Is it possible to cut off just *one* toxic family member?
March 27, 2017 12:47 PM   Subscribe

My mother is evil, but my siblings and father are nice (if passive and somewhat in denial). What to do?

My mother has always been the most toxic force in my life, and as her only daughter, I've always borne the brunt of her screaming fits and criticism. If anything, she doted on my brothers to the same extent that she bullied and ridiculed me. She's a stressed-out, easily angered person in general and has never worked outside the home. I always hoped things would improve once we kids moved away and she de-stressed (childrearing seemed too much for her at times, and my workaholic father wasn't home much) but our adult relationship is just as volatile as it was when I was a shy, anxious, anorexic teenager trapped under her thumb. She can turn from warm to cold in a second. I've never met anyone else like this in my life.

Unbeknownst to her, I've resolved to cut her off more times than I can count. But it's been difficult to stick to my previous resolutions because when my mother is nice, she's the warmest, funniest person in the world -- and because I'm close to my male siblings and father, all of whom deny that there's any problem. She's just as often intensely critical, control, passive aggressive, and screams at me in public at least once a day when we are together. As recently as last weekend I decided, for the millionth time in my life, that I cannot bear contact with her anymore.

How can I cut her off without damaging my relationships with my brothers (who she dotes on and therefore hasn't alienated) or my father (a weak, passive, kind man who will never leave her and just turns a blind eye to her tantrums)?

I have no spouse or children yet, but I probably will someday and I intend to shield them from her 100%. This will inevitably require some kind of dramatic cut-off. (Aside from the protective aspect, part of me hopes I'll be "strong" enough to cut her off once I have a family of my own.) For now I still attend family events and act nice to her (except when she is screaming at me).

Note: She has never apologized for anything and never will. She often pretends "not to remember" an incident I refer to, even if it happened only a week ago. Reconciliation is a pipe dream.
posted by Guinevere to Human Relations (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You plan 1:1 time with your brothers and ramp down the whole-family stuff. This can be done without drama; just give excuses for nonattendance, but at the same time have your brothers over to your place for dinner or a beer or whatever.

Your dad is probably a lost cause, unless you have a common interest you can email back and forth about -- if you do, you can lay that groundwork (plays? music? art?) and then plan 1:1 time with him focusing on that stuff too so it's natural that your mom wouldn't come. Like if he likes Impressionist art, you can ask him to come to see an exhibit with you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:11 PM on March 27, 2017 [7 favorites]

Ditto what fingersandtoes wrote. One question: do your brothers see how toxic your mother is for you? I ask only because they might think they're being polite to your mother to bring her along to a family meal.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:14 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think this is possible IF your brothers and father are willing to cooperate, but you will need to set some really powerful boundaries with them, and it will probably be tough for all of you, and they may perceive you as just making trouble for no reason given their history of denial.
posted by mskyle at 1:20 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

You may not be able to cut her off without damaging your relationships with your father and brothers. And I think you'd do well to set some boundaries with them, too. By permitting your mother to abuse you during your childhood, your father was complicit in that abuse, and I view his continued denial that anything is wrong as a continuation of that.

Things are a little different with your brothers since growing up they didn't have the same responsibility to protect you that your father did, but they're still denying an aspect of reality that causes you pain. They're choosing not to hold up their end of the deal when it comes to having a healthy relationship with you.

I would put your father and brothers on notice that what they're doing is unacceptable, and begin to set some boundaries with them about the kind of contact you'll have with them until they accept what's going on. It will be painful, but in the long run, you'll be much better off if you refuse to give up so much of yourself to preserve these relationships.
posted by alphanerd at 1:21 PM on March 27, 2017 [13 favorites]

My brothers are kind of oblivious. We have certain things in the family that people flat-out refuse to talk about. For example, if I bring up my mother's vicious rants and temper tantrums, my brothers or father will just change the subject immediately. I haven't attempted to discuss it with them in years because they are so clearly not on the same page and are dutiful toward our mother. My brothers have mainly escaped her wrath, but they see how she acts toward me and toward my dad (who, weirdly, doesn't seem to mind, although my parents are not at all physically affectionate with each other). I suppose she's mainly vicious toward me in private, but they definitely see how she treats my dad like shit. And then an hour later she's praising him....
posted by Guinevere at 1:22 PM on March 27, 2017

my male siblings and father, all of whom deny that there's any problem

Nope, nope, nope. Cut them all off. They are invested in keeping you in the sick system, because if they let you out they'll have to take the abuse they conveniently get a pass from as long as you're around. They want her to treat you like that. They don't care what it does to you. They don't care about you.

