Practical Magic: How to Cut Ties With Your Family

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The holidays are almost upon us, which for many people means going back to their hometown to visit family and friends. Navigating airports and other modes of transportation during a pandemic is hard enough — add to that having to navigate familial relationships, especially ones that are fraught, and things can get even trickier.

I haven’t been “home for the holidays” in at least four years. If you follow my writing, you know this is because I don’t speak to most of my family and specifically don’t speak to my parents. A rift in the family like that requires some people to take sides, and most people chose to stay close to my mother and father and ignore me. It used to hurt me to see my whole family gathered together on holidays, but now, I’ve let go of the pain of not being a part of a traditional nuclear family.

I didn’t just cut off my parents because of abuse. I didn’t see that they were changing for the better as people. My parents had spent decades raising kids and still weren’t owning up to their mistakes as caregivers. I still was just a dumping ground for my mother’s pain. My father was still as angry as ever. Their lives were messy, and without going into too much detail, I decided I didn’t want to be a part of it.

One of the last exchanges I had with my mother was her texting me telling me she wanted us to be a real family again. I tried, I really did. She ended up blowing me off, so I stopped trying and decided I would make the kind of family I needed for myself. Her attempts at getting me back in her life were selfish and insincere, so I let go and haven’t looked back since.

If you grew up in an abusive family, or have a family you don’t want to associate with anymore because of their political beliefs, whatever your reasoning, this guide is for you. This is how to cut ties with your family.

Realize you don’t owe your family your presence just because they are family

I’m adopted, and I grew up with messaging that I was “saved” by my adoptive parents: That my biological family didn’t want me, that no other family would take me. That message made me cling to the parental relationship for longer than I should have.

One thing you will likely hear on this journey is that “you only get one mother/father/family.” For me, this was categorically false. I had a biological family, a foster family, then an adoptive family. None of those families existed in a healthy environment to raise a child. For you, you may have one biological mom and dad, but that doesn’t mean your life is void of mother and father figures.

People may pressure you to just come home, keep the peace, and not shake the table. If not talking to your family brings you peace, here is your permission to cut ties with them. You owe yourself peace before anyone else.

You may have mitigating cultural or societal factors that tell you you can’t do what I’m encouraging you to do. Maybe the family is sacred in your culture, or maybe a family member you don’t want in your life is sick or struggling. It sounds insensitive, but if your family is actively causing you harm or contributing to your own struggles, you can let go of the relationship.

Get a support system

My therapist and my close friends were instrumental in my decision to cut off my parents. My therapist back in Pittsburgh was the first person to suggest that I not speak to my mother “for a while.” When my mother had a heart attack, when my grandmother died, I was still not talking to my mother. I didn’t reach out even though it would have been the “correct” thing to do. I talked with my therapist and friends throughout this time. They assured me that I was not heartless, I was just protecting myself.

When I write about my mother, she usually reacts violently. She has harassed me and even the publications I have written for. If you know your family would react in the same harassing way, it’s important that you have a source of love and gentleness in your life to combat it. My friends and sober community rallied around me during this time. You may need your therapists and friends to do the same.

Start by telling whoever you want in your corner that you no longer want to talk to or associate with x, y, z. Ask them — and this is important — to not tell you about this person or persons. You don’t need a play-by-play of what your family is doing or saying about you during this time. If you need a script, here’s one:

“Hey ____, I just wanted to let you know I’ve decided to not speak with my family/____ anymore. I’ve come to this decision after a lot of thinking and meditation, and I hope that you can understand. I want you in my life, and to be a support for me as I go through this process. Please refrain from telling ____ or reporting back to them things that I confide in you. I also don’t want to know what they are doing or saying. Thank you for your support and love during this time.”

As many of you may know, I have two brothers I still talk to, so letting them know that I didn’t want to talk to our parents anymore was a big deal. They eventually understood my decision and are a huge source of support in my life now. If you also have some family members you still wish to talk to, this script will be helpful. If your family members don’t understand, you don’t owe them time to come around. If they’d rather pick a side, let them, and move on for your own sake.

Draft a message, if you feel safe

I didn’t really tell my family I wasn’t talking to them anymore. I just stopped responding to messages and stopped reaching out, and they eventually got the message. If you feel the need to reach out and provide context before moving forward, you can do that and still maintain distance. You don’t owe anyone a message, but sometimes it helps provide clarity.

I didn’t send a message because I know my family, and I know it would only bring more harm my way. If you know that your family or family member is volatile as well, feel free to skip this part.

If you want to send a message and feel safe to do so, here is a template:

“Hi ____, after some careful thought and consideration, I’ve decided that I no longer want a relationship with you. I realize this may be hard to hear, but for my health and yours, I think it’s best that we no longer speak to one another. Your behavior [you can provide specific examples] has been very hurtful to me, which is why I’ve come to this decision. Please do not contact me from this point forward. If you don’t respect my decision I will be forced to block your number/social media. I love you and wish the best for you (optional), but until you change your behavior I no longer see a path forward for us.”

