Growing up in the midwestern United States, there were a few common adages about family that were spoken aloud & passed around almost like mantras. “Family is forever.” “The only people you can count on to love you are your family.” “There’s nothing worse a person can do than to turn their backs on family.”
But what if your family is toxic? What happens if your family refuses to acknowledge your feelings, or the ways that they’ve hurt you, and they tell you to your face that they refuse to change? That the problem, in this relationship, is actually you?
Sometimes, family isn’t everything. Sometimes your family is more of a poison for your life than if they weren’t in it at all. It’s difficult to recognize the symptoms, as it is in any toxic or abusive relationship, but the correct choice is the same: cut those ties before they drive you mad.
Signs That You May Need to Call it Quits
How do you know if it’s the right decision to end a relationship with your parents?
It can be a very difficult question to answer. You have to ask yourself: Do I feel good when I’m with them? Do they make me feel good with their actions and words? Do they make me feel bad about myself? Do they make me feel bad more often than they make me feel good? Do they listen to me and understand my feelings, or do they make fun of me or tell me I’m making up memories to try to hurt them? Life is about being happy. Sometimes, you can’t be happy if your parents are in your life.
Psychotherapist Ewa Chalimoniuk says, “Frankly, children cut ties with their parents because this situation is never going to be resolved. These abused or invisible children will continue to be confronted with repeated rejection, even years later, when they’re fully grown.”
In terms of what this repeated rejection looks like, she says, “…at some point the mistreated adult child builds up the courage to remind their parents about their wrongdoings, and demands respect and approval for their decisions. He or she hopes that their parents will admit to their faults and that they will eventually be accepted. These grown-up children aren’t looking for apologies–they are still full of anger and resentment–they simply want acknowledgement of the suffering they endured.”
When asked what the typical response to this is in a toxic & abusive relationship looks like, she said, “[the parents say,] ‘What are you talking about?!’ or ‘You’re making this up!’ One of my patients was sexually abused by her father. After years of therapy…she decided to confront her dad. All she heard from him was, ‘You got what you asked for.’ [And]…her mother supported her father’s opinion.”
If this sounds like your relationship dynamic with your parents, it might be time to end things. If your family can’t even give you acknowledgement that it’s possible that they’ve hurt you, they will never be able to truly love or respect you as an individual. Instead, they will cling to their idea of you, of who you’re “supposed” to be, and they will never let you be.
What Do I Do?
If you do decide to terminate a relationship with your parents, it can be incredibly painful. You’re cutting off a piece of yourself, whether you want to admit it or not. Separation from a parent is like cutting off a rotting, festering limb. You can survive it, but it won’t be without consequence, possibly for the rest of your life. The benefit, of course, is that the infection won’t spread to the rest of your body.
If it’s possible to heal your relationship with your parents (and only you know if that’s actually possible), then you owe it to yourself to try. If your parents, however, are unwilling to change their behavior even for the sake of your emotional well-being, it’s time to end the relationship.
For me, personally, I can’t remember a single time I went home to my family and left feeling better about myself. Most of the time, they made me feel crazy, told me that I was “ungrateful,” or made fun of my feelings. They called me names, and when I asked them to stop, that only made it worse. I can’t tell you the number of times that my mother would say something incredibly hurtful, and I would respond with anger, and she would say that it was my fault I felt that way. More specifically, she told me nearly every day that I had “serious anger issues.” I thought that was true for a long, long time. Until I stopped talking to her… and my anger “issues” disappeared.
On an episode of the podcast A New Perspective titled “on Breaking Up With Your Parents,” three people discuss their reasons for cutting off their toxic parents and how it has affected them since.
What Happens if I Don’t Separate From a Toxic Environment?
If you haven’t managed to make it clear to your parents that you’re done with them before they die, you’ll never get a chance. Instead, you’ll spend the rest of your life tormented with guilt, anger, abuse, and pain, without any way to move past it. Ewa says, “Death is never a solution. If a person doesn’t separate from their parents before they die, their demise won’t change anything. They’ll keep visiting their graves–if not physically, then symbolically.”