Ask about toxic parents, and people have a lot to say on the subject. A Reddit question, “[Serious] Redditors who have cut toxic parents out of your life, what was the last straw?” runs on for over 300 comments — many of them stories about horrible parents doing and saying horrible things. Stories of abuse, of narcissism. Stories of drug use and foster care. But also stories of the kind of everyday toxicity familiar to so many families.
Throwaway872377 writes: “I have not cut the wires completely, but the point of no return for me was when they told me that they are unhappy of what their kids have become and that it is their fault. Upon further discussion stating that it is their fault because they could not control us anymore when we moved out. That was … the moment I understood the sole purpose of my parent[s] is to control me.”
Gogogadget2008 adds another story the children of narcissists will recognize. After a lifetime of abuse, when she tried to reconnect, “the last straw was a conversation in person about how my life was, since we hadn’t talked in awhile, and she couldn’t remember really anything about me. The conversation became about her immediately and her new ‘casual’ boyfriend. No reason anyone can give that justifies allowing this person around my family.”
So perhaps you’ve decided it’s time to sever ties with your toxic family members. There’s just one problem. How do you go about severing ties with the people who gave you life? We place a high priority on parental relationships in our society — and we don’t necessarily know how to extricate ourselves from something so primal. In The New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, says that cutting off a parent is akin to “amputating a gangrenous limb.” So Mom might be a horrible narcissist and Dad an alcoholic liar. But they’re still your parents, right? There’s tremendous pressure to grin and bear it. But you don’t have to. You can get out.
First, Take a Deep Breath
Steven J. Hanley, Ph.D., tells Prevention that the best thing to do is to take a breather. Lots of family break-ups happen on the heels of an ugly fight — and you don’t want to do or say something you’ll be sorry for later. As a study in Australian Social Work found, most estrangements were “triggered,” usually by “a relatively minor incident or a more serious act of betrayal considered to have been enacted by the parent.”
“Don’t make impulsive, hasty decisions about family members you’ve had conflicts with because you may say or do something you’ll regret,” Hanley says.
And literally, take a deep breath. Breathing deeply, says Harvard Health Publishing, “allows you to tap into one of your body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms.” The American Institute of Stress recommends the same focused breathing as a “super stress buster.” And if you’re thinking of breaking up with your toxic parents, chances are you live in a constant state of stress. So, allow yourself to breathe.
Evaluate the Relationship
On We Have Kids, Lizett, who has a psychology degree focused on counseling, says that first, you have to evaluate your relationship with your parents. You need to take into account the history between you — and remember that past behavior generally predicts future behavior. Think about who, besides you, is affected by this relationship: are you comfortable with your kids being around your parents? How about your spouse or significant other?
ABCNews says that if your relationship is based on any kind of abuse, or if you’re constantly worrying about how any engagement with them will turn out, “It’s time to love yourself enough to let them go.”
You also need to evaluate the kind of contact you have with them. Is it, as ABCNews suggests, all negative? If it stresses you so much that it affects other areas of your life, or if it’s all one-sided — i.e., all about them — it’s time to let go. And when poisonous stuff like drug use, borrowing money, and mind games dominate the relationship, you need to distance yourself for your own good.
Give yourself a kind of trial separation. It’s okay, says Prevention, to “keep interactions short, not accept calls at times (like when you’re in a good mood and your mom is calling with another of her energy-sapping whinefests), agree to not discuss hot-button topics, or establish boundaries, like telling your father-in-law you won’t tolerate his negative remarks about your weight.”
In We Have Kids, Lizett recommends trying out this distance with less phone calls, emails, and contact. You can refuse to discuss certain topics and even limit contact to major events, like pregnancy — which can be announced over email, and even over a group email if you need to.
But Sometimes, It’s Not Enough
Mark Goulston, M.D., author of Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life, tells Prevention that while you can create distance, it’s best to actually make the cut — that gives closure to you both, rather than leaving you dangling. Jamye Waxman, MD and author of How to Break Up With Anyone: Letting Go of Friends, Family, and Anyone in Between, says that, “ It can be a 5-minute conversation in which you say, ‘I’ve realized our actions together have not been healthy. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ Goulston says you can then refuse to continue the discussion with a phrase like: “Why don’t we stop the conversation here?”
This is important. One of the very few studies on adult-child estrangement involved 52 people who no longer spoke with their parents. Published in the Journal of Family Communication, it found that people who were able to maintain the distance they wanted “engaged in communicative practices to distance themselves from their parents.” In other words, they talked about it and communicated their concerns about the relationship. People who didn’t do this entered into an on-again, off-again relationship that persisted (and negatively impacted them) until they finally had the big talk.
Seek Out Other Sources of Support
Keep in mind what Dr. Hanley says: “You’re sort of mourning the loss of someone that, presumably, you loved or felt loved by, or wanted to feel loved by, which can be very tough.” Prevention recommends talking to a spouse, a trusted friend, or a support group — and that seeking professional help might not be a bad idea, either. Just keep in mind what Dr. Friedman says: “I think therapists have a bias to salvage relationships, even if they may be harmful to the patient.”
Psychologist Dorothy Rowe tells British journal Psychologies that there is significant evidence that “the influence and ‘programming’ of a mother can be overridden by other significant figures like relatives, in particular aunts, or even a teacher.” Their support can be invaluable at a time like this, especially as you sever ties with your own parent and begin life without them.
I’m in the throes of this all right now. I have a toxic parent. And despite the lies, despite the alcoholism, despite the way he slays my mother whenever he calls, despite how I discover most of the grievances he’s dumped on me were based on a finely honed sense of false victimhood, I’m still hesitant to cut him off forever. I haven’t spoken to him in months, not since he called several times in a row, I finally picked up, firmly told him I was busy (which I honestly was), and couldn’t talk. I said I’d call him later. I just … never did. The time never seemed right to get lied to. It’s not as if he had some burning desire to hear about my kids — he never asks about them, ever. So I suppose I’m ghosting, which they don’t recommend, but I live with this choice for now.
If you’ve evaluated and decided that you need to cut toxic parents out — do it. You’re strong enough. You’re better than the pain they are causing you. I feel so much better about life now that I no longer have to fear my father’s calling when my phone rings. And remember, you may not have to sever ties completely. It’s truly up to you. Some serious distancing can do a lot, if you’re not ready to go all the way yet. You do not deserve the mind games, the belittling, the hatefulness, the drama. Your life doesn’t have room for it. So go for it. Set some boundaries that will keep you whole and happy and stress-free. You’re worth it. I know I am. And so are my kids and husband.