Forgiveness never requires the co-signature of the person who hurt us. Staying connected is not the gold standard of proof you did your forgiveness work.
“I don’t want to talk to my mom anymore. Does that make me a terrible person?”
I hear some version of this question more and more in my therapy practice. As clients do the work of unpacking their “stuff,” they begin to see how problematic their relationships with some family members are. They begin to see how their fathers are emotionally disengaged, their siblings are critical and dismissive of them, their mothers are passive aggressive and unkind. The changes clients are making for themselves—taking better care of their needs, setting boundaries around their time and energy, being more authentic about their feelings—seems to trigger bad behavior in their loved ones. When these behaviors are pervasive or intense enough, the natural reaction is to consider avoiding our loved ones altogether; a thought that results in feelings of guilt and self-doubt for many of us who have been conditioned to see family as an unbreakable bond.
So what does it look like to break ties with a family member? There are plenty of articles out there that list all the “acceptable” reasons for distancing from a loved one. If they were physically abusive, emotionally abusive, in active addiction, we are given the social green light to cut ties. But inevitably we find an example of someone who suffered greatly at the hands of a parent, even physical or sexual abuse, yet is still able to have a relationship with them. Cue moral doubt, or the concern that our desire to end a relationship is a reflection of our own weakness, damage, or badness. “Maybe I’m too critical or unforgiving,” we say to ourselves when our upbringing doesn’t register as being bad enough to justify a split. Moral doubt keeps us stuck wanting a change but feeling incapable of moving forward.
Rather than trying to figure out whether or not a loved one harmed us “enough,” we would be better served by asking ourselves the following questions:
1. What is my urge to cut ties really about?
You may have heard when couples argue about money, they aren’t really arguing about money--they are arguing about what money represents. The same is often true when we are reconsidering our relationships with family. Close relatives become symbols of resources such as love, kindness, understanding, and security. Alternatively, family can come to symbolize traits we don’t want in our lives such as cruelty, dishonesty, and selfishness. Our urge to cut someone out might be a way of trying to get more of what we need and less of what we don’t.
We also initiate dramatic changes in relationships as a way of trying to get people to change. Maybe we want them to change for their own sake or for ours, regardless of our good intentions, ultimatums and threats are a recipe for resentment and helplessness. The alternative is to acknowledge the deep pain of not getting what we want from people we deeply care for. Beneath the urge to cut ties there is likely a longing for more from our loved ones—the wish that they were more nurturing, responsive, or understanding than they are. No amount of disengaging from someone who is unable to meet our needs makes our need go away. Creating distance can help us claim our right to kindness and respect, but what will we fill that space with? To heal, we need to learn to offer ourselves whatever we thought we could only get from our loved ones.
2. What "shoulds" do I carry about my family relationships?
“You shouldn’t contradict your mother.” “You shouldn’t question your father.” “You shouldn’t argue with your sister.” We all have a set of rules running in the background of our relationships, especially those with family. We are biologically conditioned to forge and maintain connections, and this need for closeness often gets distorted into unreasonable expectations of our first-degree relationships with family. These expectations become increasingly poignant as our own capacity for closeness and authenticity grows through our therapy work.
My experience as a therapist seems to point toward an increasing gap between parents and their adult children in areas of emotional authenticity and communication skills. Adults in their twenties and thirties that I meet with seem committed to expressing themselves more transparently, and often seek counseling to learn skills for speaking their truth when it’s hard—specifically when they want to bring more honesty and openness to their close relationships. The desire for more effective communication and more deeply connected relationships can bump up against longstanding beliefs about interacting with family. We learn that we shouldn’t confront our parents because it is disrespectful. We may also have a desire to keep our parents up on a pedestal and find it almost grief-inducing to acknowledge that we’ve surpassed our parents in the area of emotional wellness and awareness.
Learning skills for effective communication is only half the process of improving relationships, though. Think of it like learning a new language—If you learned Japanese and went back to your English-speaking family, no matter how fluent you are in your new language, they aren’t going to be able to understand you. They also aren’t likely to suddenly develop an interest in learning Japanese so they can connect with you in this new way. The effort to become more emotionally aware and expressive will absolutely help you with those relationships that have the bandwidth for growth, but not all relationships (or people) are that flexible.
Know your expectations for yourself and your family, hold them loosely and with compassion, and begin to familiarize yourself with those expectations that continue to go unmet. Your options likely boil down to adjusting your expectations or adjusting the amount you expose yourself to disappoint by creating distance.
3. Where is forgiveness needed?
If I could forgive them, I wouldn’t need to end the relationship! Not so. Forgiveness comes wrapped in so many misconceptions. Phrases like “forgive and forget” imply we should pretend trespasses and hurts never occurred as a function of real forgiveness. Let’s plant an important seed: Forgiveness is acceptance of the truth of our hurt and the decision to put our anger, bitterness, and resentment down for our own sake. No where in the definition of forgiveness is there any recommendation for how to proceed with the person who caused us harm (annoying I know!). When a loved one has caused repeated harm, the forgiveness work is to warm ourselves by the fire of our own heart’s compassion. Only when we feel replenished and nurtured through our own healing should we make decisions about how a relationship will look with the person who hurt us.
When it comes to longstanding relationships with family, chances are, our loved ones aren’t the only ones who have caused harm. Even if we hurt some feelings in reaction to harmful behavior, we still have to hold ourselves accountable (read: offer ourselves forgiveness). Sometimes we lack clarity about whether or not to end a relationship because we are not acknowledging our part in the negativity. Once we acknowledge that we participated in a harmful dance with a loved one, we can compassionately offer ourselves forgiveness and the path will start to become clearer. Resentment, whether held toward ourselves or another person, is an obscuration on the path of growth and healing. Forgiveness is the antidote that makes the path clear. Important note: forgiveness never requires the co-signature of the person we are in conflict with to be healing. Being able to maintain a relationship with someone that caused you pain is a reflection of both people’s capacity for taking ownership and making effective repairs—staying connected is not the gold standard of proof you did your forgiveness work.
I know you’re waiting for me to give you a clear formula for when to bail and when to stay with your family member (#sorrynotsorry). The reality I am trying to embrace is that the answer or outcome is not nearly as important as a compassionate process. Here are some final bullet points for thinking through your next steps:
The more we learn to take care of ourselves in ways our families were unable to, the more we will naturally direct our energy to those relationships that help us be our best selves. As we deepen our connection to ourselves, our loved ones may just surprise us and rise to the challenge of being more open-hearted, they might not. Sometimes the most grown up thing we can do is shut the door on relationships that cause harm, even when the world is telling us it’s unacceptable to do so. Other times, our work is to stay in our generosity and reconceptualize bad behavior as evidence of someone else’s broken heart. If we are acting with as much compassion as we can muster, there isn’t a wrong answer.
Dr. Candice Creasman
Therapist, author, and counselor educator. Articles with tips and tools for living your most authentic and joyful life.