Many of my clients are members of toxic families where they are subjected to emotional abuse. Often, this abuse has gone on for years, hidden within narcissistic families and allowed to go under the radar as it is delivered under the guise of gaslighting.
Many people choose to stay in contact with their family members, no matter how hard that is; this is perfectly understandable. Particularly when a parent is involved, the adult child may feel love towards them, no matter how bad their behaviour. Victims of emotional family abuse also often have a poor sense of self and may continue to feel misplaced guilt—that the way they have been treated is somehow their fault, that they are deserving of abusive treatment, and that they can’t see a way out.
Cutting your family off is also seen as a taboo. People who do so are often labelled as “bad” or selfish and to many outsiders, the emotional abuse is so hidden within the family that friends and other relations just can’t see why you would need to distance yourself in this way.
So, when is it right to cut yourself off?
1. When your family’s treatment is severely impacting you.
I have never met anyone who takes the decision to cut themselves off from their family (or specific family members) lightly. This is a heartbreaking decision and most people carry on with these relationships despite the pain they cause. You have a right to lead a happy life and to distance yourself from people—no matter who they are—who act in an abusive manner towards you.
If your toxic family continues to disrespect you, to ignore your boundaries, and to gaslight you, you have every right to cut ties. You do, in fact, have the right to do this at any time, but many people wait until they realise the full impact of staying in these relationships.
2. When there is nothing positive to be gained from the relationship.
Some people make the decision to stay in touch with their family because there are some positives to be gained. You may stay in touch with siblings, for instance, because you are involved in a parent’s care. You may feel that you gain something from their emotional support in difficult situations.
When considering whether or not to cut ties completely, you need to weigh up what you will gain and what you will lose. If you feel there is nothing positive in your relationship, then it might be time to think about cutting your ties.
3. When you become aware that you’ve been abused.
The type of abuse which takes place within families is often very subtle. Your brother’s extremely aggressive behaviour when he’s crossed is deemed as OK because “that’s just what he’s like.” That abuse which took place as a child when your dad hit you? Your mum says, “Everyone was like that then, and let’s not talk about it after all your dad’s done for you.”
If you were raised in a family like that, it’s difficult to even recognise that you were abused. Often people are well into their forties or fifties before they realise that their treatment was unacceptable. When you realise this, and particularly if you’re gaslighted when you try and confront an abuser, it may be time for you to distance yourself.
4. When you realise the family is not a sacred institution.
One of the reasons why cutting ties with your family is such a taboo is because the family is considered a sacred institution by so many people. The family is seen as a safe haven, a place of love and support and a central building block to bigger cultural institutions. When you make sense of your own experiences and realise that your particular family is not a safe and supportive place, it may be time to leave.
5. When you state your case and it’s not heard.
Dealing with narcissistic types within the family and people who have acted in an abusive way takes a great deal of courage. There’s nothing to say you have to confront these people—especially if their reaction to you is likely to be extreme.
However, if you do choose to and they respond by telling you that you’re making it up, that you’re "weird," or they become aggressive towards you, it’s probably time to leave. These people are never going to see your point of view or admit any of their shortfallings.
Anyone who thinks distancing themselves from their family is easy is wrong, which partly explains why we stay in these relationships when—if a friend acted in that way—we would quickly remove ourselves from other abusive people.
If you choose to cut ties, you can expect to feel guilty. Don’t forget: You’ve been subjected to years of your family communicating that they were right and there was something wrong with you. Because of the taboo around cutting ties with your family, you can also expect to feel guilty because what you have done is seen as “wrong” and extreme. Surely, people will tell you, it’s better to just get on with it: "You’ve only got one family, even if they’re not perfect.”
And you’ll also feel sad. When you cut ties in this way, you’ll grieve for the family you have lost. The sadness, grief, and guilt are, however, often accompanied by a sense of relief and a wonder at how life can be when you’re no longer caught up in the spider’s web of a toxic family. It can take a while to find your feet and know how to deal with this newfound freedom, but, over time, you’ll learn how to live this new life.
If you need any help with any of these issues, please seek out the support you need.