Cutting someone out of your life is usually difficult, but if that person is your parent, the process can be much harder. However, if the relationship is too unhealthy, "divorcing" a parent is sometimes the best option. But how does someone even begin to navigate such a messy undertaking? We spoke with psychotherapist, speaker, and author Tina Gilbertson; counselor and life coach Elvita Kondili; trauma and crisis psychotherapist Brian Iliescu; and the North Carolina Center for Resiliency’s lead clinician therapist, Anna Cordova, to learn more about what this process can look like.
Why Would You Cut a Parent Out of Your Life?
We like to think that with enough work, all parent-child relationships can be healthy, because on some level, all parents are good parents. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. "We are social beings, and we thrive with community around us, which is why family is emphasized so heavily in our culture," Cordova says. "However, it’s totally healthy and appropriate for individuals to set boundaries with family members."
Sometimes, limiting or eliminating contact with a parent is exponentially less damaging than having them in your life. While it’s normal for all parents to "mess up" their kids a bit in one way or another, some parents’ overall impact on their children is overwhelmingly destructive. "A toxic parent fails to provide the child with the emotional, physical and psychological care they need to thrive and be emotionally healthy and independent," Kondili says. "This looks different for different people, but the result is usually the same: lack of boundaries and emotional drain."
Gender Plays a Role
There’s a strong stigma against maternal estrangement in particular; our culture holds onto the idea that it’s more normal for men to abandon, abuse, and mistreat their children because fathers are seen as the "secondary parent." Because men are seen as inherently less nurturing and parental and are socialized accordingly (which can create a self-fulfilling prophecy), it’s seen as far more strange and problematic for a child to be estranged from their mother than their father. In reality, people of all genders have the same abilities to be incredible, nurturing, supportive parents, or abusive, destructive, or neglectful parents. It’s just as necessary to draw boundaries with a toxic mother as with a toxic parent of any other gender.
Starting the Process
Sometimes the situation is fixable; with enough therapy and dialogue, the parent-child relationship can reach a consistently healthy and functional state. Sometimes, the relationship needs to be minimal, distant, or superficial in order to maintain that basic, healthy functionality, but it can still exist. Other times, even that isn’t possible. The following steps can be helpful in navigating this process:
1. Know that you’re not alone.
Books like Toxic Parents and Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and online resources like these are a great place to start. Group therapy, if you can access it, is an extremely valuable resource. And if you know people who are in a similar situation, talking with them can be incredibly helpful. Learning and discussing with your peers can help you recognize common patterns of toxic parents, as well as provide a sense of grounding and validation.
2. Refrain from name-calling and "playing psychologist."
Gilbertson strongly discourages throwing DIY mental health diagnoses at your parent (or accepting any diagnoses thrown at you). Name-calling, whether in the form of expletives or labels like "narcissist" and "bipolar," inflame the dynamic rather than help find clarity and solutions. While mental health diagnoses are very helpful when properly applied by a qualified professional, they can be harmful when used as a way to discredit or invalidate someone.
You don't have to get anyone else’s approval to set the boundaries you need to be healthy.
3. Explore your options.
Ask yourself, "Is there any course of action I can take that will allow me to maintain some kind of relationship with my parent, and still keep my well-being and mental health intact?" Take time to reflect, so that when you come to a decision, you can be at peace with it, rather than having to second-guess yourself out of guilt and unease.
4. Clarify your intentions and motivations.
Make sure that what you’re doing is not out of spite, or driven to elicit a certain reaction from anyone else. This is about setting boundaries so that you can move forward and live your life; it’s not an act of war or manipulation. It’s normal for a lot of anger and hurt to come up around these issues, so if that’s the case, make it a priority to process your pain so it doesn’t drive your decisions.
5. Embrace the fact that you can’t know the future.
Maybe circumstances will change to allow for a healthy and functional relationship in the future, and maybe they won’t. Releasing attachment to the outcome creates space for you to remain at peace, regardless of how the unknown unfolds. "Go ahead and close the door right now if you must, in order to protect yourself. You have that right," Gilbertson advises. "But if your parent ever indicates that they're working on the way they relate to you, keep in mind that people—yes, even your parents—can change. Especially once they locate the right resources to support that change."
6. Allow siblings to go through their own processes.
Each family member’s dynamic with their parent will be different. Maybe your siblings can maintain a relationship, or maybe they need to cut ties as much as you do but need to do it on their own timeline. Feel free to talk with them and offer support, but make it clear that you don’t want to make anyone feel the need to "pick sides." The less drama, the better.
7. Let go of the need to make your parent understand.
If your parent is toxic enough to warrant estrangement in the first place, they may enact any number of gaslighting, guilt, deflection, blame, or invalidation tactics (either deliberately or unconsciously) to try to keep you from drawing the boundaries you need. They may try to pin all the responsibility on you, no matter how reasonably you articulate why you’re making this choice. You aren’t obligated to continue fighting this losing battle; you get to let go and walk away. "In my 14 years of practicing therapy," Kondili says, "I have found that trying to 'make' anyone think, believe, understand or do anything is futile."
8. Accept that others may not understand your choice.
"People who choose to cut a parent out of their lives may face societal judgment," Cordova says. Family, friends, and other folks might have opinions about your choice, and some won’t understand or respect it. "Folks may want to hear reasons and justifications," Iliescu says. "This often leads us to creating narratives that appease others, rather than helping us go through a process."
If it feels worthwhile to you, you can engage in conversations about your choice and explain why you’re making it, but whether and how much you choose to do this is up to you. Iliescu recommends being mindful of why you feel the need to justify your choice to others. "Ask yourself what motivations you have for explaining your choices," he says. "Be careful of feeling like you should convince people of your experience; all you can do is share, and look for those who understand." At the end of the day, you aren’t obligated to worry about the opinion of any third party (even your other parent), because it’s none of their business. You don't have to get anyone else’s approval to set the boundaries you need to be healthy.
9. Continually allow yourself to let go of guilt.
Cordova stresses that an important part of healing is "letting go of guilt or shame associated with letting go." Often, the parent you’re "divorcing" is a person who raised you and provided for you, at least to some extent. It’s possible to have gratitude for what they provided for you while simultaneously maintaining your boundaries.
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of guilt in which you think you "owe" this parent, but at the end of the day, your parents chose to bring you into the world or adopt you, and it was their obligation to provide for and raise you healthily. "The parent will always be the parent, no matter how old the child," Gilbertson says. "If reconciliation is possible, it begins with the parent." It’s not your obligation to stick around if they remain abusive or chronically destructive. Relatedly, many toxic parents try to deny their child’s independence, or use gifts as leverage, none of which mean you have to have a relationship with them.
10. Practice ongoing self-care.
Dealing with a toxic parent is taxing and often traumatic. Therapy is key if you can access it; