Deciding you’re better off without a family member in your life can be one of the hardest things to do – especially given the stigma surrounding estrangement.
Integrative counsellor Billie Dunlevy says that cutting off family members is ‘still seen as a huge taboo.’
She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Individuals who choose this self-protective path need support, not judgement. It’s not a decision anyone wants to have to make.
‘But while plenty of relationships can be mended and worked on, there are times when walking away from a relative is the healthiest and necessary choice to protect your well-being and peace.’
With that in mind, if you’re looking for signs it may be time to cut a relative out of your life, here are some to watch out for.
Repeated crossing of boundaries
If you try and set ground rules with a relative and they keep ignoring it, that’s a red flag.
Billie says: ‘Boundaries within relationships teach others how we would like to be treated, what we are ok with and what we will not accept. That might sound demanding to some people but it’s actually about good self-care and having a healthy self-esteem.
‘Direct communication can be vulnerable, but it is essential that we learn how to do it with practice. Many people worry that they are hurting other people’s feelings with honesty but when we can’t be open, misunderstandings are more likely to occur.
‘If you have, for example, let your family member know repeatedly that you don’t want them to come over to your house without first calling you to check you are free and that you’d like company and they still come over unannounced – they are not listening to you and honouring your boundaries.
You can’t be honest about your feelings without fighting
Yes, there are some feelings we’ll have that might not be good to share with our loved ones if we want to spare our feelings.
But if you’re constantly finding yourself keeping it buttoned up for the sake of avoiding a massive row, then Billie says that could be another sign to call it quits.
She explains: ‘If it is not safe or possible for you to talk about how you feel, to share your experiences with this family member without a blazing row – this may be a sign that it’s time to step away.’
It’s affecting your mental health
Ask yourself how maintaining contact with this person is making you feel.
‘More specifically,’ Billie clarifies, ‘pay attention to when continuing contact within the relationship is affecting your self-esteem and your self-worth.
‘If you feel like crap after interacting with this person or if you feel bad about yourself when telling your friends about this relationship, these are clues that something is off.’
They apologise, but their behaviour doesn’t change
Of course, everyone makes mistakes and no one can be the perfect family member all the time.
But if their problematic behaviour isn’t changing no matter how many times you’ve called them out, then you’ve got another red flag.
‘If someone repeatedly apologises for behaviour that is harmful or hurts you and then does not change their behaviour – this is a relationship red flag,’ says Billie.
However, she adds this as a caveat: ‘If someone is struggling with addiction or untreated mental health issues they may want to change but often, realistically, can’t without proper support or specialised treatment.
‘This doesn’t mean that you should accept harmful behaviour, or that addiction is not a valid reason for estrangement. It is often a contributing factor in many family estrangements.’
You have to play a part for the relationship to ‘work’
If the love is conditional, then you’ve got a problem.
‘When love or connection is conditional it often requires us to behave in a very narrow way – to not inhabit all of who we are,’ says Billie.
‘This can be very detrimental to our mental health. The role required of you could be as a carer or helper to this person or as a peacekeeper. You might have to play the role of dutiful son/daughter – the responsible one or the forgiving one.
‘Any deviation from this role results in conflict.’
The relationship requires you to compromise what you value
What are the things you hold dear? Does the person in question require you to compromise on these things to have a relationship with them?
Billie explains: ‘Knowing what we value is an important part of self-development.
‘If you value honesty for example and the relationship with the relative in question requires you to lie or if you value your privacy and the relationship does not accommodate that – you may want to walk away.’
Your body says ‘no’
Your body can send you some pretty strong messages when it comes to stress – so listen up.
‘It is not always easy to articulate completely why a relationship isn’t one that you want to continue with,’ Billie tells us.
‘We often ignore our body’s reaction to relationships, giving more importance to thoughts and feelings.
‘If you notice your body experiences tension, aches, stomach issues, extreme tiredness or sweaty palms and a racing heart during or after interactions with someone, then it is trying to send you a message that you might want to explore further.’
The relationship is not reciprocal
For a bond to be functional, it’s got to go both ways.
‘Reciprocity is a key element in healthy relationships,’ explains Billie.
‘A reciprocal relationship is one based on mutual respect where what we give, we also get back. This isn’t about scorekeeping though, it’s about balance.
‘If a relationship is lacking reciprocity it will feel one-sided. This could be that you are always calling them, taking an interest in their life and asking to see them, and they don’t do that for you.
‘It could be that you are thoughtful and understanding when they are stressed but if you are stressed they raise their voice and accuse you of being mean and unsupportive.’
The connection feels like a burden
In a similar vein to the above, being around someone you love should, by and large, feel beneficial – recharging you rather than draining you.
‘If a relationship leaves you consistently drained, if you feel like it provides you with very little and if it feels like a weight of responsibility or a drag,’ says Billie, ‘you might not want to continue with it.’
The relationship is intrusive
This red flag is similar to lacking respect for boundaries.
Billie explains: ‘If the relationship causes disruption to your life or is unwelcome and makes you feel uneasy this could be a red flag.
‘Intrusiveness can be experienced on a more somatic level (in the body) so pay attention to how you feel after interactions.’