Block, unfriend, unfollow

When cutting ties with anyone, I highly recommend unfollowing and unfriending, with blocking being an option if the person or persons do not respect the boundary you’ve established. There also is the option to mute, but I find unfriending and unfollowing to be the best and most thorough course of action.

I mainly suggest this because it can be hard to see pictures or videos of the person who abused you or who you still love living life and carrying on without you. It can pull on your heartstrings and make you second-guess your decision. To stay steadfast and strong, unfollowing is a great tool.

If the person you are cutting ties with is an abuser, I highly suggest blocking. If blocking will spare you harassing phone calls and messages, please do it. It hurts and feels like a step too far sometimes, but it can be extremely necessary for your well-being and safety.

Restraining orders

This is for extreme situations where the person you are cutting ties with is your abuser, particularly if you find that unfriending, unfollowing, and blocking does not stop the harassment. If this person knows where you live, is showing up to your place of residence or employment, or if they are sending others to do their bidding, you can explore restraining orders as an option.

I’ve only had a restraining order against one person and they weren’t in my family, so I can’t totally speak on the emotional effect this may have on you. You may think that it’s just a piece of paper, but it might also help you if later legal action needs to be taken. Getting courts involved is a messy process that doesn’t always yield the results you want, and I know getting the police involved can make things monumentally worse. If you want to avoid legal action, there are ways to do that as well.

If you do get a restraining order, bring someone you trust along for emotional support. It will be good to have someone you care about beside you during this time.

If you don’t want to go through this course of action, have a protector on hand. This is someone you can call if this person does show up or continues to harass you. They can serve as a mediator or a barrier between you and this person.

Have an outlet

When I was in the midst of cutting off my family and sorting through other abuse I had gone through, I took a self-defense class. This helped me feel like I could defend myself against my abusers if I needed to. For you, an outlet might be something physical like training or going on long bike rides. It might be something soothing like needlework or journaling. Whatever you decide on, it will be super helpful to have something to keep yourself busy when feelings of guilt or remorse come up.

Recognize that dreams, flashbacks, or memories are normal

I still have nightmares about my family. I just had one last night. In the nightmare, my mother convinced the courts that I was unstable and had me committed to a mental health facility. Most of the dreams I have about my parents are violent. In them, we fight. I stand up for the girl who couldn’t, and punch and kick my way to safety. This is all normal. If you keep having memories of the good times or the bad times, that is normal too.

I spent 17 years in the house I grew up in. I’ve only been out of it for 13 years, and have only been safely away from my abusers for almost five years. Carving out time and space where you can feel safe and justified in your decision takes time. It’s important that you don’t backslide when you feel these memories come on. Have a friend you can text instead, write a poem or journal, do anything but cross that boundary you made.

Have grace for yourself

This can be a long and arduous process, it is painful as well. You might find yourself more emotional than you thought you’d be over it all. In these moments, it is important to give yourself grace. You are doing what you need to do for your own health. You’re taking care of yourself above others, and that can be lonely. Know that there are people who do love you, and who love you in the ways you need and deserve to be loved. It could be a family member, a friend, or a partner. These relationships, the mutually loving ones in your life, are the ones you should lean on and cling to.

If you have any other questions, please feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to respond. Sending you love and well wishes this holiday season!


Practical Magic is a new column that curates how-to articles for living your best queer life, edited by Meg Jones Wall.


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danijanae

Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

danijanae has written 132 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, I’m currently going through the long and arduous process of cutting off my family of origin. The thing that’s taking the longest for me psychologically is moving past all the societal expectations and obligations around the idea of family. I’ve come a long way in the past few years, but the feelings of misplaced guilt still really get me from time to time. These days there’s so much messaging out there about leaving abusive partners or friends, but the discourse around that often shifts when the abusive people in your life are parents or other family members. Really grateful to see this content :)

  2. “You’re taking care of yourself above others, and that can be lonely.”

    Very this. Any advice for how to parse the difference between when it’s healthy self-care vs. selfish self-care? I struggle with knowing when I’m the problem after years of gaslighting.

    • This is a good question! I always ask my body. If the thought of setting a boundary makes it easier to breathe, feel lightness, and a general sense of ease, it’s probably good for you. If you still feel some tension in your body or a block in your mind it’s worth exploring deeper why you’re setting this boundary.

      But in general, I think most self care isn’t selfish but we tell ourselves it is because doing the work can be scary! Forming a life that is true to what you want but different from what you’ve always known is challenging but worth it.

  3. Thank you for such supportive, clear, and compassionate advice, I really hope it will help someone out there!

    What no one one ever tells you is that estrangement is a beautiful thing.
    Certain people will drain the life out of you. They won’t change but they’ll change you until you don’t recognize yourself.

    It’s been two decades since I closed that door. What I got in exchange is a life filled with joy, support, art, good food, splendid friends, and so much love.

    Big hugs, admiration,and support to you, Dani

    From a fellow Trifecta survivor (biological/foster/adoptive families).

