of the past was un-sympathetic and unsupportive. He didn’t have to experience a painful childhood with stress, parents fighting, and abuse.
      2. It made me realize that I was allowing my dad to emotionally control me as an adult, the same way he emotionally manipulated me as a child. It also made me see that I was allowing past issues to cloud present interactions with my parents, as well as with family members who I blamed for allowing me dad to abuse us. In reality, these relatives had a hard time reconciling the kind little boy he used to be with the cranky, always-in-chronic-pain man he is now, and adult perspective has shown me that they did do what they could to help us, especially since much of the abuse was hidden from them.
      As your man’s partner, the best way you can support him is to let him decide what is best for the relationship between him and his father. I can tell you that even though things are better with my dad now than they were even five years ago, the past is still a real part of me, and his abusive helped shape me into the person I am today. His previous actions don’t just remain in my childhood- their effects (some good, some bad) are felt in my adulthood. If your husband feels he was hurt, and more importantly, if that hurt negatively affects him in his present life, then he has the right to cut his dad of. That said, I think my partner has the right idea about gaining emotional health by refusing to allow the past to dictate your present. So I would also encourage you to support him by 1. remaining available as a non-judgmental sounding board, 2. encouraging him to seek out the healthy relationships he DOES have in his family as further support, and 3. going to see a therapist. I am very glad my boyfriend helped me avoid cutting off my “innocent bystander” family members as an irrational, knee-jerk reaction to my dad, and I think by working through my issues in a more mature way than I originally wanted to I stopped seeing myself as a weak victim and started seeing myself as strong and resilient.

  14. all day I had avoided reading this article, probably bc it was exactly what I needed. so thank you. it’s well written and I appreciate it.

    I have troubles with my brother. basically if something has ever happened to him ever it’s my fault and it all gets taken out on me. I hear a lot “but he’s faaaamily”. as if that changes everything. I read something once about how we owe NO ONE a relationship and it’s healthy and fair to opt in or out. that really struck me, bc we don’t owe people anything bc we share blood or last name or whatever. and thanks for mentioning that you made your mom cry; my comments that I don’t want my bro in my life or for him to know any details about mine are always met with tears and…screw guilt!

    • Aw, Megan. I just wanna give you big virtual hugs. I could have written that myself. I know the guilt trip tears well. But that whole “no one is owed a relationship” realization was a game changer for me as well. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. I like how you re-frame the hyper-awareness as superpower spidey senses! That’s so perfect. I have been noticing and avoiding similar people like crazy lately. (I avoided 4 in one week!) I went from being totally sucked in by this type of person to “seeing” a blazing red alarm flash over their heads! It’s been kind of empowering, kind of overwhelming and definitely puzzling, so thanks for spelling out the reason and giving it such an awesome re-frame.

    • It’s like when Spiderman got bit my a radioactive spider. Man, that part sucked and was crazy painful. But from that shitty experience came SUPERPOWERS! 😉

  16. I have never had to do this, although I do have difficult family members (not difficult enough that I feel I need to cut them out of my life, though). From others’ experiences, and what’s implied here, doesn’t it always seem that the rest of the family “sides” with the Bad Guy? As in, “he emotionally abused me for years” / “well, get over it” (and then inviting Difficult Family Member to everything and not attempting to meet with you at different times or in smaller groups, so you rarely see the rest of your family, as well), as in, haranguing you about it *every* *time* you talk to them, not holding Difficult Family Member responsible for hizzer actions towards you, which caused the rift in the first place?

    That’s what some people I know have been through, and I’m wondering why the family always seems to take the Difficult person’s side. There must be supportive families out there who (or some of whose members) see your side and support your effort. This can’t be everyone’s experience. Right?

    Also, I wonder how people manage it when a.) family tries to pass on “messages” from Difficult Family Member, meaning you can’t see your family without being indirectly in contact with that person; and b.) what to do if you’ve decided you want no personal relationship with that person but you’re okay with attending events at which s/he’s present? Has anyone ever successfully executed the “I’m not comfortable talking to you. Please respect my wishes” if/when Difficult Family Member tries to talk to you at some such event?

    • From others’ experiences, and what’s implied here, doesn’t it always seem that the rest of the family “sides” with the Bad Guy? As in, “he emotionally abused me for years” / “well, get over it”… not holding Difficult Family Member responsible for hizzer actions towards you, which caused the rift in the first place?

      Sigh, I can’t “this” your comment enough. To the point that just reading your comment reduced me to tears.

      I wish that wasn’t, clearly, far-and-away the majority of experiences. But my only guess as to why has to do with the egos of other family members involved? Like, somehow admitting that the family is broken is an admittance that they have “failed” or are broken. So instead of acknowledge and understand the rift, they try to fix it, like a shitty spackle job, covered up with crappy hotel art.

