One of the most challenging aspects of the human experience is negative familial relationships. In particular, strained or toxic relationships with a parent can be incredibly hard to contend with both in childhood and in adulthood. Personality conflicts with a sibling, aunt/uncle, or cousins can make it hard to stay connected and can lead to a lot of stress and internal turmoil. Sometimes this results in family estrangement.
In our culture we often hear the following tropes to describe the importance of preserving the family bond:
Family is forever.
Family is everything.
Family is family.
Blood is thicker than water.
All of these statements speak to the value of making and keeping family a priority regardless of the quality of the relationships that exist within any particular family unit. This, I feel, is an unfortunate error in our thinking and behavior.
Not all families are created equal. Not all individuals within a family are capable of the type of connection that meet the needs of the other members of the family. Sometimes the individuals within a family unit have very different values, ideals, and ways of getting their needs met in the world.
Sometimes those things create conflict that can not be overcome.
In other cases there is abuse or neglect in families. Physical, emotional, mental and sexual abuse happen most often in the context of family. Early experiences with abandonment, often our first experiences with abandonment, happen when a parent leaves physically or emotionally.
When any of these struggles happen to an individual, their experience should inform their choices on whether or not they want to maintain those relationships into adulthood. It is a very personal decision and one that only that individual can make.
The choice to go “No Contact” with a family member is often one of the most challenging decisions of an individual’s life. Family estrangement is not easy.
If you know someone that struggles with their family relationships, instead of reminding them that “family is family” I suggest you do the following instead:
- listen to them
- do your best to understand them
- unless they ask specifically for your advice, don’t offer any
- imagine what it would be like to have had their experience
- be kind
- respect their ability to choose what is best for them
- tend to your own judgments and feelings that arise
If you are struggling with guilt or anxiety as the result of a relationship with a family member that does not feel healthy or supportive, reach out for help. You are not alone.