The Final Cut

After enduring years of shabby treatment from his aunt, John Yaeger had had enough. Manipulative and impossible to please, she had been spreading a rumor about his late father. It was the last straw, says Yaeger, a special ed teacher from Long Island. "It just came to a point where your family causes you more pain and grief than they provide love and warmth."

He cut off all contact with his aunt and two cousins who wronged him in other ways, doing the best he can to stay in touch with the rest of his family. He has mixed feelings about the decision: Life is easier, for the most part, but he misses holiday gatherings. "How am I going to go if I can't stomach seeing these people?" he wonders.

Such dilemmas are familiar to family therapists. It may be impossible to cut off one sibling without hurting another, for example, or to stop talking to your father without depriving your child of a granddad.

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It can be hard to swallow the idea that even impossible people have something to offer, but this insight is key to healthy relationships. "It's usually not all one way or the other," explains Constance Ahrons, professor emerita at the University of Southern California and former director of its marriage and family therapy training program. "Even a child who's been abused by a parent most often has love for that parent."

Some people can't tolerate their ambivalence toward someone, so they ease their anxiety by writing off the other person as all bad. But that doesn't solve the underlying problem, according to Michael E. Kerr, a psychiatrist who directs the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. A family works as an emotional unit, so even substance abuse can't be blamed entirely on one person. By turning your back on a bond without considering your part in the conflict, you risk bringing similar problems into other relationships.

You might also set a bad example for your children. Since cutoffs run in families, experts warn that severing a tie teaches that "this is how we resolve differences," says Ahrons. A better strategy, she says, is to set clear boundaries—like telling your brother who calls and insults you that you'll hang up if he makes another vile remark (and following through on the threat).

But when someone repeatedly violates those boundaries, a temporary cutoff might be appropriate. Clinical social worker Mark Sichel, who tells his own story of being cut off by his parents in his book, Healing From Family Rifts, cites addiction and ongoing abuse as problems that often can't be managed any other way.

One More Try?

Most experts say that a cutoff should be a last resort. If you're feeling tempted, consider these strategies:

  • Ask yourself if there's any benefit to keeping the relationship going. "Usually there is," says USC psychologist Constance Ahrons.
  • See if you can limit contact without ending it entirely, the way ex-spouses might manage a relationship for the sake of their children.
  • Don't act in the heat of the moment—and don't put down on paper what you might regret later.
  • Don't close the door completely. Let people know what it'll take to restore the relationship.
  • Let bygones be bygones. If you see changes for the better, don't demand a formal apology for past wrongs.

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