Why It's OK To Cut Off Toxic Family Members

Toxic relatives can cause chaos within your family. Experts weigh in on why, sometimes, it's a good idea to cut ties with certain family members.

family photo ripped in the middle
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My father decided to cut ties with his mother, my grandmother, when my brother and I were young. A lot led up to his decision—and it wasn't easy—but it was for the benefit of our entire family.

As I grew older, I learned family estrangement isn't unusual. More than one in every four Americans, a total of 27% of people 18 or older, have cut off contact with a family member. That's at least 67 million people, although the number is likely higher, as some do not wish not to acknowledge their family estrangement, according to a national survey published in 2020 and conducted by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., a Hazel E. Reed professor in the department of psychology and professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

That's not all. A 2015 survey of students in northeastern universities published in the Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science showed that about 17% had experienced estrangement from an immediate family member. In another study of moms between 65 and 75 years old, researchers found about 11% were estranged from at least one adult child.

Family members can experience a falling out for multiple reasons, including because of verbal or physical abuse, financial issues, disagreements over life decisions, and needing to part from toxic behavior, which my father says was the case for him.

What Is Toxic Behavior?

Toxic behavior can be abusive, demeaning, hurtful, or exploitative. "Behaviors in these categories are missing an essential ingredient—regard for the emotional experience and well-being of another person," says Andrew Roffman, LCSW, director of the Family Studies Program and clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. "Toxicity of this behavior is amplified in families as family life is, ideally, the context where one wants and needs to feel safest, securest, and most cared for and accepted."

A toxic person can make you feel upset or bad whenever you're in their presence, explains Leslie Halpern, Ph.D., dean and professor at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University. "They are typically individuals who never hesitate to criticize you or others in their family and tend to blame others for their own life's problems and unhappiness," says Dr. Halpern. They may also gaslight, a form of psychological manipulation where a person makes you question your own perception. "Sometimes they can be manipulative and act as though it is your behavior that is harming them or that you are not caring for or showing them enough respect or love and taking care of their own needs," adds Dr. Halpern. "They sometimes seem like vessels that cannot ever be filled, as in whatever you do for them is never enough."

Being on the receiving end of such toxic behavior from others can lead to mental health struggles, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, and depression.

How Parents Can Deal With Toxic Relatives

Sometimes it's necessary to cut toxic relatives off. "If a family member is not capable of curtailing their negative interactions with you or your children after you have asked them to do so, and it is clear your children are not benefiting in some way from that relationship, then there is no point to continue to maintain a hurtful relationship," says Dr. Halpern. It could be time to cut the person off if you or your child start to dread visiting that family member, especially if they only interact in negative ways with those around them. "Recognize that spending time apart from them is important to one's own mental health," adds Dr. Halpern.

It took my father a while to remove his mother from our lives—and that's understandable. Michele Goldman, Psy.D., a psychologist and an advisor for Hope for Depression Research Foundation, says there are a number of reasons why some people stay in toxic relationships with family members longer than is healthy. "Some of these reasons are fear of being alone, inability to recognize toxicity, comfortability with status quo, low self-worth, feelings of guilt, financial reasons, belief that things will change," says Dr. Goldman.

For many, it's also that emphasis on family. "Sometimes we have a sense of responsibility to family; this might be due to tradition, culture, religion, or personal beliefs," explains Dr. Goldman. "The notion of ending a relationship, even an unhealthy relationship, is not considered an option for some people due to the importance of family, respect of or responsibility to elders."

Dr. Roffman, however, says it's important to decide not whether to maintain a relationship, but rather, what kind of relationship? "You will always have a relationship whether it is active or not. Family relationships continue on an emotional level whether we are actively in contact or not," says Dr. Roffman. "You may opt to have a much more limited relationship, to see them less frequently or in circumstances that don't require much interaction."

It's also helpful to keep in mind the possible reasons for a relative's toxic behavior. "I encourage the work of thinking carefully about how that person might have gotten that way," suggests Dr. Roffman. In the case of my grandmother, she suffered a tragedy when she was younger. "This isn't so much to exonerate or forgive, but to make that person's behavior less personal to you," says Dr. Roffman. "Their actions reflect many things about them that may not be understandable. Having a sense of this can help ease some of the lasting effects of experiencing another's hurtful actions."

Of course, toxic situations need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. It is a matter of deciding whether to hold onto something or let go of it. Estrangements can be—and occasionally are—repaired. My father, for example, reunited with his mother 10 years later. But, as experts point out, estrangement may be necessary for the well-being of your family, and it's OK if it has to come to that.

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