Cutting Off A Parent Or Other Family Member Can Be Loaded
In my NYC therapy practice, I’ve worked with patients who have had to end a relationship with their mom, dad, sibling and on rare occasions, child. In far more instances, there is a need or desire to pare down the relationship, but there are always questions on how to draw those lines. In some cases though, cutting a family member off might be absolutely necessary for safety.
Overall, ending a relationship with a parent or other family member is so loaded. Even when ending a relationship with a family member is necessary, the consequences can be so many. Not only can the process of cutting a family member off be tough, but afterward, the question also remains: what does it mean to deal with the consequences?
People Who Are Unsafe Are Rarely Able To Understand They’re Unsafe
To start with, it’s important to focus on the relationship with the individual who is being cut-off. Take, for example, an abusive dad. Caring what Dad thinks and wanting Dad to approve or at least, understand are primitive, deeply held feelings. When ending a relationship with an abusive parent or other family member, it’s crucial to understand that most of the time, the very conditions that result in someone needing to be cut off are also the conditions that make it difficult for them to understand your decision to do so. In other words, people who are unsafe very rarely are able to see that they’re unsafe. It’s essential to find a way to appreciate that they just might never understand.
Should You Tell A Family Member They’re Being Cut Off?
The decision to tell or not tell the family member being cut off depends on each individual situation. First and foremost, is that contact even safe? There is also often a hidden wish in telling someone “I’m cutting you off” that they’ll change in response. In other instances, for finality, you need to tell them in order to say it for your own need to say it. It’s critical, though, to be very connected to the fact that you likely won’t receive a satisfying response if you do say something.
And you can also choose not say anything. The principle behind cutting someone off is that they’re unsafe and you need to not have a relationship with them in order to be safe. Even a conversation to tell them it’s over might be too much.
Dealing With The Consequences And Judgments From Other Family Members
People frequently wonder how they will be perceived by ending a relationship–not just by the family member being cut off, but others in the family or perhaps someone they’re dating. Many people assert a simple rule: You just don’t cut off your mom, sister, niece, etc. Very often this rule has to do with a challenge understanding that a family could be so difficult or unsafe as to warrant that. In other cases, though, people pass judgment because they resist looking at the limitations that exist in their own relationships. The truth is people do judge and will judge, sometimes harshly.
In particular, people often fear conflict with siblings. Usually the person ending the relationship (let’s say, with a parent) has done so on the other end of some hard emotional work and soul searching. If and/or when that’s the case, it’s important to provide leadership with the sibling. That might mean inviting them to get close to your process of why and how you’ve made the decision, either because you want them to consider the same thing or because you want them to understand. Leadership, however, also means giving direction to the relationship, even when there’s disagreement or a lack of real interest in understanding. In a sense, what’s called for is to say, “Listen–I’m sorry this is hard. I understand you may not agree with my decision. I want and hope you’ll respect it even if you don’t understand it. I’m sorry if that makes our relationship harder and if it hurts you to see that I’m doing something that hurts someone you care about.”
The bottom line, though, is that some people in your life just aren’t going to understand and aren’t going to support you. It’s never for me, as a therapist, to decide what’s right, tolerable and worth it, but this reality does need to be faced. Are you willing to accept these consequences and to see that your relationship with the person you’re stepping away from exists in a system with a number of other relationships? It’s also important to find friends who do understand–who want you do be safe and see that no matter who someone is, you shouldn’t be treated badly.
Cutting Off An Unsafe Parent Or Family Member Isn’t Enough: You Also Have To Heal
When it comes to cutting off an unsafe family member, particularly an unsafe parent, cutting them off isn’t enough. Ending unsafety is always a precondition. There’s the punching, which needs to stop, but then there’s the bruising, which needs something more.
Of course, you can’t grow from trauma if you’re still being traumatized. But even after, the trauma is still there–it’s left an imprint on you. There is an agony in trying to get someone to properly care for you. When you’re a child, this is especially difficult to overcome. As trite as it is to say, patterns repeat in ways we’re so often unaware of. We place ourselves in similar situations to a past painful one–only with the determination that we’ll “get it right this time.” When you have a parent who is broken, it’s hard to fully understand that parent as broken–you imagine some part of you is broken and that fixing this means fixing the parent. And so it goes, which is why you also have to heal or it’s likely you’ll end up in the same spot.