If they did, they'd at least attempt to do something about it.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:24 PM on March 27, 2017 [34 favorites]

Sorry to threadsit, but there's a helpful canary-in-the-coal-mine test case in my family already: An older relative of mine has cut off HER parents, with very good reason (in my opinion) - reasons similar to my issues with my own mother.

And guess what? I am the only person in my family who sympathizes with this relative. I once discussed it with one of my brothers, and he said he thinks it was hurtful and selfish of this relative to cut off contact with her parents (who, again, are SUPER toxic people, even worse than my mother) and to prevent her kids from seeing their grandparents more than about once a year.
posted by Guinevere at 1:26 PM on March 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I think you are going to have to be clear with your other family members that your mother is not a welcome presence in your life. They will probably try, whether because they want to "keep the peace" or because your mother pressures them to do so, to negotiate this with you. I encourage you to be prepared for this. Be able to point to the things your mother has done to hurt you and the reasons you have cut her off. Remember, and feel free to say, that those reasons are good enough for you and they are therefore not up for negotiation.

Be ready as well to say something like, "Dad, I love you. I want to continue to have a relationship with you. You know my reasons why mom is not welcome in my life. If you keep trying to bring her into my life, you are showing me that you do not respect my decision to protect myself. Please respect my decision to protect myself."

It may be that your dad or your brother aren't, in that moment, able to understand or support you. I encourage you to give them several chances. When they bring up your mother or try to carry messages from her to you, shut it down but do not burn the bridge with them. Tell them they are welcome, but your mother is not, and that your are willing to continue to interact with them until the moment when they bring your mother in, and then, you'll see them later. After a few tries, they may begin to understand, or they may be too enculturated into her abuse to understand what you are doing. I encourage you to let them know where your boundaries are, in other words.

Have a look at the book "Where to Draw the Line." I found it immensely helpful. Good luck to you.
posted by gauche at 1:34 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

This will inevitably require some kind of dramatic cut-off.

No it won't. Nothing has to be dramatic, or even announced. Just give it the slow fade. Let her calls go to voicemail, find a yoga class or weekly webinar or remodeling project that makes Sunday family dinners impossible. If a brother asks why you haven't been around, reply with how busy you've been and turn the conversation to the awesome, fun, skill-building, career-enhancing, bucket-list-killing things you've been doing.

For now I still attend family events and act nice to her (except when she is screaming at me).

You can stop attending family events without drama, just be busy that day (every day).

For example, if I bring up my mother's vicious rants and temper tantrums, my brothers or father will just change the subject immediately.

As you have learned, just don't talk about it with them. Find friends, a counselor, a partner, etc. to talk to about your mother - and about your family's blind spot re: her abuse toward you.

We all make difficult choices in life, and not all of them will be understood or supported by those whose backing we'd like to have. Choosing to separate from family is a very, very difficult decision. But you deserve to be free of your mother's abuse.

She may escalate drama when you extract yourself from her influence, but you don't have to add to the drama by announcing your defection. The only reason to do that would be to try to garner support from your brothers/father, and you know you won't get that. So don't involve them in it. It's hard to accept that you don't have their support, but once you do, you are *so* much more free. I speak from experience. It is hard, but it is worth it.

Good luck.
posted by headnsouth at 1:45 PM on March 27, 2017 [37 favorites]

I should add that, if you do decide to give your father and brothers several chances to respect your boundaries, you also have every right to cut them off if they keep failing you. Not respecting your boundaries is a form of abuse. It may be less dramatic than what your mother has done, but it is still a form of abuse.

And, as many have said here, you are always free to cut them all off if you feel that is best.

