How To Tell When It's Finally Time To Sever Ties With Toxic Family Members

As a society, we're talking more and more openly about the importance of leaving toxic romantic relationships. But, sadly, toxicity can manifest beyond intimate partnerships, even rotting away our most fundamental family connections. As a result, more and more people are struggling with a major decision — whether it's better to endure a toxic family member or cut ties to protect their own well-being.


As it turns out, this kind of estrangement is more common than you might think. A 2015 study in the Journal of Psychology & Behavioral Science reveals that more than 40% of people have experienced a family estrangement at some point in their lives. But what does this relationship-ending toxicity look like in a family environment?

Andrew Roffman, director of the Family Studies Program at NYU Langone Health, tells Parents that toxic behaviors "are missing an essential ingredient — regard for the emotional experience and well-being of another person." Instead of caring or empathetic, toxic individuals are more likely to be abusive, hurtful, or manipulative.

And this kind of relationship dynamic can feel even worse when it's coming from a member of your own family. As Roffman expounds, "Toxicity of this behavior is amplified in families as family life is, ideally, the context where one wants and needs to feel safest, securest, and most cared for and accepted." In short, family should be a safe space. If the opposite is true, and spending time with your family is a major cause of upset in your life, you may need to examine your relationships for signs that it's finally time to step away and enforce some distance from toxic family members.


When all of your interactions are negative

One hallmark of a toxic family relationship is relentless negativity. Perhaps you dread calling your mother, because you know it will end up turning into a verbal haranguing that leaves you sobbing into the phone. Or maybe spending time with your siblings always leaves a bad taste in your mouth, because they undermine your self-esteem and intentionally try to goad you into arguments. If you always hate interacting with a certain family member, that's a major red flag.


Look at it this way: If this person was just a normal friend or acquaintance, would you stick around for such treatment? Probably not. Healthy, loving relationships are built on reciprocity. So if one person is only serving up negativity, belittlement, or aggression, what's the value of maintaining that relationship in your life?

As Psychology Today suggests, it's perfectly acceptable to end a familial relationship if there's nothing positive to be gained from it. When deciding whether to remove a family member from your life, compare what you have to lose versus what you have to gain, and it may become clear that your life will be better off with some space.

When they won't acknowledge their toxic traits

It can be tough for anyone to accept criticism gracefully. But this can turn into an insurmountable hurdle to repairing damaged or toxic family relationships. Even if you're trying to improve things by discussing a family member's hurtful behavior, they may avoid responsibility in a number of ways.


One common, knee-jerk reaction is denial. You may describe a problem in your relationship, only to have your family member respond with, "That's not true," or, "I don't do that." This can even escalate into gaslighting. Much like you may see signs of gaslighting in an unhealthy romantic relationship, a toxic family member may try to rewrite history to support their version of events. As you describe a specific memory, gaslighters may dispute the details and accuse you of being crazy or misremembering.

Put on the defensive, a toxic family member may also refuse to believe that they're in the wrong. For example, a toxic parent may try to cite reasons that their behavior is acceptable, such as the fact that they're older, wiser, or experienced the same thing from their parents. Or they may even try to shift blame for the strained relationship onto you, saying, "I only behave this way because you're so disobedient/disrespectful/etc." As relationship expert Nedra Tawwab tells Self, "They may say, 'Eh, let's just move past this,' or try to make you believe that the problem is you, not the situation they're creating."


Unfortunately, if you're dealing with a toxic family member who won't even acknowledge their negative behaviors, then there's not much hope that they'll change their ways anytime soon. That means either resigning yourself to going through the same toxic patterns or resolving to limit contact with them until the situation evolves into something better.

When their behavior never seems to change

While some toxic family members refuse to consider their own faults or culpability, others will try to allay your concerns with promises like, "I can do better" or "I can change." Of course, sometimes people say this with genuine intent to work on themselves. What matters is whether or not they follow through — because in some cases, these reassurances are just lip service to get you off their back.


The first time a family member promises to change, consider giving them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe even give them a second or third chance, if you're willing to be patient. Allow them time to work through the roots of their negative behavior, and offer support if you feel able. Bear in mind, this can be a lengthy process. But be wary if they seem to be talking the talk without walking the walk.

To evaluate whether someone is really willing to change your relationship dynamic, look for signs that they're actively making an effort. That may involve attending some kind of therapy, finding ways to make amends, or reining in their harmful behaviors — even if they don't do it perfectly every time. But if there's no evidence that they're taking action on their promise to do better, then what does the promise even mean?


Remember, you're under no obligation to hold their hand through this process. If your toxic family member is taking a toll on your mental health, you have every right to cut them off until they've made clear progress. For that matter, you have the right to cut them off forever, if that's what's right for you. But if you want to salvage the connection, keep one eye open for real evidence that they're working on themselves.

