Taking the tragic decision to cut ties is bitterly painful.
Distancing myself from most of my family is one of the biggest disappointments of my life. Like my clients who have taken the decision to estrange themselves from their families, I put up with years of emotionally abusive behaviour before completely taking myself out of the family loop. In my case, my estrangement concerns my (now deceased) father and three of my siblings—I still have contact with one brother and my mother.
My need to cut ties with family members happened over a period of about 10 years, first with my father and culminating with my sister. There were deeply upsetting incidents involved with each family member.
None of these incidents, nor my response, came out of nowhere. Layer upon layer of toxicity, including the acceptance within the family of openly aggressive and emotionally abusive behaviour, lay buried under the final incidents which caused me to estrange myself. With every family member I distanced myself from, I was shaken and depressed and often thought of initiating contact.
But I realised the rot went far beyond any individuals. Getting involved with any one of them would mean getting pulled back into the highly toxic family environment in which I was raised. My mother always had her cliques, keeping secrets from one or more of her children. We were all mistrustful of each other, all excluded from the inner circle on occasion and drawn into the fold at other times. When my brother acted in a highly abusive manner, I was told to let it lie: “It’s just what he’s like.”
Being a part of the family meant leaving your ethics and values at the door and stepping into a zone that should have had a huge sign saying “DANGER—ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!” If you were OK being a party to manipulation, bullying, and deception—and fine with putting up with the fact that, one day, it would be your turn to be used, abused, and lied to—you were welcome. Slowly, as I cut my ties with individual family members, and refused to enter into whatever in-fights were in vogue, I felt my grief subside as I learned to breathe easier.
I had made peace with this state of affairs—after all, I hadn’t spoken to my siblings for between 7 and 15 years and I still maintained contact with my mum and one of my brothers. As I focused on my own partner and children, I felt disconnected from my 3 siblings to the point where I barely thought of them. Any dislike had subsided—they just weren’t a part of my life.
Until mum had a stroke and ended up in the hospital.
My first instinct was to call them all. Put aside my differences. Share the news, bury the hatchet, and experience our sense of shared shock and grief together. I was so happy to have my brothers and sister back in my life. We were OK at first and, I reasoned, we’d all matured in the intervening period.
And then, the rot began to appear in little patches, a dot of toxic mould here and there. A slightly threatening comment from my brother, which I let lie. The occasional racist remark or passive-aggressive action, which I chose to ignore. I knew we were all stressed and held my tongue in order to maintain peace.article continues after advertisementhttps://b2253b9cbe451d8eb2192e5e3b263c8e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Things began to come to a head once when my brother and sister asked me, as power of attorney, to contact the hospital for a timeline of my mother’s care which, to me, seemed loaded with some kind of accusation against the hospital. After a couple of long-winded texts, completely ignoring my opinion, I relented and did what was asked. To keep the peace.
There were several incidents which made me feel increasingly uncomfortable culminating, finally, in a shrewd legal pincer move by two of my siblings against the brother I had always talked to. My other brother told me not to contact my brother until they had everything legally tied up. When I pointed out that I was an adult and would talk to my other brother whenever I wanted, the conversation took a nasty turn, with me being accused of all kinds of things. By trying so hard to stay out of the mess which was being stirred around me, I’d inadvertently become embroiled in it anyway. Hearing lies against my brother and myself was the final straw. “I hate this family!” I yelled. “That’s why I haven’t spoken to you for years!”
I was shocked and horrified at the explosive passion which erupted from me. For two months, I’d managed to keep a lid on it, allowing myself to be silenced, living in fear of the moment when my brother would turn on me. When he did eventually turn on me—in a passive-aggressive rather than openly aggressive way—months (probably years) of hurt, rage, and anger surfaced.
I blocked my three siblings from my phone. Estranged again. Am I happy with the outcome? No. But I cannot be a part of a family which is held together by lies and bullying, in which expressing an opinion is dangerous. The extreme anxiety which I had experienced almost continuously for two months began to lessen the instant I made my decision to block them all and cut my ties.article continues after advertisement
With hindsight, I would never have allowed myself to be drawn back in quite so deeply but I had experienced desperation to be part of my siblings’ experience, united as we were through mum’s illness, which blinded me to some of the more sinister goings-on.
When is it time to cut your ties? For me, it was at the point where I couldn’t hold onto any of my values and where I was physically and mentally ill. For others, that point may be far sooner.