  4. This was interesting and helpful to read. Unfortunately, I also think there are times when people choose estrangement over communicating and repairing. In my case, I’m the mother who has been pushed away and the explanation makes no sense – memories of a monster mother that are simply not true. Probably the result of a brain injury, but my child has latched on to posts like yours and decided estrangement is his solution to imagined wrongs. It’s been devastating to lose the child I have always loved. So … this is not to criticize you or your solution, simply to say this can be very, very complicated.

    • What if your child’s version of events is, in fact, true, and you do not (or choose not!) to remember things that way? Do you have evidence of a brain injury, or are you speculating?

      It turns out that many, many formative events in my childhood and young adulthood are things that my parents simply… don’t remember ever happening. And this is a common theme among children of abuse and neglect.

      Entertain that you child may be telling the truth. What would that mean? Maybe the nuance isn’t so nuanced as you think.

    • If you’re not helping, you’re not helping! Accept it! As a brain-injured person myself, there’s nothing more aggravating than having people in your life insist that all your wants and needs aren’t really your wants and needs, and are probably just the result of your brain injury. I have trouble with logistics, my balance, and my working memory…I have no trouble telling who is an A.hole that doesn’t have my best interests at heart! Give your kid space and stop telling literally everyone you can find that they have a disability. They are who they are now; you clearly only love who they were. Best of luck processing your grief. ::hugs::

    • I thought for awhile about responding to this, and as the author I’ve decided to.

      It can be really hard for us to accept that we’ve hurt people we claim to love. I’ve hurt people that I love, and owning up to it AND changing my behavior was not easy.

      If your child is reading posts like mine and something is resonating with them, brain injury or not, it’s likely they have memories that are unsavory at the very least. They’ve chosen estrangement, and that hurts you, but I think you should think about their hurt too.

      If my parent went around saying that they never did anything wrong and I made it all up because of a brain injury I’d be devastated. I’m bipolar, and I’m sure my parents blame this for the things that I write about them, but my brain chemistry doesn’t make the abuse false.

      It’s very possible you have no memory of what you did. As someone else said, this is pretty average for abuser-victim dynamics. Abuse becomes a clear and resounding memory for the abused and doesn’t even register as a blip in the mind of the abuser.

      I’m not sure what happened in the home you built but something did. You may hear from your child in a few years and you may not. But you have to respect their memory and their story and stop discounting them to strangers on the internet. When you’re ready to talk to them about their memory of things, their side, I hope they feel safe enough to talk with you. It’s not guaranteed they will.

      • Thank you for your comment. I took the chance and responded to your original post and can’t say I am surprised by the comments. *sigh* My point is simply this – not every estrangement makes sense. Not every family is loving, I know, and there are very real reasons for children to end contact with parents or other family members. I get that. But not every mother pushed away by a child deserves to be pushed away. And it’s very hard to talk about because so many – including commenters on this thread – make assumptions that a child choosing estrangement is the one that is right and the parent has done something unforgivable that they may or may not be willing to acknowledge. I’m disappointed that me sharing a little of my story is “discounting” my child while others posting are not accused of “discounting” their mothers. It’s just not always that simple and that was my point. Truly wishing you all the best.

  5. I cut off my grandmother for a while because of her treatment of me after learning I was queer. I did not want to allow family to mistreat me because it would make me more likely to accept mistreatment from others. I also did not want to regret my actions. We had been very close before, but the peace I got from disengaging soothed the grief I had at losing her. I was prepared to move to the other side of the world without resolving it, but I reached out before my move to give her one chance to fix it. Knowing the peace I had experienced since cutting ties with her helped me assert what level of treatment I required in order for her to come back into my life. She was able to pledge better behaviour but I never got an acknowledgement that she had done anything wrong. That ended up being OK with me. I can’t control her perception of events, so I just adjusted and learned what to expect from her. People can’t be how you wish them to be, but you can sure as hell control what you’ll put up with. I feel very strong for having done the journey, even though it felt so horrible that first full year of cutting her out. We’ve now had years of a much more supportive relationship. No regrets. You gotta draw the line and get the peace you want from life, whether they’re in it or not.

  6. I often feel guilt or regret about my decision to cut my parents (and most of my larger family) out of my life, but I always remember that there’s a reason I did, and that there is absolutely no evidence that said reason has been resolved at all, or could even be addressed. And the family I *do* talk to, namely my brother, understands completely.

    I usually look at it this way: would I associate with my parents if they weren’t related to me? No. I wouldn’t visit the places they visit, be friends with them or most of the people they’re friends with, and so on. So why make an exception for genetics?

  7. Hi, I just want to thank you for writing this.
    I have not spoken to my parents (and thus the rest of my family)for a bit of 2 years and they have recently tried to get back in contact and it is good to hear it is ok to keep my resolve and not give in.
    This really resonated with me : A rift in the family like that requires some people to take sides, and most people chose to stay close to my mother and father and ignore me.
    How do you deal with that?
    How do you handle people choosing abusers over you?
    I know they (atleast on some level) are aware of the abuse but they still choose the easy narrative over the one that supports me and I struggle with that.

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