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How to know when to cut ties with a family member

Dec. 26, 2017
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I have found that being a part of a family is the most joyous and the most painful experience of my life. Knowing that there are people in this world who would sacrifice their own needs and happiness for mine, people who have committed their lives to providing and caring for me, fills me with a gratitude and warmth that has yet to be matched in this life. And yet, as many of us know, the people we love the most and who love us the most are the ones that can cause us more heartache than previously thought possible.  

When the person who hurts us is a family member, dealing with the aftermath is much more difficult, because there is a cloud of obligation hanging over our heads to maintain the relationship at all costs. The same obligation is not so culturally or personally ingrained in our heads when the individual who hurts us is a friend or a romantic partner. In fact, many people encourage the severing of such a relationship. This encouragement is founded on the belief that relationships do not need to be maintained if the other person in the relationship causes us pain or despair. So why, then, does this concept not apply so readily to family members who hurt us?

It is not just the cross-cultural idea that family is sacred and requires sacrifice that obliges us to uphold any and all family relationships—it is our personal love for the individual in question and our feelings of obligation to those who have provided and quite possibly sacrificed for us in the past. But that does not negate the fact that some family relationships must be severed under certain circumstances for our own wellbeing and livelihood. The question is, how we do know when to uphold the relationship, and when do we need to let it go? 

When such a circumstance arises that leaves you wondering whether or not you need to cut ties with a family member, ask yourself these questions:

1. Have they said or done something to you on one or more occasions that causes you physical or psychological harm?

If a family member is causing you physical harm, there is no reason whatsoever to maintain the relationship. If you are in this situation and wish to get help, there are resources available to you. Much love to those of you who are dealing with this. 

If a family member causes you psychological harm, there is also no reason whatsoever to maintain the relationship. However, because some people may constitute actions as psychological harm when they are not or vice versa, the following definition is widely accepted and should be taken into consideration when answering this question.

Psychology Today defines psychological harm/abuse as speech and/or behavior that’s derogating, controlling, punishing, or manipulative. Withholding love, communication, support, or money are indirect methods of control and maintaining power.

2. Would your life greatly improve if you severed the relationship?

If you fantasize about what your life would be like if you didn’t have to deal with the stress of upholding a relationship with a certain family member, maybe it’s time you turn that fantasy into a reality. Do they significantly alter your mood on a daily basis? Do they cause you significant stress and anxiety when you have to communicate and/or interact with them? Do you find yourself feeling miserable, depressed, angry, afraid, sad, or uncomfortable when they are around? If you keep answering yes to any of these questions and could probably answer yes to a few more, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the relationship and why you are upholding it. 

3. Are you only maintaining the relationship because they have provided or cared for you in the past?

Guilt is a powerful emotion. It can severely cloud your judgement, especially when it comes to family. Having a parent or a sibling or grandparent or aunt or uncle or whoever provide for you and sacrifice for you is an incredible act of love and commitment—but not if those actions are conditional upon letting them control you or make you miserable for the rest of your life. People who do those things for another person do them because they want that person to be happy and fulfilled, even if that happiness comes in the form of something they do not personally agree with. People who do those things for another person with the intention of guilting that person into living their life how they want are not practicing love or sacrifice; they are practicing manipulation. It’s actually pretty easy to tell if your family member has provided and sacrificed for you out of love. It might not be as easy to tell if your family member has done so with the intent to manipulate you, precisely because manipulation is meant to alter how you perceive reality. So if you are having trouble figuring out their intentions, that might be your answer. 

4. Are you only maintaining the relationship because other family members are pressuring you to do so?

They say blood is thicker than water—the extent of which you learn when other family members find out that you want to cut ties with another family member. This is also more true for some cultures over others. Cultural values and beliefs play a strong role in how we think about family and familial obligation. However, those values do not override your right as a human to end ties with an individual who is causing you pain. Additionally, family members who may be pressuring you are not you. That means they have not personally experienced what you experience and therefore cannot say whether or not you need to maintain your relationship with the family member in question. Of course, this is much easier said than done, especially if you run the risk of losing family members you do still want in your life if you go through with cutting out the other family member. But again, if they truly love you and prioritize your well being over familial obligation, they will understand. 

5. Are you willing to sacrifice your happiness, values, or identity for the sake of maintaining the relationship?

When it comes down to it, this is the most important question to ask yourself. It is also the most difficult to answer. We are programmed into thinking that loving another person, whether romantically or familially, is the most incredible, important, challenging, and selfless act we as humans can do. It’s not—loving yourself is. And that is more challenging than words can describe, especially if it requires you to end a relationship with someone you love. But if keeping that person in your life means sacrificing your happiness, your identity, your values, your health, or your future, then they are someone who doesn’t deserve to be in your life anyway. It will be hard to severe ties, no doubt about it, but it will be much harder to live your entire life as someone you aren’t or as someone whom you hate. 

Cover photo by WIN-Initiative