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When You Need to Divorce or Disown a Family Member

At some point, a person will choose to end a toxic relationship, family or not.

Key points

  • The idea of “divorcing” a family member you aren’t married to may sound a little dramatic, but there's probably already plenty of drama.
  • Leaving does not need to be an ugly, drawn-out experience.
  • Gathering the strength to start the process will come more naturally as you get better at walling off the negativity being thrown at you.

According to some state records (and lots of posts by lawyers), January is the month when the most divorces are filed. I guess people try to give it one last shot over the holidays, and when that fails, they pull the plug. What most family therapists have seen over the years is that January is also when people most often choose to end other toxic family relationships.

The new year can give us the vigor to take on a fresh start. If you are in a toxic environment, you have every reason and right to strike out on your own and see if you can create something better. In most cases, you can, but it does take guts and fortitude.

Should you stay, or should you go?

If you have lived in an uncomfortable emotional environment for a decade or more and are used to walling off your emotions, you may tell yourself there are many reasons to stay as well as to leave. The number-one reason people stay is the fear of the unknown. They used to say, “The devil you know is better than the one you don’t,” but often, with your experience, you can make a better world for yourself.

Think about it this way: If you know someone is toxic, and they are not working on changing, all you will get from them is their negative projections. When any difficulty occurs—or if the other person is just in a bad mood—and you are made to feel that you are bad, wrong, or evil, that is gaslighting, and you need to get out.

The idea of “divorcing” a family member you aren’t married to may sound a little dramatic, but the truth is that there is probably already plenty of drama. This is just another way to make sense of what you need to do to keep your sanity and achieve your goals. You may be able to feel some happiness in your new life, which is also an empowering thought.

How to make a fresh start

Leaving does not need to be an ugly, drawn-out experience that just heightens the toxicity around you. If you know what you need to do, start gathering a support system of people you can talk to about this move and who can help you. There’s no need to discuss what you’re planning with the toxic person in your life; in fact, you may be better off keeping it from them, so they don’t try to make you feel wrong for preserving your own sanity.

Gathering the strength to start the process will come more naturally as you get better at walling off the negativity being thrown at you. Once you have made your decision, the rest is about getting yourself organized, which can be daunting if you don’t have money or another place to go. There are shelters if you are struggling financially, but if you can, I suggest finding a room in a house with some friends.

It will help to look at this as a time of new beginnings and not as an ending. Of course, there will be some struggle, but that’s something you have the strength to handle. No matter what, you’ll be better off without people who are being unkind to you. Just remember that you have made the right decision for yourself.

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