On cutting family ties

Some of us have amazing families with strong, wonderful, supportive relationships. Our families are our friends and we love sharing our lives with them. Others of us do not — some or all of our family members are unhealthy, toxic, cruel, or any number of other things that make them bad news bears to be around. For those with fraught family relationships, the cultural expectation that ‘family is family’ and you owe people who have genetic connections some sort of debt can be really damaging, making it extremely hard to cut ties.

Two months ago, this country made some devastating choices at the ballot box. These things are related because in the coming years, the most marginalised among us need our families, both genetic and found. We rely on these ties for support and safety but also to help keep us alive. The people we think of as family are vital, but also must earn those spots in our lives. And that makes this a particularly good time to talk about an issue I have’t discussed in a few years.

Some people decide to cultivate their families more carefully than others, and that is sometimes an incredibly healthy and necessary thing. If you are struggling with one or more family members who make you feel unsafe, who don’t support you, who put a heavy burden on you, you are allowed — not that you need my permission — to decide that you do not need to have those people in your life anymore. It isn’t just acceptable to cut off family members who are hurting you. Sometimes, it’s something that you actually need to do, for everyone’s benefit. And sometimes you need the extra nudge of someone affirming your choice, which is why I bring it up.

But I have words for the rest of you, too. If you have a friend or family member who is opting to cut relatives out of their life, you need to support them or get out of the way. Don’t question people about their decisions — the reasoning may be complicated and private, it may involve stories that are not this person’s to tell. Trust that people know their own health and safety, their own comfort, their own boundaries, and that they are in a better position to make personal decisions about their relationships than you are.

Maybe you don’t feel comfortable cheering them on, but don’t make it more difficult by questioning them. By demanding that they give someone one more chance. That they think about the needs and desires of other people and how it may make others feel. It takes a lot to drive most people to the point of deciding to cut ties with family, and that usually includes a number of second and third chances in addition to being agonised over how people might feel — if you are selectively opting to avoid certain relatives, believe me, you are thinking about the impact that will have on others. People don’t need outsiders to a situation breathing down their backs about it.

And yes, even if you are a family member, you are an outsider to the specific dynamics someone has with someone else. You may not know the entirety of the series of events that led to the decision to cut someone off, on either side — or you may have a very skewed story from one side, or your recollections of family gatherings. If someone hasn’t volunteered that information, that’s because they do not think that it is your business, and fluttering around the periphery demanding things isn’t going to help.

But be aware that sometimes people cut family members off for really intimate, awful reasons, like molestation, sexual assault, incest, physical abuse, or emotional abuse. If they don’t talk about it, it’s probably because it’s really painful. If you keep insisting that it can’t be that big a deal, you will be hurting people. If people ask you to stop, stop. If people say that they really do need you to pick a side even if you don’t have a lot of information, you need to respect that. If you aren’t prepared to do that, say so, but be prepared to hear that someone feels unsafe around you. What you see as being Switzerland may feel to them like supporting abuse.

People also don’t need would-be mediators or intermediaries. Typically at the early stages of a conflict, people try to work it out between each other. If that doesn’t work, they may enlist friends and/or family to help them figure out a solution that works. If that doesn’t, they’re done. Volunteering to help mediate or oversee ‘one last chance’ doesn’t help anyone and can make the situation more stressful, because now one or both parties feel obligated to do something they do not want to do, and it will go badly and be very ugly and unpleasant, with the potential for large fallout. Accept that two people don’t want to speak to each other, see each other, or be involved with one another.

Someone may ask if you can help them retrieve belongings, or coordinate things to ensure they’re not at the same events, and that’s a useful service you can offer that doesn’t necessarily explicitly involve taking sides. You can make that clear to all parties involved if you’re worried about that.

It’s possible for people to reconcile after months or years, and maybe that will happen here. But maybe it won’t. Don’t push it — make sure that someone who felt unsafe enough to take a huge step feels comfortable enough to relax around you, because your respect and kindness mark you as true family,  and that’s going to be an extremely important thing in the very near future.

Image: Family, Kat Grigg, Flickr