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Toxic family relationships: When to quit

Toxic relationships with family members are unhealthy, and can be so emotionally damaging that the person being harmed may need to end the relationship.

I have counselled adults that would benefit from completely cutting off contact with family members because those family members continue to abuse them. Although making the decision to end a relationship is a big step, refusing to allow a family member to abuse you any longer is critical, and it may be necessary to let a toxic family member go.

Richard Friedman, MD, compared ending a relationship with a toxic family member to “amputating a gangrenous limb to save a patient’s life.” In discussing one case, Friedman wrote, “My patient could not escape all the negative feelings and thoughts about himself that he had internalized from his parents. But at least I could protect him from even more psychological harm.”

This topic gets almost no attention in psychological literature or in training programs for psychologists, which likely reflects the commonly mistaken notion that adults are not vulnerable to on-going emotional, physical, and sexual abuse from family members.

As a young adult, I knew a fellow whose father physically beat him from early childhood. The fellow had worked tirelessly to build a relationship with his father, but their encounters were always abusive, with the father continuing to be verbally harsh and physically abusive.

Whether the father was mentally ill, incredibly mean, or both was unclear, but there was no question that this fellow would have benefited from putting a safe distance between himself and his father.

Some psychologists believe it is important to attempt to salvage every relationship within a family, including those that may be harmful to their clients. In some cases, however, attempting to maintain every relationship is not desirable or healthy and it is important to know when it is time to quit.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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