It Feels So Good When You Stop: Divorcing a Toxic Family Member


scissors cutting parent and child paper dolls apart

Laurie and Debbie say:

Making your own environment healthy for you is a basic requirement for self-protection. No one voluntarily continues to breathe poison air when they can close the window. It follows that if you have a family member who is toxic, cruel, and bad for you–whether it happened in your childhood, in adulthood, or throughout your life–cutting off relations with that person may well be the best thing you can do for yourself.  Many of us know this when we think about ex-lovers, ex-spouses, ex-friends. But when it comes to family members, especially parents, this simple truth has long been silenced by the voices of the culture, which go something like this:

“Honor your father and mother; there’s always some way to repair the rift.”

“Really, honor your father and mother; they’re your parents.

Really, honor your father and mother; even if you have troubles with one or both of them, you’ll never forgive yourself for giving up your relationships with them.”

That narrative isn’t going away any time soon, but now there is some research and some public commentary to back up those of us who believe in avoiding monsters as self-protection.  Harriet Brown, a professor of magazine journalism at Syracuse University has written Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement. More than just a memoir, the book is apparently laced with research and other people’s stories.


Writing about her story in the Washington Post, Brown shares some starkly clear statistics:

I’ve interviewed more than 50 people who have estranged themselves from family members, and I have yet to meet a single one who regrets it. They regret whatever situation made it necessary. They regret not having a parent/sibling/family member they could come to terms with. They regret that their problems were severe enough to make estrangement look good. But they don’t regret doing it.

More than three-quarters of the participants in one study felt estrangement had made a positive difference in their lives. One woman I talked to who initiated an estrangement said her main feeling was relief, even liberation. Another told me it was as though she’d lived under a cloak of silence that had suddenly been lifted. A third said, “There really are cases where estrangement is the better course. It’s horrific, it’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s better than the alternative.”

About her own story, Brown says:

Well-meaning family members called to warn that someday I’d regret cutting the tie. “You only get one mother,” they said. “What if she dies and you’re still estranged? How will you feel?” My mother died three years after our official estrangement, and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier. Much, much earlier.

The article also references the work of Kristina Scharp, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, who wrote her dissertation on family estrangement (and coined the useful term “estrangement continuum” for various forms of partial limitation of contact).

As Brown mentions in her article,

“estrangement makes people deeply uncomfortable. They wonder what’s wrong with you when you can’t get along with your family. They worry that if you can estrange yourself, maybe their parents/children/siblings could do that to them. Estrangement seems to threaten the primal order of things and opens the door to a lot of questions most of us would rather not think about.”

While this is certainly true, a more profound reason is that people would have to see how common abuse is in this culture and that abusers are most often parents. Holding onto the false ideal of “family above all” keeps the abuse invisible. This, even more than Brown’s explanation above, is what “most of us would rather not think about.”

Brown isn’t trying to showcase her own bravery here, but coming out publicly as estranged and extremely happy about it is a brave thing to do. It’s even braver for a professor, because personal stories are frowned on in the academy. She is clear, frank, and pulls no punches. She ends her piece with:

“Imagine for a moment that these people have good reasons” to be estranged, says Scharp. “Telling them to get back together is not helping them.” Estrangement, on the other hand, might just be saving their life.”

Follow Debbie on Twitter.


3 thoughts on “It Feels So Good When You Stop: Divorcing a Toxic Family Member

  1. Estranged daughter here. It’s a lot of emotional labor to get to the point of estrangement, and at least for me, the labor doesn’t end there. Processing why and how this foundational relationship went so wrong and left me so poorly off is challenging work that I’m not sure I’ll ever really complete.
    Hell, yes! My life is so much better off without these toxic people continuing to berate and drain me!
    And yet, having them gone makes space to begin to glimpse what you missed, and I wonder who I would even be had I had a loving, nurturing, emotionally safe space during childhood.
    To those who have often told me, “you only get one mother” (implying I should take whatever she dishes out as long as one of us lives), I finally learned to reply, “Thank God! Thank god there was only one mother (well two parents) and not more who got to do this to me!”
    Peace and thank you for sharing these resources.

    1. Thanks for your moving comment. I’m glad to hear that you’ve cut off the family that was making your life hell. There are very good reasons why people who make the break are mostly much happier. My experience is that you can figure out the effects on you and how to get mostly through them. Truly understanding monsters is beyond most decent people. And in cutting off their toxic families many people (after lots of work) are able to move on and make them _only_ their past and not their present.
      Good luck and best wishes on your journey. Its a big club.

  2. What Laurie said. And, in what I hope is relevant to your experience:

    This toxic trope of “you only have one parental unit, and that connection is irreplaceable/sacred” is so false and destructive. We owe the monsters nothing. We owe our good witnesses, the helpers, the surrogates who help us survive, find safety, and perhaps thrive.

    Children need and deserve love, nurture and safety. Many of us can create and find these throughout our lives with the help and examples of people outside our ‘blood’ families.

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