Toxic Family Members: How to Cope After Cutting Them Off

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.

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