What to Expect When Cutting Ties With Parents or Family

Updated August 10, 2021
Woman sitting with her daughter on the sofa at home and not talking

Cutting ties with a family member can be an agonizing process. First, it is not an easy decision to make, and second, the uncertainty of what life will look like afterward may lead you to have some doubts. Knowing if cutting ties with family is the best thing for you, and what to expect if you decide to do it, can help the rocky road be a bit smoother.

What Are the Signs That I Should Cut Ties With Family?

People find that cutting ties with a family member who is toxic is best for their health and happiness. It is estimated that 43 percent of people cut ties with a family member at some point in their lives. Various possible reasons you might consider estranging someone include:

  • The person is abusive toward you.
  • Their behavior is hurtful, chaotic, and highly uncomfortable to be around.
  • The parent or family member is unreliable.
  • The person refuses to accept you for who you are, for example, for your sexual orientation.
  • You want to protect your own children from an unhealthy dynamic.

If you are very torn about what to do, you might consider seeking help from a therapist. They are an objective yet empathic party who can help you make the decision you feel is best for you.

What Can I Expect to Happen After Cutting Ties With Family?

Even after making a decision that is ultimately best for you, there will initially be an adjustment period. Knowing what to expect during this time can help ease the process. To illustrate this process a bit better, consider this vignette of a therapy client; the person's name has been changed to protect her identity.

Sally had a father who was intermittently in and out of her life. She wanted very much for her children to know their grandfather. However, he had disappointed her time and time again, so she was not able to trust or rely on him. Sally described her experience with him as a roller coaster of emotions, as she hoped for a loving father.

However, his behavior showed her that he was not going to change. She was feeling emotionally exhausted and depressed as she gave him one chance after another. In addition, Sally didn't want his lack of dependability to affect her children the same way. She therefore decided to cut ties with him because "It was affecting everything in my life, my relationships, and how I felt about myself. I needed to stand up for myself and stop letting him treat me like garbage."

Feelings of Grief

After Sally removed her father from her life, she felt unexpected emotions. She grieved for the loss of her father as if he had passed away. However, Sally later had the insight that she missed the idea of having a loving father rather than missing her actual father himself. "He was never really there for me in the first place. After I cut ties with him, I could no longer tell myself that one day we might have a real relationship. It made the reality set in and I mourned my loss."

The grief process is not linear. You might adjust after some time, but later experience a resurgence of sadness and a sense of loss during special occasions like birthdays, Mother's Day or Father's Day, or holidays.

Unresolved Issues

Sally also said, "Sometimes, I just want to call him up and let him know how disappointed I feel that he never made more of an effort to be in my life."

If you make a decision to cut ties with your parents or other family members, you might have to accept that you will never be able to explain to them how their behaviors hurt you; you will have to find ways to make peace with the past on your own. Also, depending on the family member and their personality, trying to resolve issues with them may be futile anyway, especially if you are dealing with someone who is narcissistic.

Closeup of man with father looking on

Estrangement From Another Family Member

If your parents are married and have an alliance with each other, cutting ties with one of them could mean cutting ties with both. The parent whom you still want in your life may side with the parent you are cutting off. This can leave you feeling even more rejected and hurt.

Furthermore, cutting ties with one individual can lead to a ripple effect. Because unhealthy family structures are heavily intertwined, when one piece is removed (you), this creates an unbalanced and uncomfortable situation that impacts the remaining members on an unconscious level. This discomfort can lead grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings to reach out and attempt to bring you back into your role, which would restore the family's unhealthy, yet familiar, homeostasis. Or, you may experience harsh rejection.

It can be helpful to prepare yourself mentally for such costs of your decision. At the same time, if the person whom you leave behind in your life was very toxic for you, you might find that you are willing to deal with the costs for the benefit of being mentally, emotionally and/or physically safer overall.

Experience of Stigma

There can be stigma associated with estrangement from a family member, which has led to some people feeling unsupported in their decision. This can also be why it is not spoken of very often. You don't have to feel pressured to disclose something so personal to anyone. If you do choose to tell someone about the estrangement for whatever reason, be sure it is someone you trust.

Increased Quality of Life

Because so many family estrangements are due to unhealthy relationships or abuse, many people have reported that cutting ties had positive effects on them, such as greater personal growth, healing, and increased happiness.

Possibility of Reconciliation

Keep in mind that nothing you decide is set in stone, so if you opt to reconnect but with different boundaries, you may be able to do so if the other party is amenable.

Protect Yourself

Deciding whether to cut someone out of your life is a difficult decision. Considering costs, benefits and potential outcomes can help you prepare. A therapist can help you cope with the process, or you can seek emotional support from a trusted friend as well. At the end of the day, you have to do what is best for your well-being.

What to Expect When Cutting Ties With Parents or Family