-Cherilynn Veland, LSCW, MSW
When Is It Okay To Cut Off A Relative?
After the holidays, we therapists are besieged with family drama stories. Family members fight, bad things happen, after too much champagne — talk about conflict and drama. Some of this is normal. However, when family members are repeatedly mean, nasty, and/or hurtful; it is time to have a serious think about whether it is appropriate or healthy to have contact with these family members.
What?! Cut people off? What kind of a counselor suggests that?
Well, normally I don’t. I think that even extreme family dysfunction can usually be worked around with healthy boundaries, support, and a reframed attitude. However, there are exceptions. Obvious exceptions include: abuse, extreme addictive behaviors, sexual inappropriateness, and physical abuse. Other exceptions include toxic, mean and abusive language or behaviors towards others. These can be unworkable and harmful.
I have a friend, Tanya, whose uncle used to scapegoat her at family events. Uncle Meanie would yell at her, make angry accusations, and cause fights. He would talk politics and, one time, Uncle Meanie cut her out of family get-togethers for years because she voted for the “wrong” presidential candidate. Another time, he invited her for Thanksgiving but then charged $21 a person for admittance. I kid you not.
This past Thanksgiving, he yelled at her, “Shut up and maybe you could learn a thing or two!” She felt humiliated. When she asked him if he would ever talk like that to her husband, he calmly stated that he wouldn’t have. It was neat that she thought to ask that, and, that he told the truth in response. (Interestingly, heterosexual women are much more likely to be attacked by narcissistic men, BTW).
So what did Tanya do?
- She reevaluated the importance and health of having him in her life.
- She realized that her holidays and her mental health would be better not setting herself up for abuse.
- She recognized that she had choices in this situation.
- She decided that forgiveness would be right for her, but that continuing to tolerate abuse wasn’t OK.
Tanya decided to cut him off. No more family dinners with Uncle Meanie. No more Thanksgivings or Christmas meals. No more events together, sitting at his table with his wife and kids. Tanya realized that she might miss out, but she figured that she could find friends to be with, or other family members who valued her, cared for her, and treated her with kindness and respect. Now, doesn’t that sound more appealing than being yelled at and humiliated?
Cutting someone off isn’t ideal, but some people refuse to make changes, no matter the cost. While a big loss, it is enough for Tanya to know that she doesn’t have to carry the burden and the hurt of his angry impulses anymore. No more punching bag for Uncle Meanie … (it’s still hard). Tanya’s mom is upset and wants Tanya to continue tolerating this abuse. Not fair.
Cutting off a parent would be a much more complicated decision. However, some parents are so toxic and cruel that this can be a life-saving decision. If you are thinking of doing this with your parent, consider counseling with a professional for clarity beforehand. This book by Dr. Susan Forward could be a useful resource: Toxic Parents: Overcoming the Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.
I have a very good friend who had to do this with her parents and her whole family. She still has hard days, but she doesn’t regret it at all. She has a supportive network of friends and is a member of a 12-step group that helps her manage. Garnering support is always smart.