Exercising boundaries with toxic family members is no easy feat. In fact, there may come a time when your efforts to set better boundaries with a toxic family member are met with so much resistance that it can negatively affect your life in other ways, by compromising your mental health or taking your energy away from your work or other relationships. In such cases, it may be in your best interest to sever ties with the individual.
While going about the process of cutting someone off may seem overwhelming or scary, there are healthy ways to do it (and no, ghosting is not one of those ways, as it can cause miscommunication and often make it seem as if the door is still open for contact) that may even help you gain closure on the situation. It can be difficult to cut out a family member with whom you have a tough relationship with, but in the long run, it can sometimes be the best thing for you — or even for both of you.
Deciding when it’s time to sever ties
“In my clinical practice, people who cut off toxic family members often do so because the family member is not able to take responsibility for their behavior, gaslights and blames others whenever conflict arises, and is physically and/or emotionally abusive,” says Juli Fraga, a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco who focuses on women’s health and wellness.
“Cutting off a toxic family is rarely an easy, clear-cut decision,” says Carlene MacMillan, a psychiatrist and the founder and clinic director of Brooklyn Minds Psychiatry. With this in mind, if you are considering cutting off a family member, she recommends getting at least one outside perspective from someone such as a therapist, a group therapy support group, or another neutral party, such as an honest friend who is not involved in the situation.
MacMillan explains that another way to assess whether it may be time to sever ties is by paying attention to conversations with other people in your life. Try to notice if they repeatedly express disbelief that you are still interacting with the family member in question and start distancing themselves from you or change the subject when that person comes up in conversation.
Figuring out how to break the news
It’s important to recognize that the way you go about ending a relationship can be incredibly personal since every situation is different, explains Fraga. There are plenty of ways to go about cutting off communication, depending on why you feel the need, and no one way is “the right way” — though it may feel like there’s a right way for you. “Some people set a boundary and let the family member know they're severing ties and why, but with distant family members, like aunts, uncles, or those that you may only see once a year, people may not choose to be as explicit,” she explains.
MacMillan recommends being deliberate about the decision by stating your intentions and making sure you stick to them. “Don’t just mysteriously stop returning the family member's calls; express to this family member that the relationship is not serving either of you well at this time and you will be distancing yourself,” she advises. Moreover, she says you can also tell the person that you may re-evaluate in a certain period of time, or if the situation is indefinite.
“Once you have broadcast your intentions to set this boundary, if they do not respect it, do not engage with their ongoing toxic behavior and drama,” offers MacMillan. This is where doing things like blocking a number, unfollowing or muting someone on social media, and setting filters on your email so messages don’t show up in your inbox may become necessary in order to maintain one’s privacy and sanity. In extreme cases, you may even decide to pursue legal action and seek an order of protection.
You may not want to drag other family members or friends into the situation or force them to choose sides. However, MacMillan says you may want to tell some key mutual connections that you have made a decision to distance yourself and that you would appreciate it if they did not share aspects of your life with the toxic family member, or alternatively, update you about the toxic person unless you specifically request or give permission to do so.
Dealing with emotions you may feel
When you cut off a toxic family member, things may get worse before they get better, asserts MacMillan. Often, the news is received with volatility. In those cases, she says you can sometimes “expect multiple phone calls, emails, or text messages that can span from begging for forgiveness to downright hostile and frightening displays.” Anticipating this behavior and staying strong so as not to reinforce it by not engaging is crucial, since intermittently responding to someone’s attention can send mixed signals.
You may feel guilty, relieved, or both, according to Fraga. “Feelings of sadness can set in, as well as grief, as you realize that your family member will never be the kind of support person or relative that you need,” she tells Allure. You might also feel regret or doubt your decision. Realizing we can’t change the behavior of others can be jarring, especially when we expect cutting off a family member to remove the painful feelings interacting with that person brings. Experiencing a mixture of all these things combined is common.
Feeling lonely after cutting someone off is also common, and the same patterns of communication could come up in other areas and relationships in your life. “Without a safe space, such as therapy, to explore and identify these dynamics and feelings, one may unknowingly repeat these family dynamics in other relationships,” explains Fraga. While the family member who has been cut off may feel a mix of rejection, confusion, and helplessness, the person who severed ties will need to come to terms with both the hurtful things the family member has done and the needs that weren’t met in the relationship. This includes things like praise, unconditional love and support, and empathy, which could be lacking in other relationships.
Coping if you can’t fully cut off the relationship
In some cases, cutting someone off might not be feasible. “While cutting someone out of one’s life is not always possible, creating solid emotional boundaries is,” says MacMillan. “Information should be exchanged on a need-to-know, factual basis and a third-party individual, which may be another family member, attorney, or trusted friend can serve as a communication buffer whenever possible.” She recommends imagining your inner emotional life as a castle; boundaries serve as a moat around the castle, and sometimes, you need others to help guard it, as well.
When communicating with the person, MacMillan says to keep digital correspondence focused on facts only and to not send messages when you’re feeling angry or any other intense emotions. “Definitely don’t communicate while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Sleep on it. Have a trusted friend look it over and suggest edits before hitting that send button,” she advises. She also says to keep in mind that they may take what you have written and show it to others out of context. “If there are legal concerns, such as shared custody of children, attorneys can send or edit a lot of the communication and whatever you do, don’t put vague status updates on social media that allude to problems with certain family members.” Always take the high road when communicating.
Grieving a relationship with a family member
Gaining closure from severing ties with a family member can be hard. “There can be a real grieving process when cutting off a toxic family member,” says MacMillan. “Grief that the relationship is not working, especially if it once did. Recognizing this process takes time and cutting yourself a little slack when it comes to self-judgment is key.”
While halting communication may be warranted, for it to truly be healing, it’s important to explore the emotions that come up for you during the process, as well as why it felt so necessary to do. When family relationships fail us, old emotional wounds from our childhoods may open back up according to Fraga. “Even in our adult lives, these wounds can unknowingly inform how we attach to others and the types of friendships/relationships we choose.” This is why self-care is absolutely crucial when grieving the loss of a relationship with a family member, including going to therapy, finding support with friends and loved ones, journaling, engaging in meditation or soothing mantras, and practicing self-compassion — whatever works best for you.
“Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, and eating regularly are also important from a self-care perspective,” says MacMillan. “Focusing on yourself and what you can do to make your life look more like what you want it to is healthier than tearing up family photographs or posting vague passive-aggressive rants on social media that the rest of your family will see.” Focusing on your internal work will help you through this tough time.
Another important thing to practice is acceptance of the situation. “Chances are there are some positive memories and aspects of the toxic person that still exist,” says MacMillan, comparing the loss to that of a romantic breakup. “Ending a complicated family relationship can look and feel pretty messy for a while. It may be tempting to characterize the toxic family member as a villain and to dismiss them, but usually this oversimplified perspective won’t hold up over time.”
With this, she says to try and remember that your family member is a complex human with vulnerabilities — and you are, too. Ultimately, it’s important to practice self-compassion and accept that you need a break from this person.
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Originally Appeared on Allure