How to Know When to End a Relationship With Family

Cutting family ties is stressful.

 Marija Jovovic / E+ / Getty Images

People often say things like “Blood is thicker than water,” or “You can’t choose your family.” And often these types of statements are said by someone who is trying to justify why they tolerate mistreatment by a family member.

Granted, to some extent, being a good family member might mean putting up with things you wouldn’t tolerate from friends or co-workers.

But this doesn’t mean that you should maintain relationships with family members at all costs. Sometimes cutting family ties is the healthiest thing you can do.

In fact, many people have experienced a great sense of relief when they ended a relationship with a family member. A 2015 study found that 80% of individuals who cut ties with a family member thought it had a positive effect on their lives. Study participants reported feeling “freer, more independent, and stronger.”

This is not to say that cutting family ties is void of negative consequences. The same study mentioned earlier found that individuals who were estranged from a parent or a child were also more likely to experience reduced levels of psychological well-being, feelings of loss, and difficulties associated with the stigma attached to their decision.

So whether you decide to stop talking to your sister or you cut your cousin out of your life, something like this is not likely to be an easy decision. While you may experience a deep sense of relief, it’s important to be prepared for the challenges you’re likely to face after cutting ties with a family member.

How Often People Cut Ties

Cutting ties with family members is more common than you might think. It’s just not often talked about. For some individuals, it might be embarrassing. Others fear sounding cruel. And many people simply prefer to keep family issues private.

A 2015 U.S. study found that more than 40% of individuals have experienced family estrangement at one point in their lives. A U.K. study found that it affects at least one in five British families.

And while estrangement often encompasses extended family, it’s fairly common in immediate families as well. Another U.S. study found that 10% of mothers are currently estranged from at least one adult child.

Consequences of Toxic Relationships

Some people think about cutting ties but don’t actually do it. They may make veiled threats, or they set limits only to go back on their word. So while they may intend to discontinue contact, cutting someone out may prove too tough to actually do.

Others tolerate toxic relationships because they think family is supposed to remain in contact with one another. They might have hope the other person will change or fear that the other individual can’t survive without them.

No matter the reason though, maintaining a toxic relationship can have serious consequences on your well-being. In fact, cutting ties with someone might be a healthy response when you’re in an unhealthy circumstance.

Toxic relationships can certainly take a toll on your mental health. Whether your self-esteem plummets as a result of emotional abuse or your anxiety skyrockets as you watch someone battle an addiction, the stress of an unhealthy relationship can increase your risk of mental health problems.

It can also affect your physical health. A 2007 study found that being in a negative relationship put people at a higher risk of cardiac events, including fatal heart attacks.

Poor family relationships have also been linked to slower wound healing times and greater intolerance to pain.

And even if your negative relationships don’t lead to major physical or mental health problems, this is not to say that they aren’t distressing. A toxic relationship requires a lot of time and energy, and it can cause you to feel stressed out, overwhelmed, and exhausted, much of the time.

Maintaining a relationship with an unhealthy person also means you’ll have less time to devote to healthy relationships. And positive social support is key to positive psychological well-being.

Reasons You Might End the Relationship

People rarely cut family ties over a single, isolated incident. Instead, studies show it usually happens after years of mistreatment.

Sometimes, it’s gradual. Someone might taper phone calls or decrease visits over time.

And other times it’s more abrupt. There might be a “final straw” that leads to someone announcing their intent to stop talking.

You might decide cutting ties is best for you. Perhaps not talking to someone will greatly reduce your daily stress.

Or, you might decide cutting ties is best for the other individual. You might think that having an ongoing relationship with you isn't doing them any favors. This might be true if you think the other person is too dependent on you for emotional or financial support.

Research shows the most common reasons people cut ties with family include:

  • Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect
  • Poor parenting
  • Betrayal
  • Drug abuse
  • Disagreements (often related to romantic relationships, politics, homophobia, and issues related to money, inheritance, or business)
  • Physical or mental health problems

Of course, this is not to say these are the only “good reasons” to cut family ties. You might have different values than someone in your family. Or you might simply grow tired of someone’s behavior and decide it’s best not to be involved in one another’s lives.

Perhaps you decide it’s best for you to end a relationship with an adult child that has a substance abuse problem if this person depends on you for financial support. Or maybe you decide to cut out an uncle who sexually abused you as a child. No matter the reason or the relationship, it’s important to make a decision based on what’s best in your circumstance.