Again, good luck to you.
posted by gauche at 1:47 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I lost relationships with my aunt, my grandfather, a (let's say common law) stepmother and two stepsiblings over cutting ties with my toxic father. I would have worked to maintain those relationships with my father's other relatives had the other parties been willing, but they weren't, because they thought I was being cruel to my father by refusing to put up with his abusive ways. They wanted to protect him more than they wanted to protect me. Do I miss having those people in my lives? Of course I do. So the worst-case-scenario thing you imagine possibly happening to your relationships with other family members if you cut off contact with your mother, where they all blame you for the break, take her side, and stop speaking to you, and you basically never see them again? It happened to me.

It was still worth it.


I did it before I had kids and that was definitely for the best. Your kids can't miss the "nice side" of an abusive toxic person they've never met.

And by the way, it's 100% typical for abusers to act like exceptionally kind and even loving people when they're not abusing you, and also to deny that abusive events happened. That's called the "reconciliation phase" in the cycle of abuse. It's also typical for abusers to single out certain people for worse abuse than others, and for the people they abuse less or not at all to refuse to see it. What you are experiencing with your family focusing on your mother's "nice side" and not recognizing the abuse is very common, unfortunately. The good news is that means there is a lot of research out there on how to handle it that you can look up and read, and it also means there are plenty of therapists out there who will understand this dynamic and will be well-equipped to help you work through it, should you decide to seek professional advice.

Good luck and take care of yourself. Whatever you decide to do about limiting contact with your mother, don't let other in your family people make you feel guilty over your decision to set whatever healthy boundaries wind up working for you. You are not the one who created this situation-- your parents did that. You're trying to make the best of a no-win scenario created by the actions and choices of other people.
posted by BlueJae at 2:11 PM on March 27, 2017 [25 favorites]

It is doable, but challenging.
I think the slow fade will only work if you brothers and father can be trusted not to try to "reconcile" you and your mother without your permission. If you think they're likely to try to surprise-invite your mother to something that was supposed to be siblings-only, then you have to make the boundary explicit to them.

That they don't recognize the mistreatment you receive doesn't bode well; they simply may not be capable of realizing how serious you are that you do not want to see her (and that she is not welcome at your home, for example).
posted by nat at 2:20 PM on March 27, 2017

Refuse to attend any family events where your mother will also be ---- do not go to your parents' house for any reason, and 100-times never invite them to your home.

You can invite your brothers to your home one-on-one; just be sure to make it clear that you are ONLY inviting them, that it is not some sort of larger family event.

Make it very, very clear to everyone --- your parents, your brothers, all friends and family, the people you work with --- that you do not want to hear from your mother, and you do not want them to pass ANY information about you on to her.

Don't try to talk to or reason with anybody about this: at most tell them "this is my decision", and if they keep pressing you WALK AWAY. Don't accept phone calls or emails or texts or anything else from your mother: block her and/or send her messages straight to trash. And unfortunately you'll also have to block anyone who tries to overrule you and continues to act as an intermediary.
posted by easily confused at 2:21 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

You will be amazed how much better your life becomes when you cut off your abuser and anyone else who enables the abuse. You will blosom and your life will be so much better than you ever hoped it could be. Yes, it may still hurt to lose contact with some or all of your immediate family, but it will be worth it! I would absolutely find a therapist if you do not already have one (dont be afraid to change therapists if they don't support your no contact plan 100%. I once told a therapist I felt like my mother didn't love me and they said I was being rediculous because "all mothers love their children." So there are lemons in the therapy bowl for sure.). Surround yourself with positive influences and friends to help you through the first year or two of no contact, it gets easier and easier with time. Personally I wouldn't do the slow fade, it just prolongs the drama. I'd just rip the band aid off. Find a standard reply to give other family members (if you choose to remain in contact with your brothers for example) when they ask why you have chosen to cut your mom off. Something like, "I will no longer tolerate Mom's abusive behavior towards me. My relationship with her is finished. Whether or not you feel Mom's behavior towards me is abusive is not up for discussion. I would like you and I to have a rationship, but understand that I will not allow anyone to undermine my desicion to separate myself from Mom." Period, end of story.

