When You Need To Cut Ties With Toxic Family Members

by Melinda Fowler
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When you are a child in a toxic family situation, it can be hard to see the trauma and abuse that is being inflicted on you. After all, you are totally in it then – at the mercy of people who are supposed to be taking care of you. No matter how much harm they cause you – maybe even on a daily basis – you are still reliant on them.

Often, at the time, and for years after, you are still hopeful your family member may change. You may very well be in denial that something horrible occurred. Worse yet, you may believe that anything that happened was your fault. That is part of what makes your family toxic: the constant gaslighting, the rejection of wrongdoing, and the placing the blame on you – the child.

It’s awful, awful, and I want you to know that you are not alone. If you have been hurt in this way, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You know how hard it is to admit, even years later. To see it clearly, to realize that you were not in the wrong – they were.

You know how the pain that you were not able to express in childhood still lives inside you, coming out in its own twisted ways during your teenage years, young adulthood, even now. Maybe your pain has been expressed as anxiety, depression, addiction, rage, or self-harm.

And maybe now you finally see the harm it causes you and you have had enough. Your pain is real and you want to break the cycle once and for all.

Maybe you are exactly where I was just a few years ago, realizing that the people who caused you pain in childhood … well, they keep doing so even now. Each encounter with them is just as fucked up as it ever was. Oh, they have “apologized” – maybe. But apologies mean nothing if the pain and damage is still inflicted on you with every encounter.

This is how I knew that it was time to cut ties with the family members of mine who acted this way. I knew that no matter how strong and grown-up I was, I could not be around that toxicity any longer. And I realized that this wasn’t a weakness on my part: it was – finally – an assertion of a boundary. It was the claim that I had a choice in the matter here. I didn’t have to play victim to that kind of treatment any longer.

It was freeing as fuck. But also terrifying. And the thing is, once you’ve made the decision to cut contact with those family members, there is nothing cut and dry about the process. Everyone needs to find their path with it – and in fact, it’s an ongoing path that some of us are constantly navigating.

It might be clear to you that you must cut off all contact with your family or family member in order to stay well. This is a decision you should feel 100% empowered to make. There are some family members who cause the kind of damage that is just not survivable, not for one more second of your precious life. And there are people for whom setting up a boundary just isn’t going to cut it.

If they are in your life at all, it is a bad situation, one that you shouldn’t have to live with anymore. How you announce the “cut” is up to you, and I would definitely recommend thinking it through and coming up with a plan – either with a therapist, or a loved one who understands the situation and supports you without hesitation.

However you do it, remember this: it is not your job to justify your decision. And once you’ve made it, there is no negotiating. If someone has hurt you enough for you to go “no contact,” that person doesn’t deserve much more than a simple, “I don’t want to be in contact with you any longer.”

It’s your choice how much more you want to communicate, and how you want to do it (in person, phone, text/email). Again, that is up to you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Before you go complete “no contact,” you may want to try setting up some very clear boundaries as a first step, or a trial of sorts. That’s where I am at, currently. There were a few steps I took with certain family members in terms of how and when I was willing to communicate with them, under what conditions I would see them, and even the subjects I was willing to discuss with them.

My therapist helped me identify which sorts of things were “non-negotiables,” and how to express those to my family members. And I did not back down on those, no matter how tempted I was to do so, or blame myself for coming on too strong (the struggle is real when you are finally asserting yourself after being silenced for too long).

In addition, I unfollowed these family members on social media (gotta love the good old unfollow button), and limited what I shared with them on social media (look into “lists” on Facebook, so you can decide who sees your pics and posts). I also decided to cut any financial arrangements or ties with these family members, no longer accepting money from them for anything other than my children’s birthdays.

This is my first step, and I’m going to see how it goes. But the bottom line is that if hurt and pain is still inflicted on me even with these strong boundaries, there will have to be a re-evaluation to see if a more complete separation is necessary. It is very scary to consider, but it is even scarier to imagine myself living a life of constant damage. It isn’t fair to me, my partner, or my children.

Cutting ties with your family is a process, for sure, and each of us has our own path with it. No one’s process looks the same, nor should it. I recommend that you navigate it with a licensed therapist, or someone you trust highly to support you and help you come up with a clear plan for how to do it.

But here’s what I want you to remember most: Believe in yourself. Trust your instincts. You spent so much of your life in doubt – blaming yourself for the pain that others inflicted on you. Standing up to that is going to be more difficult than you might realize. But you can do it. I have faith in you.

You are stronger than you know, and you deserve to finally live a good life, surrounded by unconditional love and support, and nothing less.