As the song goes, breaking up is hard to do. Especially when the person you're kicking to the curb isn't a love interest or pal, but a family member (more on breaking up with a friend here). Sure, we all have daydreams about finally telling off our overbearing mother-in-law or blocking an annoying aunt's phone number, but actually working up the nerve to do so? Not easy at all.
"Growing up, we all hear 'blood is thicker than water,' and 'when all else fails, you'll always have your family,' which instills the message that family ties aren't supposed to be broken," said Jamye Waxman, MEd, author of “How to Break Up With Anyone: Letting Go of Friends, Family, and Everyone In-Between.”
Add to that, she says, women tend to get put into roles of martyr and savior, the one who is supposed to sacrifice and make peace, which makes it even more challenging to break up with a relative. (Make YOUR well-being a priority this year! Join Prevention and other leading minds in health & wellness for our annual R3 Summit.)
Still, sometimes saying goodbye is for the best. Stressful relationships, including those with relatives, can increase the risk of high blood pressure, weaken your immune system, cause headaches and stomachaches, lead to sleep problems, lower self-esteem, and cause depression and anxiety. So ditching that toxic family member can be good for your health (if you need another excuse). Here's what to do when you're thinking about unraveling the ties that bind.
Take a deep breath.
Generally, when a family relationship ends, it's on the heels of a huge blow up—a heated argument, one too many critical remarks, or a tiff over an unpaid loan. Before you write off a relative, cool down. Don't make impulsive, hasty decisions about family members you've had conflicts with because you may say or do something you'll regret, said Steven J. Hanley, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Southfield, MI. A better choice, he says, is to take a breather, let it all sink in, and then decide how you want to proceed.
Evaluate the relationship.
Take some time and really think about why you're considering ending it. Is whatever that has pushed you to the limit something new? Or has the behavior been ongoing for a while? In addition to the downsides, are there any positives to the relationship? If so, do they outweigh the bad? Will ending the relationship with this person affect the ones you have with other family members?
Deciding if a relationship is worth keeping or not can be tough, but here are some signs that it's time to call it quits.
• There's abuse. Any physical, verbal, or emotional abuse is reason to terminate the relationship immediately. Don't worry about any possible fallout from others in the family. Your safety and wellbeing are what's most important. (Learn 5 signs you're in an abusive relationship.)
• It's affecting other areas of your life. If the situation has you so stressed or angry that it's having a negative effect on other parts of your life, like your job performance or sleep habits, it may be time to walk away.
• Your interactions are mostly negative. All relationships have ups and downs, but, if your dealings are negative more often than not—your sister criticizes you, nitpicks, or starts an argument every time you're in each other's presence—it's time to check out. And the negativity doesn't have to be directed at you necessarily. It could be your mother calling with a daily laundry list of complaints about her life, which causes your own mood to plummet.
• The person makes you sick. If just the mention of the relative's name, or a text message, email, or a voicemail from the person puts a huge knot in your stomach, that's a clue the relationship has become unhealthy, said Dr. Mark Goulston, a clinical psychiatrist and author of “Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life.”
• The relationship is one-sided. Healthy relationships are a balance of give and take. If your cousin only calls to borrow money or vent about her problems, but never reciprocates, she may be using you (or at the very least, not being a good friend).
• It's affecting your immediate family. Hanley said if maintaining the relationship is harmful to your spouse or children—for instance, your mom clearly favors one of your children while neglecting the others—you may need to take a step back for your family's sake.
• There's substance abuse or criminal behavior. Yes, family support is important when someone is battling addiction; however, that doesn't mean that you have to allow the substance abuse to have a negative impact on your own life. The same goes for any criminal behavior. Don't let a relative's misdeeds put you or your family at risk.
• Know your role. "Even though you may think the other person is the problem, it takes two to tango," Waxman said.
Step back and look at some of your own actions. For instance, do you always assume your dad is going to say something negative, which causes you to go in on the defensive (and he in turn to do the same)? Or is it possible that your younger sister goes against everything you say because she feels you treat her like a child? Once you have clarity and see things you could possibly do differently, you may realize it's possible to salvage the relationship.