You must be strong for yourself. You are worth protecting. Fight for yourself as if you were fighting for your own child if it helps to think of it that way.

I know how tough this is. I wish you the best. May you have strength, may you have love and peace, and a wonderful life.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:03 PM on March 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

You know...they are not oblivious. They change the subject immediately whenever your mom's abuse gets mentioned. That's, like, the opposite of oblivious.

Right now, the status quo is a safe one for them. As long as you are the black sheep, everyone else can go on living their harmonious lives. But if you stop being around as a punching bag for your mother, she'll start picking on someone else. Things will get nasty. And deep inside, they know thar. And it scares them.

Prepare for backlash once your family feels you slipping from its grasp.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:05 PM on March 27, 2017 [23 favorites]

This dynamic sounds really familiar to me. I think you might find solace in reading reddit's community /r/raisedbynarcissists. I particularly think you might find reading about the golden child/scapegoat dichotomy to be informative.

I have a very similar dynamic with my mother. Not everyone in my family does. And when she's wonderful, she's very wonderful. People say to cut her off--it never felt right, and on top of that, I knew it would only make me the villain in her narrative, which she would seed through family members.

So. What to do? I discovered something called "going gray rock." This explanation particularly resonated. I have written my mother so many of these letters over the years, started at age 12 or so. It never worked, and I could never figure out why she couldn't be rationally implored to treat me like a human. In the end, I've figured out that it's because she wants a reaction. It's only been a few weeks of pretending to be boring and never emotionally reacting. When she gets really bad, I just stand up, say "I'm going to leave the room" and do so; if we're on the phone I calmly say "I don't want to talk about that" and change the subject. Mostly, though, I ignore her, talk about my taxes, or television, say "mmhmm" or dismissively shrug. And it's funny, because in doing so little, I feel so, so empowered. For years, I've told myself that I couldn't change her, knowing I could only change myself, but I've never really figured out the safe way how, or one where I would feel in control. This has worked, though. It might work for you, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:01 PM on March 27, 2017 [12 favorites]

Oh honey, are you me 5 years ago? I'm sorry it's so hard.

The answer is that you kind of can't not damage the other family relationships. For better or worse they are involved. Mine have just become distant.

Good for you for starting this process early. I did the 'slow fade' and at every oppertunity possible my mother has made waves and trouble for me. It's a long haul. Hurting me was one thing but the possibility for hurting my children is just NO. As I'm pregnant again so it's again the reconciliation phase... Learn to recognise that. Physical distance also helped.

It can only upset you as much as you let it. Don't let negotiating difficult family take over your life, if it's not working for you it's okay to let it go.

You can't change your mother but you can change your reaction to her. I'm much happier now.

Fill your life with supportive and wonderful people, there are plenty. I am a member of a moms group, a church, and a knitting circle. All are full of love and support.
posted by ibakecake at 8:41 PM on March 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've ceased contact with whole swathes of my extended family just because of one or two toxic individuals within larger groupings. It's a shame, initially, to think of missing out on future interactions with the "good eggs", but I found that dim regret passed very quickly.

As stated above by many others, your mother is an abuser and the rest of them are enablers. It's shitty but it's just the way it is. Move on from the lot of 'em and I promise you you'll be breathing easier. Then, if they want to get in touch down the track, it'll be on your terms.
posted by turbid dahlia at 10:09 PM on March 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

There's no one right way, except for the one that resonates the most with you. My parents have a narcissistic dynamic as well; I basically don't exist as an individual for them. The problem was that this seeped into almost every other family relationship. I have cousins who literally do not know what I did during my childhood. I'm not talking about little things, but big things – they don't know my favorite hobbies, strong subjects, weak subjects... whereas I still remember, decades later, what they did as kids. The only exception were my paternal grandparents, who always recognized my parents were toxic. They handled it so beautifully I didn't even realize how strong they were being for me until I was an adult. They never badmouthed my parents, never tried to drive a wedge between us, only pointed out differences calmly and let it drop if/when my parents escalated, but supported me as a human being they loved for who I was. Once I started talking about my parents' abuse, they listened.

I mention it because the older I get, the more I realize how much my survival depended in large part (not solely!) on having people who saw me as a person. This will come out in another way a bit further on in this comment.

