What to Do When a Close Family Tie Breaks Down
Who doesn’t wish for a close family with indestructible ties? The word “family” creates an image of love, nurture, and deep relationships between all relatives. A family is the fundamental core of us and includes a history of past generations.
The family gives you a sense of security, a place to go to when everything around you seems to be falling apart. It’s the one place where you expect your relatives to have your back. But, what happens when close ties start to break down?
Not all families are made up of loving parents, caring siblings, and doting grandparents. And, even closely-knitted families can start to break apart when one person or another no longer see eye to eye.
What do you do when a close family tie starts to break down? Sometimes, it happens and while it’s heartbreaking, it can be the experience you need to grow and expand yourself.
What is a Close Family Tie?
In a healthy relationship, close family ties include aspects of unconditional love where you respect and accept each other for who and what you are. It’s about having the ability to understand the other even if their behavior doesn’t align with your personal values.
In healthy, close family ties, there’s mutual respect, a willingness to disagree at times without throwing your toys out the cot, and not needing to control or manipulate the other. It’s a full acceptance that each member of the family plays an essential role in the unit.
But, it’s also a full acceptance that as each member grows into an adult, they have their own free will to live their life as they choose. This includes accepting your adult children’s spouses, your parents’ choice to go back to work, or your grandparents’ decision to spend all your inheritance on a luxury holiday!
In an ideal world, close family ties are special, strong, and vital to your existence. However, we’re not living in an ideal world and close family ties don’t always turn out the way we want them to.
What Happens When a Close Family Tie Breaks Down
Close family ties do break down and often when you least expect them to. They can happen between a mother and her daughter, between two siblings, or between grandchildren and their grandparents.
An unhealthy relationship with a relative can be toxic. It can also be soul-destroying and takes a lot of deep introspection to decide whether to continue the relationship or not. You may only begin to realize what you once thought was a close tie with your parent, sibling, or grandparent is actually destructive to your personal development.
And, this awareness may only surface years down the line, when you become an adult yourself.
When you’ve identified a strained relationship with a certain family member, you may experience a host of uncomfortable feelings. These could include any of the following:
These feelings may be heightened when the strained relationship is with a parent or sibling who you always thought was the closest family member you could trust...always. It’s only natural to assume your mother or father, sister or brother, loves you unconditionally simply because you’re their child or sibling. Isn’t that what being a family is all about, after all?
When close ties with a family member break down you start to doubt yourself. You ask yourself endless questions. What did I do wrong? Am I so unlovable? When did it all go wrong? Is it my fault? And, so on.
You may or may not decide to push through with the relationship anyway because isn’t that what families do? But, if you’ve decided you can no longer endure abuse, emotional detachment, or ghosting from your family member, it’s time to decide what to do with the relationship.
I love the advice five amazing people (including Oprah Winfrey) share in this video about dealing with toxic people.
Steps to Take When Facing a Break Down in Close Family Ties
Recently, I had a tearful 54-year old client in my consultation room. She was devastated as she had begun to realize her mother no longer cared for her.
“I always thought I came from a close family. I had such a happy childhood. My parents always gave us everything we needed. But, in the past seven years, my mother and my sister have started to alienate me from them. I’ve tried talking to my mother but she avoids any confrontation. We haven’t spoken to each other for six months now.”
The more we unpacked the situation, the more my client realized her mother wasn’t available for her emotionally, even as a little girl. She also identified that her mother constantly put her on a guilt trip. Her mother demonstrated typical behavior traits of a victim, often resorting to passive-aggressive actions. Over time, my client began to let the relationship go.
But, before taking the drastic but necessary step of releasing her close family tie with her mother (and sister), my client undertook a deep, self-reflection journey. She used these questions to guide her through the process.
1. What’s the Historical Story?
Looking back over your family life are you able to identify more negative than positive experiences with the family member you’re severing ties with? Have they always been there for you or have they let you down before?
Parents who battle to have any emotional connection with you as a young child aren’t likely to change when you become an adult. Unless they’ve recognized this and undergone therapy to find ways of connecting with you.
Negative and abusive patterns in the family lead to toxic relationships. However, it’s often not easy to break free of these abusive relatives. But, recognizing this historical story and seeing the patterns continue will help you to determine whether there’s any hope of reconciling with your parent.
