What to do if a family member cuts ties with you

Any bond, even one you share with someone you’re related to, can be broken.

It’s a truth plenty of people might be uncomfortable with, but many of us have found that cutting ties with a damaging family member is for the best.

But while there are plenty of very valid reasons to call time on toxic family relationships, what happens if you’re on the receiving end of an estrangement you don’t understand; one that’s based on cruelty over something like your sexuality or gender identity rather than self-preservation?

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott says it’s important not to blame yourself, ever.

He adds: ‘This type of cruelty from your birth family to you is wholly a sign of their pathology.’

When asked whether it could ever be worth trying to find a way back into the life of the person who cut you off, or holding out hope for a reconciliation, Noel says: ‘As a rule, it is only worth moving into healthy relationships and healthy ways of living.

‘Health is attractive and if there is a possibility of rapprochement it will come from you inhabiting a position of strength.

‘Don’t go back, go forward. Don’t think in terms of respecting their wishes, but of respecting yourself. Treat yourself with compassion and get the love you are entitled to.’

There’s a certain coldness with which you should ideally come to regard the role of the now-estranged family member in your life in times like these, because these roles can be filled with a chosen family instead.

Yes, the person you’ve lost may have held a vital and constant position in your life from childhood, and therefore feel intrinsic to who you are, but this cruelty makes them replaceable.

Noel explains: ‘Remember that family roles are just that, roles adopted to (hopefully) meet the needs of the members – it’s not genetics. Why [these relationships] feel different is because we may have had a particular person in our life from childhood, for example, so they feature in our personality structure. 

‘We can, and many people do, replace those roles and get the needs associated with them from non-genetically related people. Outside of estrangement situations, a “mother” can be reformulated as a “feminine, nurturing, person in position of authority”. So a teacher may act in the role psychologically for us, or a female boss etc.

‘Similarly, a “father” can be reconstituted as a “masculine, nurturing, person in authority” and so on. The reformulations can be made for those who are non-binary, lesbian, gay male, trans etc. It’s the boundaries of the relationship that matter and all the family roles can be thought of in this way and everyday substitutions be found or indeed chosen in a self-aware way.’

It’s through this perspective that people can more easily start to find others to fill the holes their disappointing relative left in their lives.

‘With family breakdown,’ Noel goes on, ‘it’s crucial that the person being excluded looks at the loss in this relatively cold way and work to put replacements in their life. 

‘So if the rejection is because of sexuality, for example, go join support groups and talk about your needs. Allow yourself to be “adopted”.

That being said, you also need to give yourself time to mourn the broken relationship, which may well feel as painful as a bereavement. 

‘Allow yourself to grieve the loss because that is an affirmation of your humanity, capacity to love and health,’ Noel explains.

‘Embrace the hurt – it will be understood in the groups you join. You may want to create a bereavement ritual, to bury them [so to speak].

‘This can take many forms and a quick online search will give you ideas of rituals that may work for you to experience the loss. A therapist may also be able to help you think about it.’

And remember to please be gentle with yourself.

‘You are not wrong or bad,’ Noel stresses.

‘You are perfect as yourself, and you are deserving of love.

‘Tell yourself that every morning and every night.’

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