There’s any form abuse
While this may not come as a surprise, it’s absolutely worth stressing: a family member subjecting you to any kind of abuse is grounds to cut them out of your life for good.
Billie concurs, saying: ‘Abuse of any kind is a valid reason to go no contact with a relative. There is no hierarchy within abuse. All kinds are unacceptable.
‘Even if abusive behaviour is quite normalised within your family, that doesn’t mean you have to take it and continue to have it be something that impacts you.
‘There is support available and people who want to help.’
Billie’s advice on support for people experiencing estrangement
Billie recommends a charity called Stand Alone, which exists specifically to support estranged adults.
She says: ‘Going no contact with a relative is rarely a simple decision. Even if people are very clear on why it’s not good for them to remain in contact with someone it’s normal to experience doubt, anger and sadness. Regardless of the quality of the relationship, there are often huge feelings of loss, especially when estranged from a parent. Our parents are meant to be our first attachments, the blueprints we are given of how to relate to others and ourselves. When people decide to go no contact, grieving the relationship in the way we wish that it had been, is a healthy part of processing. This can help us to move on in our lives to the chapters without them.
‘Therapy is a place where people can be supported in navigating the complexity of feelings and the impact that going no contact may have on a person. When family ties are cut people can find that they struggle in some of their other relationships. There is a knock-on effect. They might find it harder to trust people or fear being hurt getting close to someone new. We can also battle with our own self-image and what it means about us that we are estranged. Estrangement can cause loneliness and feelings of abandonment, even if we were the ones who called time on the relationship. When we are hurt by relationships, it is in relationships that we need to heal. Self-help and working on ourselves are great, but it can only take people so far. A therapeutic relationship is a significant way people can access support while experiencing estrangement.
‘Another way is to find other people who share similar experiences. Look for articles that have stories you can relate to and seek out communities and support groups. These can be online or in person. Although we don’t wish our difficulties on others, it is a relief not to feel alone. Estrangement is much more common that TV, films and people’s Instagram feeds would have us believe. Many families contain stories of estrangement going back generations.’
What about when there are children involved?
When it comes to deciding whether you need to cut off a disappointing ex for the sake of the child, psychotherapist Noel McDermott that choice should often be left to the kid in question.
He explains: ‘In cases where we are watching one of our kids being failed by another estranged ex-partner, we can be faced with significant concerns as they aren’t the one left to pick up the disappointed pieces of our child.
‘We may be tempted out of hurt and anger to want to stop the contact, but it’s important to be cautious about this. We have to listen to our children, not our hearts in this matter.
‘If they wish and require the contact with the neglectful parent, this needs to be supported as much as possible.
‘It’s useful to note a concept used in social services of risk versus protective factors in a child’s life. Although the failing parent will produce harm there are likely to be many protective factors that mitigate and you, the parent who is doing a good job, are almost certainly the biggest protective factor.
‘Or rather your steady, predictable, boundaries and loving relationship with your child is the protective factor that mitigates the harm of the neglectful parent.’
However, in cases of abuse, it’s a different matter altogether.
Noel says: ‘One of the scenarios which should not be difficult to draw boundaries on are relationships where our intimate partner is violent, controlling and abusive.
‘These are red line issues, and it’s important to leave in these types of situations.
‘There is evidence that someone who crosses that line with you has deep-seated problems that you cannot help them with and the abuse will get worse.
‘Usually, they will have a long history of abuse with other partners and you and any children you have are at significant risk of long term harm and possibly death. There are no protective factors here against the harm.’
He adds: ”Exposing your child to the violence of your abusive partner (even if the child is not the target, where they only witness it or see you in distress for example) is considered physical abuse and neglect. You could face prosecution under the Children Act as much as the violent person.
‘Exposure to intimate partner violence for children can do untold damage. A young child cannot make any meaningful distinction between, for example, their mum being attacked and themselves being attacked. It cannot be stated strongly enough that you must remove children from exposure to violence or the threat of violence. This is codified in law as well as in psychology. Absolutely you must protect your kids by getting them out of harm’s way.
‘The issues of angry and controlling behaviour are the same. Family courts understand this and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service will put a child’s safety first in any issue around a controlling and angry parent or carer. Angry controlling behaviours in intimate and familial relationships are the precursors to violence.’
Domestic abuse helpline
If you are in immediate danger call 999. If you cannot talk, dial 55 and the operator will respond.
For emotional support, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. Alternatively, for practical and emotional support, please contact Women’s Aid Live Chat 10am – 6pm seven days a week.
You can also reach the National Centre for Domestic Violence on 0800 270 9070 or text NCDV to 60777.
For free and confidential advice and support for women in London affected by abuse, you can call Solace on 0808 802 5565 or email [email protected]
Male victims of domestic abuse can call 01823 334244 to speak to ManKind, an initiative available for male victims of domestic abuse and domestic violence across the UK as well as their friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues and employers.
Alternatively, the Men’s Advice Line can be reached at 0808 8010327, or emailed at [email protected]
Degrees of Separation
This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.
Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.
If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]
Do you have a story to share?
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