Cutting Yourself Off from a Toxic Family Member

Many of us are forced to navigate the very turbulent waters of a relationship with a toxic family member.  It can be a parent, a sibling or, even more heartbreaking, a child.  I have noticed over the years that therapists are far more encouraging of such a cutoff than is society, as a whole.  As a therapist, I must say I, also, fall squarely on the side of those who support cutoff, when necessary.

The work of Murray Bowen was central to my education and early training in the field.  Bowen was a brilliant and very original thinker and spent a goodly amount of energy exploring the magnetic psychological relationships within one’s family of origin.  There are 8 essential precepts of Bowenian thought and one of them involves the discouragement of emotional cutoff.  In Bowen’s world, cutoff prevents us from working through and resolving the earliest of our emotional relationships, leaving us vulnerable to being upended when these relationships – or their echo in our current lives – assert themselves. I have come to believe that this position is not tenable.  Just as the orthodox Freudian can wrongly attribute deep distress only to childhood fantasies, Bowen, I believe, under-appreciates the freedom and relief that can be experienced by stopping a relationship with a toxic family member.  While “society” may bombard us with its incessant “shoulds,” as in, “How can you abandon your parent? sibling? child?” – the answer is quite simply, “I must do it so that I can flourish in my own life and not be derailed by the consistent drama and pain associated with a relationship which, after all, is not voluntary.

This insight was clearly and eloquently stated in a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Harriet Brown, a Syracuse University journalism professor.  I encourage you to hear what she has to say.  There is enormous freedom in the voluntary estrangement from the toxic family member who brings you grief.  This will almost always be difficult, as the exceedingly strong force of guilt pushes you back into a destructive and distracting relationship.  This is where a counselor who can support you in your quest for freedom and self-actualization may be the most important person for you during this journey.