Is it okay to cut off from my family?April 19, 2021
In my Sydney family counselling practice, I see many adult families who are struggling with a difficult parent, sibling or child and are using estrangement to manage their relationships.
There may be very good reasons to distance yourself from your family/a family member and put strict boundaries on the type and frequency of contact with them. However, completely cutting off from a family member – in particular a parent – has long-term ramifications not only for the people directly involved but also for future generations.
Why do cut-offs happen?
- Unresolved hurt or conflict – post-divorce behaviour, sibling problems, mental illnesses and addictions in the home growing up.
- Money – estate issues cause a lot of cut-offs in families.
- Past or ongoing abuse – physical, sexual and emotional abuse; ongoing denial and inaction from other family members.
- Parents who don’t respect their adult child’s choice of partner. Or who don’t respect boundaries when it comes to contact with grandchildren.
- Bullying or narcissistic parents or siblings – power plays or manipulative behaviour; years of treading on eggshells around a person.
- Exhaustion – from interacting with difficult personalities.
- Impact on children or grandchildren – concerns that ongoing conflict will negatively affect new family members.
- A history of cut-offs going back generations – your family may have used estrangements as a strategy in the past
Under what circumstances should I cut someone off?
Sometimes the safest thing to do is to put physical and emotional distance between you and certain family members. You might even choose to cease contact altogether. This is recommended when:
- There has been past physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
- Abuse is ongoing or you are worried about children in your care being at risk if they visit with a known perpetrator.
- Interacting with family members sets off trauma symptoms such as intense fear, flashbacks and dissociation.
- There is ongoing denial of abusive behaviour or victims are blamed for what happened to them.
- There is an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) in place against a family member and you are named in that order as a protected person.
Why shouldn’t I cut off?
If abuse, or risk of abuse is not an issue, cutting off from your family may not be the best way to manage your relationship problems. Here are some reasons to stay connected:
- Estrangement doesn’t actually solve the issue or free you from feelings of hurt. You are better off trying to resolve those resentments.
- Setting an example – there is a higher risk of future generations following your lead. If you choose to cut off from your parents, it shows your children that it is acceptable to do the same to you.
- Loss of identity – children who don’t see their grandparents or aunts, uncles and cousins are missing a piece of their identity. They might think there is something wrong with their family and therefore themselves.
- Troubled future relationships – unresolved issues can travel with you into future relationships, especially romantic relationships where you might be looking for the “perfect partner” and then blame them when differences arise. It is much healthier to learn how to resolve conflict.
- Poor health – individuals from estranged or cut-off families usually experience more ill health, including mental ill health, due to the resulting isolation and stress.
- Existential crisis – cut-off can create an existential crisis in an older parent who becomes isolated near death.
How can family counselling help for cut-offs and estrangements?
Seeking help from an experienced family counsellor can help to restore the balance of power in relationships in the safe environment of a therapy room. This might involve working with you to heal from past hurts as well as encouraging family members to actively change behaviours that are contributing to the problem.
Family estrangements, and the desire to cut off from family, are more common than you might think. The highly trained counsellors at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists have helped many people resolve painful, complex issues in their adult families – often without the need to cut off from the family. Our therapists can help you develop new communication skills, resolve past hurts and resentments, and establish new ways of staying connected in a healthy way.
This work can be very emotional, but our Family Therapists will actively manage the sessions so that each person feels safe and can talk openly. The therapy is usually structured as a mix of individual sessions and small groups (usually twos) to ensure everyone feels safe in the room.
Qualifications and Professional Membership Jacqueline has a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy (UNSW). She has a Bachelor degree in Counselling and Human Change, and a Diploma in Psychotherapy and Counselling. Jacqueline is a Clinical Supervisor for Counsellors and Therapists. She lectures in couple and family therapy at Masters and Post Graduate level, and is currently Head Lecturer for the Couple and Family Therapy course (Masters) at the Jansen Newman Institute. She has been a Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and Sydney University, and continues to guest lecture at other tertiary institutions. Jacqueline is also the Director of the Couple and Family Training Centre where she runs regular professional development workshops and seminars for Therapists, Counsellors, Psychologists, Social Workers and Health Industry Workers who are looking to gain skills in this specialist area. She is a Clinical Member of the Family Therapy Association of Australia and a Clinical Member of PACFA.
“Thank you for seeing me today. Your help with all our family issues and all your advice has been invaluable. I don’t know how other families do it, without a Jacqueline in their lives.” – Anna (43) step-mum and mum to four children.