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Family Drama: When Is It Time to Cut Ties?

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
February 10, 2021
From the WebMD Archives

“Family” means something different for everyone. For some people, family is a source of support and a sense of home; for others, pain and distress. Because your family members are part of your history and a part of your identity, you likely keep them in your life even when your relationships are strained. At some point, though, you might ask yourself whether it is time to cut ties. 

Given that a sense of family loyalty likely makes you hesitant to distance yourself, you may find the questions below helpful in thinking through this thorny issue.

Is the relationship so destructive to you that it is not worth saving? Although you might be very loyal to your family, there are some breaches of trust or unacceptable behaviors that you believe make the relationship beyond repair. For instance, many people who have been the victim of incest, emotional abuse, or physical abuse understandably feel this way.

Have you tried to fix what is wrong? If you’ve made efforts to improve a destructive relationship but haven’t seen any positive changes, it may be time to consider letting go -- you can’t keep trying forever. For instance, Adarsh’s sister had a serious drug abuse problem. After years of trying to help her and having her take advantage of him (such as stealing from him), he finally acknowledged to himself that he could not “make” her change her ways. So he decided to stop trying to rescue her, even though he was more than willing to again offer support if she made sincere efforts toward healing and recovery. Whatever your particular circumstance, you might also decide it’s time to distance yourself or cut ties if your efforts at trying to fix a serious problem fail.

Is the problem you are having likely time-limited? At some points, your relationship may feel more painful than positive. This can happen in response to a specific conflict. Or if you or your family member is going through a difficult time, the stress might overflow into your relationship. In these situations, because family is so important, you might be better off working through the conflict or weathering a storm than cutting that family member out of your life. (This is assuming that you don’t experience the problem between you as causing damage beyond repair.)

Is your relationship more distant than it once was? Sometimes relationships (with family and friends) don’t mean the same thing to you that they once meant. This can be painful, but that doesn’t mean you need to cut them out of your life. For instance, when Jonathan’s brother’s wife gave birth to her first baby, Jonathan’s daily conversations with his brother turned into just occasionally touching base.  After acknowledging that his efforts to talk more were not working, Jonathan accepted the change in his relationship and adapted to its new place in his life. He even stepped up his efforts at being an involved and loving uncle, which had the benefit of seeing his brother more often.

By being honest with yourself about the nature of a problem with a family member, you can decide whether it’s time to cut ties, accept your relationship as it is, or make some changes.


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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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