Talk it out.
If you think there's a chance to repair the connection, arrange to have a conversation (in person or by phone) with your relative. Discuss the biggest issues, take ownership of any part you played in the situation, and then discuss the future. For example, if you and your younger sister always butt heads after you give her advice, you could say, "We've been arguing a lot lately, and I've realized part of that is because I often tell you what to do, like I know what's best for you. However, I also get angry when you ask for advice and then get mad when I give it. I think if we could both be more conscious of those things, we would have a better relationship. What do you think?"
Then, listen. Your sister may disagree, have her own ideas about what can help mend things, or she may not want to bother at all. If the two of you do decide to go forward, set a deadline.
"You don't necessarily have to tell the other person, 'I'm giving this three months,' but in your head, at least, you need to give yourself a certain amount of time to allow both of you to work on your parts," Waxman said.
Then, if there's still no improvement, you can revisit how you're going to deal with the relationship.
You may realize that you're not quite at the point of being done completely, but you do want to enforce some distance. It's perfectly fine to keep interactions short, not accept calls at times (like when you're in a good mood and your mom is calling with another one of her energy-sapping whinefests); agree not to discuss hot-button topics, or establish boundaries, like telling your father-in-law you won't tolerate his negative remarks about your weight.
Make the cut.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a relationship is unsalvageable or we don't want to repair it. Unless there's abuse (or you're ending things with a second cousin you only see once a year at the family reunion), you should have a conversation when giving someone the boot. Yes, it's easier to fade away but that doesn't allow closure for either of you. Also, if you try the route where you keep saying you're busy until the person gets the hint, that can cause even more resentment to build because you may feel as though you're being forced to lie, Goulston said.
Fortunately, the "it's over" conversation doesn't have to be long or dramatic. It can be a 5-minute conversation in which you say, "I've realized our actions together have not been healthy. I don't want to do this anymore," says Waxman. Answer any questions but don't get reeled back in. If the person gets overly accusatory or starts acting crazy, don't let the situation escalate. Goulston advised saying, "Why don't we stop the conversation here." Then end it.
Deal with the family.
Unfortunately, cutting off one relative doesn't only affect that person.
"When you make the decision to sever ties, there's oftentimes some collateral damage," Hanley said.
Some family members will try to make you feel guilty; others may accuse you of breaking up the family; and some relationships might even dissolve. Shut down any guilt tripping or accusatory conversations. Waxman suggested saying something like, "I'm sorry you feel I'm ruining the family. I love this family! I'm doing what I think is best to take care of myself." Setting those boundaries will be difficult at first, but stick to your guns and remind yourself that you're doing this for your self-care.
Keep it cordial.
As much as you'd like to be done with the relative completely, you're likely to run into each other at future family gatherings. To avoid sticky situations, let your family members know it's okay to invite both of you to events. It's not fair to make them choose. If you don't think you can handle being in the other person's presence, it should be you who doesn't attend since you were the one to do the breaking up, says Waxman. When you do see each other, be cordial. You don't have to get into a full-fledged conversation; simply greet him or her and then move on, Waxman said. Breaking the ice but keeping contact to a minimum will make the event less awkward for everyone, she explains. (It also makes it easier to reconnect with that family member later.)
Another time to take the high road is when you face questions about what happened. Yes, people will be curious, but it's better to keep the details between the person you cut off and yourself. Don't talk about how "wrong" the other person did you; don't gossip about her, share secrets she once told you, or try to get others to "be on your side." Your goal is peace, not to ignite a family feud.
Have a good support system.
Breaking up with a family member can be freeing, but it also causes a lot of emotional upheaval. It's normal to feel anger, guilt, resentment, and loneliness.
"You're sort of mourning the loss of someone that, presumably, you loved or felt loved by, or wanted to feel loved by, which can be very tough," Hanley said.
Look for sources of support. Talk to your spouse or a trusted friend (not family members, to keep down drama) about what you're feeling, or join a support group. If you're having difficulty working through the harm the relationship caused or coping with the dissolution of the relationship, Hanley recommended seeking professional help.