Toxic Family Members: When to Cut Ties

Engage with the West Michigan Woman Community!

The conversation around difficult family relationships usually ramps up around major holidays, when we're more likely to be at the table with an array of relatives, all with their own personalities and (often conflicting) beliefs.

But, many people—women especially—struggle year round with certain family members, whether it's a parent or sibling, or someone more extended. It turns out, more than one in four Americans have been estranged from a family member at one point in their lives. There are a number of reasons cutting contact with a toxic relative may be necessary, and the complexities around them are myriad, as well.

To unpack this issue, we talked with Dr. Ronald DeVries, a fully licensed psychologist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. Dr. DeVries specializes in mood, depression, and anxiety disorders, and has additional expertise in the areas of forgiveness, shame, guilt and substance abuse recovery.

Often, the word "toxic" gets bandied about, as if it were a simple, black-or-white term. The reality is, toxicity is sometimes hard to define—and also to identify. What isn't up for debate is the seriousness of domestic violence and severe emotional trauma, both of which should be addressed in a supportive, professional setting. For the purposes of this exploration, we'll focus on interactions that bring about consistent negative feelings that may be damaging to our mental wellbeing. To try to quantify this, Dr. DeVries says, "If we're feeling demeaned, angry, guilty, frustrated, anxious or resentful nearly every time we're with a person, that's the time to re-evaluate why we're in that relationship."

When it comes to family, however, choosing not to be in contact anymore isn't easy, and may not even feel possible. It also might not be necessary, if we're able to set and maintain boundaries that allow a relationship to continue, but in a restricted manner.

That's where the conversation turns to self-reflection and self-work. And, resisting the urge to view matters as either good or bad. "A good and bad split happens when we take an overwhelming situation and simplify it into right or wrong; healthy or unhealthy," Dr. DeVries said. "We need to get better at knowing that all people are broken and there are annoying people out there—and we can't cut everybody out of our lives."

That said, severing ties may be needed with a particular individual. But, there are actions we can take first, versus making an impulsive decision. Dr. DeVries calls these first steps "bringing it into relationship." (With a caveat that there must be some level of physical safety, as well as emotional safety, and we shouldn't take this approach with an abuser.)

Typically, this tactic is applied after we've experienced an epiphany about how a relationship is affecting us, and we can put it into words with the family member who is causing the issue. One example of this might be saying, "I've gone into therapy and I've started to grow, and I'm realizing that you've been very critical of me all of my life. I'm not going to take that anymore and I'm going to start challenging you on that."

This usually means putting limits on time spent in that person's company or setting boundaries around what are acceptable topics of conversation. The important part is that we've let the person know that they feel toxic; we've given them the opportunity to make some changes themselves, or helped them understand why we've decided to be distant. After that, if nothing changes, an emotional cutoff can make more sense, and we have the knowledge that we tried our best.

What's next, then? Dr. DeVries notes that many people who are in a toxic relationship have self-doubts and insecurities, and stresses that we really shouldn't try to go it alone. And, he acknowledges that it can take a lot of time to re-program our thoughts about ourselves, especially in the case of a negative parent-child dynamic. Help may come in the form of an ally we bring to family gatherings, a counselor, or a support group—or all of the above.

Forgiveness can also be a facet of this course of action. But, "Forgiveness is not an event," Dr. DeVries said. "It's a process, and sometimes we have to keep forgiving—maybe for the rest of our lives. And, be reminded that we're doing it for ourselves, not the other person. In letting go, we let go of our own suffering."

Allison Kay Bannister has been a West Michigan resident since 1987 and a professional writer since 2002. A GVSU alumna, she launched her own freelance writing business in 2017. Allison is a cookie connoisseur, word nerd, aspiring gardener, and metastatic breast cancer thriver who loves traveling in Michigan and beyond, and enjoys art, world cuisine, wine, music, and making homemade preserves.

This article originally appeared in the Jun/Jul '24 issue of West Michigan Woman.


More stories you'll love