I tried the slow fade on my family; didn't work. They wanted their black sheep, dammit. Later I tried cutting off just my parents, and only telling other family members not to worry about it, I took full responsibility for my decision. I thought this would work since they'd never cared about other decisions I'd made. I was wrong. They just would.not.stop. That was when I realized... they'd been benefitting from looking the other way. They knew what was going on and wanted it to keep happening.

It's been nearly 20 years now and recently a cousin tried getting back in touch. I responded warmly, it seemed so kind! And... he told me "great thanks my wife will write back." Allllrighty then. I like his wife, so, okay... ended up being a bunch of emails about how hard things are and oh isn't it great fraula that you live in France how'd you do that by the way and how could our family maybe do that...

It's like. They didn't even remember that I majored in French.

If your family is like that, i.e. you do not exist as a person with her own history and value, if you exist only for the mistakes they can blow up into punching bags? The best way you can cut off ties is to do whatever you will feel best about in the long term. Also, treasure people who care for you as a person. Hold close to people who remember things that matter to you. You do not need to worry about people who place the weight of all the evil in the world onto your shoulders.
posted by fraula at 6:49 AM on March 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

In you particular case, no, it isn't. You've been abused by your mother your entire life, and it's taken so long for you to fight through it and claim the healthy life you deserve. People who would deny that abuse and carry water for your abuser will jeopardize your mental health. They will absolutely turn on you, because it's in their best interest to keep you around as your mother's punching bag. I'm so, so sorry.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:22 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you considered erecting (verbal) boundaries? Please check the book Stop Walking on Eggshells. Even your mother is a non-BPD or non-NPD, there's valuable suggestions for anybody to gain respect from others.
posted by dlwr300 at 12:57 PM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

How can I cut her off without damaging my relationships with my brothers (who she dotes on and therefore hasn't alienated) or my father (a weak, passive, kind man who will never leave her and just turns a blind eye to her tantrums)?

I've stayed close to my siblings despite a fairly similar dynamic. I was fortunate that my siblings were neither in denial nor oblivious, as you put it very well. But we all differed on our versions of what happened and we have all tended to blame each other at times-- sometimes accusing one another of putting us in the middle of an argument with our father, for example. Which I think is exactly what the abusive parent loves-- they hate it when family members are close in a way that doesn't involve them. So anyway, we've still been disappointed or distant or fed up or furious with each other many times, and that is with everyone agreeing that something was very very wrong in our childhood. But I like and value these people enough so there is an incentive to get over this kind of stuff.

Is there enough incentive with all of you? Could you all sit around a table, minus your parents, and say, "I am so happy we can have a relationship" and mean it? If so, why? I suggest you look for the incentive, because it's a lot of hard work and maybe it's not the most important thing for you. That is really OK.
posted by BibiRose at 1:57 PM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I cut off a toxic family member, best thing I ever did for myself. I had never heard of gray rock, that is a really helpful way of being that I arrived at (independently and imperfectly) by trial and error. I wanted my son to have a limited, positive relationship with the toxic person and felt that would be achievable. It was definitely work and boundary setting at the beginning, and I still catch myself looking at something and thinking, "Oh, that's exactly the sort of thing Toxic Person would like, I should get that for them..." When I interact with other family members regarding the toxic person, it is strictly business, like coordinating a meeting with people in another department. Some family members have talked about how disappointing it is that I've cut this person off, but I just don't react to that. I still get occasional emails and calls from the toxic person, but I am relentless about only replying to the portions that have to do with the ongoing relationship with my son. Everything else is silently ignored. Or the toxic person wants to be alone with my son, so I have to firmly decline. It's no fun being the cop, but ohmigod is it totally worth it. I don't dread the visits any more, because it's not my problem.
posted by wnissen at 2:18 PM on March 28, 2017

I came in here to recommend Walking on Eggshells as well. This sounds incredibly familiar and it's an awful family dynamic. My mom was never formally diagnosed with BPD, but when I did the checklist I was able to tick something like 17 out of 18 boxes. Good luck - this is so hard.
posted by widdershins at 2:02 PM on April 3, 2017

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