Impact

Individuals who are estranged often report that their family situation has a negative impact on relationships with friends, colleagues, and other family members. People who have cut family ties are likely to experience a stigma associated with their decision.

Parents who are estranged from their adult children are especially likely to report feeling ashamed and not “normal.” They can easily experience a great deal of loss. In fact, they often report feeling like they have lost their role in the family.

This can be especially true for mothers who felt that parenthood gave them a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Mothers, in particular, report being guarded in social situations when the subject of children and grandchildren is raised.

Also, while much of the research on individuals who have cut ties with family members focuses on parents who are estranged from their adult children, studies consistently show that both parents and adult children experience a variety of consequences when they sever ties.

Adult children who are estranged from a parent report feeling anger, shock, sadness, and frustration. They also report frequent crying. They may experience a loss of emotional, financial, and practical support as well.

Adult children often report feeling pressured by those around them to maintain the relationship. They may be told to “forgive and forget,” or “cut their parents some slack” and reunite with them. They even report that they avoid disclosing their situation to friends or colleagues out of fear that they will be misunderstood or judged. And then when they do disclose their situation, they often feel unsupported.

In addition, there is even less research available about what happens when people sever other types of family relationships in their lives, like ending a relationship with a sibling, grandparent, or in-law. But it’s likely that many individuals experience very similar emotions and complications as those of the adult children and parents who cut ties with each other.

Moving Forward

Cutting ties with a particular family member can make family gatherings complicated. Can you attend a wedding when this individual will be attendance? Should you refuse an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner if the person might show up? Do you ask that the other person not be invited?

Or can you attend the same function without it being a big deal? Perhaps you ignore the person altogether. Or maybe you engage in polite small talk and keep things superficial.

There isn’t a right or wrong way to go about navigating these challenging situations. You’ll need to make a decision based on what’s best for you.

Another major issue to consider is what you’ll say to other people. How much should you share about your reasoning for ending a relationship? Should you tell other family members why you’ve decided to cut someone else off? How about friends or other people who aren’t familiar with your family?

Again, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. But it’s important to consider how those around you are likely to respond.

Another thing to consider is whether other people might benefit from the information. For example, if you’re cutting ties with someone who sexually abused you as a child, do you need to let other family members know that their children might not be safe around this individual?

If other family members are likely to keep pressuring you to stay in contact because they believe “family always sticks together,” it may not be helpful to talk to them. You might decide to let them know you have your reasons or that it’s simply just not healthy at this time.

Reconciling

You might decide to cut ties with a family member permanently. Perhaps you don’t have any desire to talk to someone who was abusive toward you ever again. Or maybe you simply decide your life is better without someone in it.

But you also might decide that you miss someone and that you want them to be part of your life.

Maybe something changed—like they stopped drinking or using drugs. Or they finally got help for a mental illness, and you think you can have a healthy relationship again.

Maybe you just want to try again now that some time has passed. Whether this means you’re willing to put your differences aside or you simply want to start a conversation about how to move forward, reconciliation can be successful in some cases.

Find Professional Help

Whether you’re thinking about cutting ties, you’ve already ended a relationship, or you’re thinking about reconciling, you might want to seek professional help.

Talking to a counselor can help you sort through all of the emotions you might experience as a result of cutting family ties.

A therapist can also help you problem-solve practical issues you might face, such as how to handle a family gathering or how to explain your situation to other people.

A 2019 study found that counseling was helpful for the majority of individuals who were estranged from a family member.

Out of the 209 participants in the study, 133 found therapy to be effective. Those who found it helpful said that they felt supported to make their own decisions about their relationships, they developed insight and understanding as they worked with someone who was knowledgeable about estrangement, and they felt counseling helped them move forward with their lives.

Those who didn’t find it helpful were more likely to say that they felt pressured by their counselor to feel or act a certain way.

Clearly, it’s important to find a therapist who understands estrangement and one who can support you as you make your own decisions.

To find a therapist, you might start by talking to your physician. You might also check out a therapy directory. Many therapists offer quick phone consultations to answer questions, and you might inquire about their experiences working with people who have cut family ties.

A Word From Verywell

Cutting ties with a family member and dealing with the fallout is stressful. It’s important to get support as you go through the process, whether that means talking to friends and family members who understand or it means getting professional help from a therapist.

Most importantly, take care of yourself. Practice good self-care as you manage the emotional rollercoaster you’re likely to experience.

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Article Sources

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