2. How Will it Affect Other Family Members?
Choosing to break ties with a close family member will affect other members of the unit. You may be called out for breaking “ranks” or your siblings and other relatives may choose to side with your mother. Family members may also beg you to put up with the abusive relative simply to “keep the peace.”
Depending on how the other family members react to you cutting ties with your mother (or any other relative), you may find yourself isolated from the group. This can be painful and scary especially when you’ve relied on your family for love, financial, and practical support.
3. How Will Your Own Children React?
If you have children of your own, you’ll need to decide if severing ties with their grandmother will break down your relationship with them as well. A grandchild’s relationship with a grandparent is special. It’s one that should always be encouraged as long as it’s healthy and beneficial to the child’s growth.
To avoid your kids getting caught in the middle of an unhappy estrangement, you’ll have to be absolutely honest with yourself. If the relationship between your mother and children is loving, caring, and nurturing, you need to be willing to let your kids continue seeing her.
4. How is This Relationship Affecting my Own Family?
Healthy families don’t get entangled with each other. When you leave home and start your own family, they should come first. And, your parents and siblings should accept this. However, there are many families who can’t draw the line between the original unit and the extended family. This results in stress and strain between yourself and your spouse as well as your children.
If your mother is unable to accept the boundary between herself and your family, you may need to consider cutting ties. Of course, it depends on how toxic her influence is to your family. And, how much her manipulation is causing you to feel guilty for letting her down by creating your own family.
5. Does Your Role Serve You?
Growing up in a family often means you get labeled for certain behaviors. Perhaps you were constantly trying to keep the peace between your parents and siblings so they called you the “people pleaser.” Maybe you were always trying to be the princess so you became “Daddy’s girl” or the “baby.” And, if you didn’t like how your family tried to follow the straight and narrow, you rebelled and became known as the “black sheep.”
When you decide to “grow up” and change your role because it no longer serves you, certain family members, including your mother, might not be comfortable with it. They no longer have a person to blame for all their own actions. She starts to ghost you and no matter how much you try to reach out, she refuses to engage. Now is the time to cut ties with her and move on.
6. How Do You Feel Around This Person?
One of the best ways to gauge if a person is good for you or not is how they make you feel when you’re around them. If you constantly find yourself getting frustrated, angry, or feeling worthless around your mother, it could be a reflection of what she thinks about you.
A close family will always show unconditional love even if you are the “black sheep” or “the people pleaser.” They get you and accept you for what you are. And, you always feel loved whenever you’re with your family.
But, if you keep walking away from an engagement with your mother feeling unloved, guilty, ashamed, or alone, then something is not working between the two of you. Be careful of projection, from your side and your mother’s. But, if you can truly identify your mother is incapable of giving you the love you need, then walk away.
7. Can You Find a Way to Reconcile?
Cutting ties with your mother or any other close family member is a traumatic experience. You’re finally having to admit that what you thought was special between the two of you, meant nothing to the other person. Letting go of a close family member is one of the hardest things to do but when it’s detrimental to your own wellbeing, it can’t go on.
But, have you tried to find ways of reconciling with your mother? If you have and every attempt was met with a cold shoulder or an outright denial that anything’s wrong, maybe it’s time to cut ties. When a resolution can’t be found, forcing the relationship to work will only create more cracks.
Choosing to cut ties with a close family member doesn’t happen overnight. It’s often the result of years of abuse, non-commitment, an inability to show any love, and resentment towards one person. When you’re at the receiving end of this kind of treatment, you may feel desperately sad.
But, if you take your personal growth and development seriously, and want to live surrounded by those who do love you, then cutting ties may be the only solution. It’s not a decision to take lightly but if you’ve done the deep soul-searching work and decide it’s best for your overall wellbeing, it could be the most uplifting step you ever take for yourself.
Some More Useful Tips
Read 'Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Understanding the Crucial Link Between Mothers, Daughters, and Health" by Christiane Northrup, M.D. if you want to explore more about mother-daughter relationships.
Capturing your self-reflections in a journal is a good way of understanding why the relationship no longer serves you. The exercise of journaling also helps you to express your feelings in a safe space and often come up with solutions.
"Let That Sh*t Go: A Journal for Leaving Your Bullsh*t Behind and Creating a Happy Life" is the perfect book for this exercise!
Treat yourself to a Morse Code Sterling Silver Bracelet with a Self-Love message to remind you just how special you are.
This post was originally published on September 7th, 2021, and updated on March, 2nd 2022.
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