Cutting Ties with a Family Member

People estranged from their parents, siblings who are distant from each other, divided families... When you are no longer on speaking terms with a family member, at the heart of the problem is deeply embedded pain, frustration, and unhappiness.
Cutting Ties with a Family Member
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

If you’re no longer on speaking terms with a family member, no doubt there are reasons to justify your decision. That kind of decision isn’t taken lightly and it can take you on a difficult path. The reasons for cutting ties with family members are varied and include friction, ongoing disagreements, open emotional wounds, and unwillingness to change.

Experts on family dynamics say that this kind of estrangement is a response to some of the most painful situations a human being can experience. That doesn’t mean that people suffer when they decide to cut off communication with a family member. On the contrary, setting boundaries can be a relief. The real pain comes from past experience, the same experience that motivated the decision to cut ties.

Society tends to judge these kinds of decisions very harshly. Those who choose not to communicate with family members are immediately labeled as “bad.” There is often a complete lack of empathy. No one stops to ask themselves what kind of behavior or circumstances might justify an important decision like this.

It’s also important to note that even if you decide to cut ties, that might not be the end of your suffering. To truly deal with a difficult and painful past, you might need a therapist’s help.

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.”

-Walt Whitman-

hands holding a paper cutout of a family

Cutting ties with a family member is a difficult decision

In general, you cut ties with a family member when you feel like you’ve reached your limit. Your relationship has broken down, there’s negativity that permeates every interaction, the relationship feels toxic. Finally making the decision is an important moment, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The problems that triggered it started a long time ago.

Again, this is not an easy decision and it’s not usually taken lightly. It’s so difficult, in fact, that today there are organizations dedicated to providing support for people who are estranged from their families.

In 2015, the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge published a study about estrangement. The goal was to get a better understanding of an issue that is common but somewhat taboo in our society.

The study was called Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. The research showed, among other things, that when people cut off ties with one or more family members, it triggers anger in the rest of the family.

What’s more, sometimes it doesn’t matter if there’s a clear justification for the decision (like abuse or mistreatment). Not everyone respects these kinds of decisions or are empathetic to other people’s experiences.

man who is cutting ties with a family member

Being estranged from family is emotionally painful and complex

Family estrangement affects people ages 18 to 60. Some wait until they are officially adults to make the decision. Others take longer to pull the plug.

Sometimes people hesitate because of fear, indecision, or social pressure. From the time you are little, society teaches you that distancing yourself from family is wrong. Nevertheless, the number of people estranged from their family is growing all the time. Family psychology experts like Joshua Coleman argue that this is a “silent reality” that requires more research and awareness.

When you stop talking to a family member, you experience a complex array of emotions that aren’t easy to talk about. The problems and suffering that triggered your decision are still there, and you probably don’t know how to deal with them.

Many people also feel ashamed. They are ashamed of not having a “good” family, of not being able to rely on family members for support and love. They feel bad because they aren’t sure if they made the right decision, and because of the criticism from other family members.

The stigma of being estranged from your family and social isolation are also important factors to consider.

woman who is cutting ties with her family

Is cutting ties with a family member the right decision?

Like we said before, the decision to stop speaking with a family member isn’t one that anyone takes lightly. It’s not the result of a whim or a teenager’s tantrum.

Most of the time, there’s something deeper going on that has been brewing for a long time. It might be abuse, contempt, lack of support, feeling invisible, lack of affection, or something else that leads you to finally make this serious decision.

Everyone leads their lives in their own unique ways and has different experiences. Some people have never experienced anything listed above, some people go through it every day. Nevertheless, it’s clear that unresolved conflict is what triggers estrangement.

If you want to avoid cutting ties with your family, try to approach the problem in a way that validates and recognizes everyone’s grievances and makes room for positive change.

When distance is the only way

If that is impossible, then distance is the right answer. To make that process as easy as possible, we recommend the following:

  • Decide how often to see each other. Instead of abruptly deciding never to see this person again, try getting together every two weeks or once a month. Think also about how long the visits will last.
  • Choose the most comfortable type of communication. What works best for you both? Visits at home? Meeting at a coffee shop? Phone calls, texts…?
  • Evaluate the process as you go. After a few months, see how things are going. Is once a month enough? Or two visits a year? Or maybe the best thing is to completely stop communication. There is no right answer, it depends on the individual circumstances.

In conclusion, cutting ties with a family member isn’t always the end of the issue. Sometimes there are quite a lot of loose ends and experiences that leave a bad taste in your mouth. If you stop communicating with a toxic family member and you still feel bad, it might be helpful to schedule a session with a psychologist.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Agllias, Kylie. (Sep 2013). Family Estrangement. Encyclopedia of Social Work. Subject: Couples and Families, Aging and Older Adults, Children and Adolescents. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.919

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.