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. I highly recommend the book Divorcing a Parent by Beverly Engel, it helped me a lot. She outlines the various steps of boundary making that you can take, from not seeing family members without an “outsider” present, to completely cutting off contact.

  2. I love this post. I love that it got addressed. I’ve been “that asshole” for so long. I decided a long time ago I was going to become the emotionally functional one, even if that leaves the bulk of my family insisting I’m a harsh selfish bitch. I guess I am, but I don’t have the time or emotional energy to waste on bullshit. I feel no need to continue to spend time with family who I don’t like, or who are rude, or only want something from me. I feel no obligation to like or spend time with someone because I’m related. The amazing thing to me is the reaction from others; “why do you hate them?” “When are you going to forgive them?” It seems people can’t understand that I have no need for toxicity or emotional vacuums. I also just don’t have the time if you’ve got nothing to offer- if I wouldn’t spend time with you as a friend and we’ve got nothing else in common… Why are we wasting our time here, I don’t even have time for the people I like. On another note I saved my “breakup” text with my aunt because it was just to awesome : I moved away and before that had unfriended them on Facebook. They knew I was moving and didn’t reach out to me. I was busy MOVING. So confronted them when I found out they vacationed a few hours from me “hey how come you didn’t let me know you were up my way?” “well you unfriended me on Facebook and didn’t call us before you moved so we figured you were cutting ties with us too” (cutting ties TOO… I didn’t know anyone had cut any ties). Hmm. I hadn’t, but all of the passive aggressive, beating around the bush and childishness of that excuse for an excuse sealed that deal. I don’t have time or energy for people with that kind of drama… I told her I unfriended you because you lived 2 miles away and never called me or commented on a single thing on Facebook. Facebook lets us pretend there is a relationship when there isn’t. Granted I didn’t ever call her- but I’m not the one getting butt-hurt over Facebook. PS I hate Facebook. My last statement “I’m done. Call me when you’ve learned to act twice my age ( like you are )or even half my age.”

    • This thing cut me off – but I had also been attempting to clarify, I don’t cut people off without reason. But when the time comes I have no issue doing it. I’m just done. I move on. I emotionally disinvest. No hate. Just move on. I’m not going to play in to the dysfunction so, it’s never going to go how they want.

  3. This is so timely. I’m currently learning how to live without my Mum because I’ve chosen to cut her out of my life. She has chosen to return to my abusive stepfather, and I will not have him be a part of my life, even peripherally. It is so hard. We used to be so close, but now we’ve not had a conversation in over six months. Not a day passes when I don’t think about her, but at the same time I am completely confident that I have done the right thing. It sucks when families are this difficult. But it feels good to finally have the confidence to stand up for yourself and make your boundaries clear too. Much love to Larkin and all the commenters in this situation.

  4. I cut off all contact with my aunt a few years ago. She’s always caused nothing but drama (she’s done her best to convinced my cousins, her sons, that my grandparents loved them less than they loved my sister and I, accused my mother of abusing my grandmother (she never did wrong by her and was the only child to take care of her and help after my granddad past), stole from my grandmother) and my last straw was when she tried to throw my grandmother down a flight of concrete stairs then tried to blame her actions on my grandmother. My grandmother was 80 at the time, it would have broken bones at least and killed her at worst. After that we were done. My grandmother begged me to invite her to my wedding, “i’m getting old, please give me this” and i still held firm. We occasionally find ourselves at the same family functions, the last time being my grandmothers funeral, but we haven’t spoke in years. My family is usually understanding thankfully.

  5. This article was possibly the best I’ve read on OBH… Thank you.
    I also want to appreciate everyone’s courage and general awesomeness for sharing your stories.
    I can’t seem to write my situation out logically as it’s still so very fresh for me but I quickly want to remind people that one of the main things domestically abusive people do is to isolate their partner (ie victim) from friends and family so those of you with friends/family members who have cut you ALL off please be aware of that fact and be there for the person if they do come back and that is the case.
    I too am cutting out my family and it hurts. My love to all of you.

  6. Can I just add a comment in here?
    So you know how every once in awhile someone commits suicide and everyone says “hey! Check in on family and friends! Don’t shame them! Lets let them talk about mental illness without judgment!” Ok, so what if this happens? What if we are cutting people out of families when they need help? Because I feel like this is who we are talking about. Mostly anyways. I realize there are exceptions. But a lot of times it is mental illness. And sometimes they are trying to change but its a constant 2 steps forwards 1 huge step back. But to the rest of the family it’s just stagnation that’ll never change.
    I just want to leave a space for those.

  7. Does anyone have any advice or experience being the difficult family member? My cousin and I had a falling out about 10 years ago. We were best friends since birth… but then we had a fight and now she refuses any type of contact with me, even after I have tried aplogizing thousands of times. I feel very sad and just wish we could go back to talking once in a while…even though she must not… I just miss her :(. I’ve changed so much over 10 years but I still feel like a dick.

  8. Thank you so much for this article. This is me the past year. It wasn’t any physical abuse or comments from them directly at me that made me cut them off. It was the years of racist remarks in front of me and me never saying anything. Meanwhile I am screaming inside because my daughter is half Latino and my Godmother is full Puerto Rican. I wanted to scream “seriously! we are family and you still make racist comments in front of me knowing my daughter is mixed!” Finally with all the crap they are posting on social media because of the election and that they are actually supporting racist attitudes I cut them off because I couldn’t take it anymore. My brother is one of them and I even had made him my daughter’s Godfather before I knew how he felt. I knew one more comment would have made me blow up at them. I cut them out of my life for my sanity’s sake. I feel horrible for my mother who doesn’t want her children divided but I am standing my ground because I just cannot physically do it anymore.

  9. So my husband and I no longer speak to his parents or his sibling. The sibling because the interactions she has initiated have been cruel and unnecessary. While many think we are a**es because we refused to continue to be bullied and tolerate the horrific treatment in our home which meant they had to relocate at an older age we maintain we made the right decision for us and our family. While we chose to keep the details to ourselves they went around and bad mouthed us….we continue to take high road. It has cost us lots but in the end we can now live in peace and without fear. We have agreed that if he chooses to ever have a relationship with them again any children we have will not be involved and he will do it outside of our home. I will not have any relationship with them as I believe it will be detrimental to my physical and mental health….and they are not worth it for me, but we set the ground rules for if that ever comes up.

  10. Yes! You’re not alone! Is it weird that my name is Reagan?…. Interesting!
    Well said all of this. My biggest savior was becoming self aware. Examining and doing my own inner work. Funny thing is that’s when everything really got crazy! All the crap came to the surface repeatedly over the next 10 years or so and this July was finally the end. And guess what?? I feel relieved!! What does that tell you. Talk about a bad relationship. I used to think and feel bad about how much I’ll miss my mother when she’s gone from this earth. Now I’ve already mourned her during the good times it seems. Thank you for having the idea to share your experience. I trust that it will help many others who feel isolated and possibly like bad people because of all things they don’t, can’t, aren’t meant to, get along with the woman who birthed them.
    People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, but they most certainly are not your mother, she gave birth to you and fed and watered you until you could do it yourself and then you have to unlearn and relearn what is best for your own life….not hers.

  11. Did you write letters when you cut ties? I have been hiding my feelings of anger and sadness at my mother my whole life, however this last year has been hell. I think I know what I need to do, but don’t know where to start and I don’t know anyone who has been through it, that I could voice my thoughts and get opinions. All I know is I can’t keep feeling this way. I am so lost, so angry and so hurt.

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