Abusive behavior may lead to breaking up with family

Rose Bak

How to decide if it's time to break ties with your abusive family members.

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Now that the summer is over and the holidays are just around the corner, how do you feel? No, really.

Do you feel sad that you couldn’t see your family due to the pandemic? Or do you feel an immense sense of relief that the pandemic gives you an excuse to miss the annual trauma of a family holiday?

We all have our own ideas of the “perfect family”. Maybe it’s the Cleavers or the Bradys or the Andersons from “Father Knows Best” (am I aging myself here?).

The reality of it is, most of our families don’t measure up to those impossible standards.

The Huxtables and the Simpsons might squabble, but underneath it all is a sense of respect and love that may not be present in your own family unit. There are more happy times than fighting. But these fictional families don’t always reflect reality.

Family can be difficult, we all get that. Some family relationships take a lot of work or involve a lot of gritting your teeth, or a lot of self-care to navigate. Any long-term relationship takes work. This assumes that there’s a give-and-take, a mutual sense of love and respect.

But sometimes you have a family relationship that is beyond repair. A relationship where instead of feeling nourished by the other person, you feel abused by them. A person who, if you were dating them or friends with them, you would have kicked them to the curb a long time ago because of the way you treat them.

Maybe it’s a parent with severe alcoholism or a sibling with mental illness. Maybe it’s a parent who can’t accept your sexual orientation or refuses to recognize your preferred gender. Maybe it’s a family member who has done something so awful, there’s no coming back from that. What do you do then?

Sometimes your best option is to sever the relationship and divorce your family member. Cut ties with the person, and protect yourself by avoiding any contact with them.

For many of us, this can be one of the hardest decisions we ever make. It comes with judgment from all sides.

You may hear things like “It’s terrible that your father abused you, but I’m sure he loves you in his own way”, or “No matter what your mom did, she’s old now and you owe it to her to help her out”, or “Your daughter has a drug problem, but you’re still her mom”.

Here’s the thing: no one will take care of you in these abusive family relationships.

You need to take care of yourself, and sometimes taking care of yourself means removing yourself from that situation. You don’t have to forgive huge horrible things that happened in your past or pretend they never happened. You certainly don’t have to put up with ongoing abuse as an adult. You might have felt trapped in the relationship in the past, but you are not trapped now.

You have a choice. Choose yourself and your own well-being.

You deserve to live your best life, even if it means cutting people off.

I know it sounds simple, but it is not. Family bonds are usually our oldest and strongest bonds. They are also nuanced and complicated.

Here are some things to consider before divorcing a family member:

  • Is the family member abusive in all your interactions? Or is abuse brought on by triggers such as drugs or alcohol? Are there ways to maintain some level of the relationship while avoiding those triggers and exposing yourself to abuse?
  • Are you willing or able to forgive past abuse? Or do you find yourself angry, hurt, or reliving past deeds whenever you see the person?
  • Does the person take responsibility for their behavior? Have they asked for forgiveness, changed in some tangible way, or made amends?
  • How will this impact other members of your immediate family? For example, do you feel like another person will feel forced to choose between you and your estranged family member? Does severing the relationship mean your kids won’t see a grandparent or aunt, and if so, are you OK with that?
  • Are you exposing your children or partner to hatred and abuse by continuing a relationship with someone who is so hateful towards you?
  • When the person dies, what do you think you will feel? Regret that you stopped having a relationship with that person? Relief? Or will you mourn that you didn’t have a different family member?
  • If you never see or talk to the person again, will you be OK with it?
  • Do you have a strong support system to get you through the messy process of divorcing a family member? Sometimes your partner or your friends can be the family that you need.

Only you can decide if ending the relationship is best for you. If you make the difficult decision to end the relationship, be sure to take care of yourself.

Think about how you want to communicate your choice to cut someone out of your life. Do you want to call them on the phone? Send them an e-mail? Or just ghost them and wait for them to figure it out? It’s up to you, pick whichever option feels best for you. This is not the time to focus on protecting the feelings of someone who has repeatedly hurt you.

And remember, it’s totally OK to not respond to calls, emails, or other attempts from the family member to engage with you. Once you’ve told them it’s over, you have no obligation to engage.

It’s totally fine to change the subject and agree to disagree with well-meaning friends or family that want to tell you why you should maintain the relationship. Don’t let other people pressure you into doing something that doesn’t feel right for you.

If you feel like the person poses a current danger to you, contact your local family violence agency, court, or an attorney to determine your options for protective orders (restraining orders) if appropriate.

Most importantly, allow yourself space and time to mourn the relationship.

Practice self-care. Cry if you need to. Write in a journal or write a letter to the person (even if you don’t send it) sharing your feelings. Talk to trusted family or friends who will understand.

Give yourself credit for taking care of yourself in a way that works best for you, no matter what anyone else thinks about your choice.

It can be helpful to have a neutral person talk this through, offer suggestions, and reinforce that you deserve to live a life free of abuse. If the relationship or end of the relationship is making you consider self-harm, or interfering with your daily activities, contact your local mental health agency or a therapist immediately.

Remember, you were born into your family — the decision to stay is completely up to you.

#family #relationships #mentalhealth

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR
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