When the stress is impacting your other relationships

Many different types of people can play meaningful, important roles in our lives. Consider how much you love and value people like your romantic partner, children, or the found family of your best friends. But there's often a different value placed on your immediate or "original" family. These relationships are important to many people, so it's easy to understand why you may also feel pressured to accept a family-first mentality. 


 "Sometimes we have a sense of responsibility to family; this might be due to tradition, culture, religion, or personal beliefs," psychologist Michele Goldman, Psy.D., tells Parents. "The notion of ending a relationship, even an unhealthy relationship, is not considered an option for some people due to the importance of family, respect of or responsibility to elders." But should you really value your family over every other relationship in your life, even if you can't see eye-to-eye on anything?

When your family dynamics are rife with negativity, that stress can have a ripple effect throughout your social circle. Your spouse or S.O. is likely to get a lot of second-hand stress by watching you interact with toxic family members, especially if they feel unable to help. And strained relationships with your parents or siblings can translate into a lot of confusion for children, who can't easily understand why their aunts, uncles, or grandparents seem to make you so upset.


Also consider whether a family member's toxic behavior is directly impacting others around you — for instance, whether they're inflicting criticism or mind games on your partner and kids. As trauma therapist Shannon Thomas notes to Oprah Daily, "Toxic parents frequently become toxic grandparents." If this sounds like your situation, cutting them off may be to everyone's benefit.

When they try to pigeonhole you in unhealthy family roles

As you grow and mature throughout your life, it's only natural that your personality, opinions, and boundaries will also develop. But sometimes, it's hard for family members to see that. They've known you for such a long time that they may only be able to see the label or role they're used to, even if it no longer fits you — or never did.


Worse, some family members may try to keep you corralled into a certain role as a way to exert control or undermine your autonomy as an independent adult. For instance, they may still refer to you as a baby, or dismiss your opinions because "you'll know better when you're older." This infantilism makes it impossible to maintain family relationships on an equal playing field. Other times, family members may rely on you to act as a mediator or problem-solver, even if you're not willing. If you've been stuck in the role of peacekeeper before, a toxic family member may try to guilt-trip or pressure you into constantly getting involved with family drama that has nothing to do with you.

Scapegoat is also a common role weaponized by toxic relations. Do you have a sibling, parent, or other family member who's never to blame for their problems? Somehow, does the fault always land at your doorstep? Then they may be accustomed to using you as an easy scapegoat to explain away their issues without taking any responsibility or accountability. Try examining your relationship with a toxic family member to see whether they're constantly treating you like someone you're not — and whether there's any way to make them change their tune. If not, you may need to break off contact for your own independence and sanity.


When they only contact you looking for money

Anyone can fall on hard times, and when a family member needs a little extra support and resources, it's a beautiful gesture to provide them with much-needed money. But this may indicate a problematic relationship if every interaction is tainted by a request for "just one more" loan or lump sum. To figure out whether a family member is using you for your bank account, start examining the relationship. Do you spend much quality time together? Who usually reaches out first? Do they only get in contact when they need something, or are they genuinely interested in maintaining your bond?


If your family member seems to value the relationship beyond its cash flow potential, they may just be desperate, not malicious. "Usually, the same person within the family asks for money repeatedly and that person most often has bad money habits," financial planner George Kiraly Jr. tells CNBC. Still, you may not want to fork over the money. "Saying no is sometimes the best help you can give someone – otherwise you become an enabler."

But what if their attention seems to be predicated on getting something tangible in return? That may not be genuine love or affection. And if every interaction quickly concludes with your family member looking for a handout, they may be intentionally manipulating you for cash.


If you've fallen for this trap before, there's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's natural to want to help your loved ones, especially if you have the financial means to do so. But you don't have to let your natural generosity lead you to being financially victimized by toxic relations. So if all signs point to your relationship being a one-way scam for cash, consider cutting ties.

When their behavior endangers your well-being

It should go without saying that any outright harmful or dangerous behaviors are reason enough to separate yourself from toxic family members. But it can be difficult to take that final step, even if you know that you're in an unacceptable situation. Consider this your sign to prioritize your health and wellness.


First off, any sort of physical abuse or inappropriate touching from a family member should be taken seriously. But, as Healthline explains, protecting your well-being can also include distancing yourself from behaviors such as invasive comments, extreme criticism or verbal abuse, or gaslighting.

Maintaining your safety can even mean avoiding involvement in literal crime, such as covering for a family member who's done something illegal. Basically, if there's a risk that your physical, mental, or emotional freedom and safety could be put at risk, it's an unhealthy situation — and you probably need to prioritize your well-being by getting some distance.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.