      • captain awkward has a lot of commentary on this exact thing..and thats pretty much it. its a good read, and I found a lot of helpful articles on this sort of stuff there ( i believe)

    • I think some people have a really hard time believing that someone they know and share blood with and love can (for a real life example) threaten to kidnap, torture, and kill someone. It’s easier for them to think that maybe everyone was a little bit at fault and try to “fix” things than to take the leap and believe the victim at the cost of the other relationship.

      Also, since abusive people do manipulate and mentally groom other people, the family members are also probably impacted from that. A mental illness of their own can also contribute to how they react to the situation (eg someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder might not be able to take responsibility for putting their kid in harm’s way).

      And finally, the abusive or difficult family member is oftentimes older, male, or in another position of authority and privilege in the family and people are just more ready to believe such a person.

    • I have had a range of these experience, so I feel like I need to explain a bit here.

      My father’s family is a lost cause, but I don’t mourn the loss, because they’re all manipulative and abusive, and good riddance. I haven’t seen any of them in about 12 years.

      My mother’s family is a lot more complicated. She’s the middle child of seven, so there are a dozen different aunts and uncles and perspectives. They are, overall, overwhelmingly supportive, however, but I think it’s because of these factors:

      1) They genuinely had no idea things were so bad. When I was finally able to make myself broach the subject and talk about what happened, they were shocked and apologetic and supportive and kind.

      2) They had sort of written her off years ago, in some ways. Her personality and tendency toward martyrdom and her way of rebuffing genuine help so that she looks a certain way and can bemoan her situation — well, she’s been like that forever. Her older siblings had seen her as the little sister who couldn’t quite get it worked out for a long time, and her younger siblings had been treated the way we (her children) had throughout their shared childhood.

      3) That meant I had allies who understood what I’d gone through on a whole new level. My mother’s siblings could relate to the patterns, the poor decisions, the unhealthiness of the whole thing, and could buoy me and tell me it wasn’t my fault things were the way they were, not my fault she was the way she was. That I was ok.

      4) My mother’s clan invites everyone, but lets us each (my mother and I) know we’ve both been invited, and whether either of us has accepted so that we can make decisions about attending family events. For the most part we can both attend and avoid/ignore. Often, my mother declines, but that’s been her M.O. for decades, so more family events for me! My family knows it’s very complicated and doesn’t seat us at the same table at a wedding, for example. In fact, for a large family portrait at one cousin’s wedding, my husband and I got to stand with my godfather instead of my mother, which was both more authentic to our ties, and really sensitive to our situation. We can exist in the same photograph as parts of my cousin’s family, but we’re not smiling next to each other.

      5) My family rarely passes on “messages” (I am lucky here) and most of what gets passed on is Giant Life Event stuff, like when my uncle sent the mass email that my brother and his wife had a baby. (We hadn’t known that was going to happen or when.)

      6) I have one aunt/uncle who try to reconcile us and are clearly pained that we’re not all one big happy. Their truth is that she lost her brother recently and misses him terribly, and can only imagine that if I lose my mother with something unsaid/unreconciled I would feel terrible pain. I understand where she’s coming from, and I appreciate her concern, truly. I can only say to her, “Yes, it is sad we’re not speaking, but we’re not speaking.” She usually only tries to mend the fence once during any given event, so I take it as it comes, and I know it’s out of love. My uncle, her husband/my mother’s brother, hates family feuding. He’d seen it in the Irish clans when he was growing up and it affected him. His truth is that he’d hate for our break to cause a larger crack in our clan. I can understand and respect that, too, and so we are polite and cordial when we are in the same room, because it’s fair he should have his sister and his niece if he wants us both.

      [block] b.) what to do if you’ve decided you want no personal relationship with that person but you’re okay with attending events at which s/he’s present? Has anyone ever successfully executed the “I’m not comfortable talking to you. Please respect my wishes” if/when Difficult Family Member tries to talk to you at some such event? [/block]

      Yes. We can converse as if we were strangers in a checkout line. “Oh, the bride looks radiant.” “Yes, she looks gorgeously happy. Excuse me.” Finding another person to excuse yourself to go speak to instead is the easiest way to handle this, in my experience. Also, though, I find that you can actually talk about the weather, traffic, or the event itself and not feel like you’re ceding personal space. YMMV. I have said the words, “We’re not doing this,” when/if conversation I don’t want to happen begins.

      My mother was not the violent one, though, and violence lends a whole other wrinkle to Difficult Family Member situations. I could not have handled (well, anyway) shared events with my father. I had walked away from him before, only to pay for it severely, so a terrorized grip of my heart kept me silent and I just became abused all over again as he stood there talking at me like nothing was wrong. My heart goes out to others in a similar situation. It is painful, it is SO painful and difficult and unfair. I can only say please take care of yourself. If no one else will come to your rescue, make your escape and take care of yourself. No one deserves that feeling, and nothing is worth feeling that way.

