How To Know When It's Time To Cut Ties With Your Toxic Family

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy, Raq Miller/Reshot, and Ponomariova_Maria/Getty

It’s hard when you begin to realize that not only is your family toxic, your family may be too toxic to be part of your life. But how toxic is too toxic? Where do you draw the line between “I have a toxic family” and “I’m estranged from my mother“? No one wants to cut ties. Society screams at us not to cut ties with our parents: cutting ties with them, no matter how horrible they are, remains one of the worst, most ungrateful things a person can do.

But when does it become necessary? The answer will be different for everyone. We need to acknowledge, first of all, that we all allow toxic people to be a part of our lives for one reason or another (and we have tips on how to handle them). So you can choose to remain a part of your toxic family — no judgment. There may be more pressing needs than breaking up with mom.

Or you may need to sever ties. But how do you know when severing ties is a good idea?

How To Spot A Toxic Family

If you grew up in a toxic family and didn’t realize it or haven’t quite accepted it, this may be triggering, so you might want to think of some self-care measures you can take after you read this: taking a walk, reading a book, or doing some meditation.

A toxic family leaves you feeling emotionally drained after you deal with them. You’re not buoyed and energized. You’re dragging and exhausted— and not because you OD’d on turkey. A big sign, says Psychology Today, is a lot of gossip and infighting: people gang up on each other to spread rumors as retaliation for behavior they don’t like. You may lie awake worrying your mom’s turned all your aunts and cousins against you because you did something she didn’t like.

RELATED: 35 Psychology Facts For All You Psych 101 Flunkies

A toxic family also picks on your weaknesses. Pick, pick, pick. They know your buttons and they push them to make you feel bad and make themselves feel better, says Psychology Today. High Existence notes that there’s usually a high dose of narcissism involved in toxic relationships, signs of which include: expectation of superior treatment from others, a need for continual admiration, exploitation of family members for personal gain (treating grandchildren as bragging rights rather than people, for example), and an unwillingness to empathize with others.

Have you ever heard the words, “if you don’t do x/y/z, you aren’t my child anymore”? This is a sign of a fundamentally toxic family relationship.

And people change. You are not the same person you were when you were eighteen. Psychology Today says toxic families “aren’t places of tolerance and acceptance.” You’re pigeonholed into a role. Your family expects you to live it. Moreover, while every family tends to have a narrative, a toxic family tends towards inflexible ones. And those inflexible narratives often leave out key details: abuse (emotional, physical, medical, sexual) and other unpleasant subjects that may paint tellers in unflattering ways. Attempts to disrupt those narratives by challenging them brings down the wrath.

Most importantly, a toxic family has issues with boundaries. You have to toe the line with their expectations, which are unreasonable and ever-changing goal posts you can never meet. Your boundaries don’t matter. They can trample over whatever you ask—you may have told your sister not to ask you for money, but she shows up again, hat in hand.

But What Do I Do About My Toxic Family?

In the immortal words of Joey Ramone: Should I stay or should I go?

Only you can answer that question. You need to weigh the pros and cons. Every family has different tolerance levels; every toxic relationship affects people in different ways; distance, time spent together, and children involved are all factors.

We chose to cut some toxic family from our lives for several reasons: he did not respect boundaries or show up when we asked… for our kids. We didn’t care about us. But when he consistently broke his word to our children, who were disappointed, we cut ties. To children, breaking dates like that doesn’t mean “he’s being a jerk.” It means “he doesn’t love us.” Intolerable. And when I discovered he refused to accept my brother’s transition from female to male, we were really done. Talk about not respecting boundaries, clinging to an outdated narrative, and refusing to accept people for who they really are. I would not have him talking to my kids about Aunt [Deadname]. That’s poisonous.

But This Doesn’t Mean Forever And Ever Amen

If this person would clean up, show up, and stop deadnaming my brother, we could have a relationship again. We have very clear parameters for that. We go day by day.

And it’s important to remember you can pick up your phone, see that it’s a toxic family member, say “not today, Satan,” and set it down. You can do this as much as you want. You can wake up every day and say, maybe tomorrow. You can take a break. You can limit instead of cutting off. You can decide, for example, to see your toxic family for dinner once a week and that is all. When you do, you can employ the following strategies:

  1. Gray rock it: According to PureWow, this is when you act as boring and uninteresting as possible and refuse to engage with anything. This means you “speak in a neutral voice, talk about boring subjects, don’t make eye contact and give short, generic answers.” Above all, avoid any emotional engagements. Eventually, they’ll decide you’re boring and move on.
  2. PureWow also recommends avoiding triggers. Does your toxic family always lose their minds and hurt your feelings when you talk about something? Don’t talk about it. If they bring it up, cut it off and change the topic to anything else. Aren’t curtain rods on sale at Target? Hey, did you see so-and-so celebrity died? How’s your dog?
  3. You can also have a response ready to deploy at any given situation: something boring, dull, and totally neutral. Like “Maybe” or “Hmmm” or “I’ll think about it.” So when your toxic family harangues you, you stop them in their tracks.

Dealing with toxic family sucks. It’s draining and awful, and you can either develop massive coping strategies like the one I mentioned, spend a lot on therapy, or cut them off and spend a lot on therapy. Either way, take care of yourself. Put yourself first. If you suspect that you are a member of a toxic family, seek professional help. Practice self-care. Remember to put your nuclear family (partner and kids) ahead of your birth family (parents and siblings).

To those of you who did grow up in toxic families, you have been gaslit. You have doubted yourself. You have had your self-esteem dragged through the mud. You have been hurt and neglected. You are confused. You doubt your own emotions. You have not imagined being treated badly. This treatment did not come from some inherent flaw you have, but from the flaws of the people around you. You are bright, shining, wonderful, and worthy of love.

And you have the power to decide how to deal.

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