    • I think it’s also a peacemaking impulse gone wrong. If they recognize that the abused person is usually rational, and the abuser isn’t, they know they’ll have better luck smoothing things over by convincing the rational one to shift around. It’s not healthy, and it’s not fair, but it keeps the family ‘together’…

  17. I eventually cut off my entire mother’s side of my family. They would never acknowledge how I felt about the uncle who abused me. They always said he was family and deserved to be there. As I said to them you are choosing a rapists over the victim and stopped all communication. Sometimes you have to cut off everyone from your life in order to get healthy.

  18. I’ve been on both sides of this dilemma. When my wife came out as transgender, and I came out as bi/pansexual and made my intent clear to stay in my marriage, we got so much flack from family. My parents were generally horrible, and I tried my best to be the bigger person. Eventually my parents said outright that they didn’t want us at family type events because they didn’t want to have to explain anything to my younger siblings, and when I said that was hurtful my mom called me and yelled at me about how I was cutting them out of my life and living in sin blah blah blah. I was so shook up after that, that I just took a break, didn’t answer or return any phone calls from them for 3 months. My mom then sent me an apology in an email (and my parents pretty much never apologize) she said that she recognized that what she said hadn’t been necessary and that she would try to be more respectful in the future. They still believe what they believe about LGBTQ people, but they are civil in person, and we finally have well-defined boundaries. On the other side, my wife has 2 sisters who were outraged when she came out, and eventually said “If you are ever a boy again, you know how to get a hold of us again.” and then blocked her on facebook and haven’t said a word to us since. Even when we attended a family wedding, they did not say a word to us or even make eye contact. As hurtful as it is to be completely cut off without having actually “done” anything, it was a relief to have them leave us alone and not be confrontational at the wedding, and to know that since their condition for having a relationship with us is impossible, we don’t need to feel an obligation to try and keep a relationship going.

  19. This resonated so much. I have recently made this decision with my sister who was also, unfortunately, my business partner. What I realized is that:
    1. She treated me horribly
    2. No one else in my life made me feel the way she does on a regular basis
    3. There is no one else in my life who I would KEEP in my life if they treated or made me feel the way she did

    Someone asked what the last straw should be…Mine was when my 5’4 120 lb sister called me (5’8, 280) a Fat Bitch. That was the last straw, not because I was insulted, but because if she couldn’t ration an intelligent argument or insult for me, then there was obviously no reasoning with someone of that mindset.
    So I ended the relationship and our business– she got to keep the entire business, which was a loss for me, but one I was willing to take in order to not have to associate with her. Sadly, she has a son who my son adores. I know they will still see each other at holidays, but I strongly feel that her son needs better influences in his life and I wish I could be one of them. As it is, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

  20. I, too, have had to cut my brother from my life. It was by no means easy, and do I still struggle with it 4 years later? Of course! But I have come to realize that HE wants this separation, or he’d have been willing to have the discussion necessary to repair our relationship. What seems a little different about my situation is that we had been extremely close, and he bailed on me the day after I had surgery for cancer, which really messed with my head. I realized at the time that I had to focus on myself and my health first, before I could try to fix him. Now I can see that I can’t fix him, he’ll have to do that part.

    What I truly love about this posting, is that I see that I’m not alone. I’m not the only person who has had to deal with this kind of thing, and there’s a certain strength that comes from knowing that.

    Thank you, Larkin!

  21. I’m so glad to have found this, and to see all the responses with people who have similar experiences. I am in process of uh… re-removing myself I suppose, and its been very difficult mentally. Sometimes just knowing you are not alone in the world makes the process easier.

  22. My dad was emotionally and verbally abusive on and off growing up, mostly during my late teens and early twenties as he returned from military duty in the Middle East. Although he was seeking therapy and anger management, he still continued to be toxic and blamed me for things I had not control of, shamed me, put me down and tried to manipulate my existence. I finally had enough when my child fell very ill and he verbally attacked me and spouted insults and opinions that rocked me to my core. I decided to cut both of my parents off, due to my mother enabling and supporting his agenda 80% of the time. I never discussed my reasons with my siblings, assuming they understood as they had less frequent experiences but equally abusive. One sibling stopped talking to me altogether. Another contacts me from time to time to get updates on my chronically ill child. My mother has made several attempts to contact me and I wish I could salvage a relationship with her until I am reminded how many times I wished she has stood up for me and let me down. I can echo many others when I say my life has vastly improved since making the decision to estrange. My extended family members still communicate with me, mostly online. I have the benefit of living in a different state than my extended family and being out of state with my child since everything went down.
    I am so grateful for articles like this and to hear the commenters discuss similar feelings of pain and guilt. But mostly and I am glad to hear others validate my feelings of relief and peace with my decision. I am NOT a horrible person for choosing better for myself and my family.

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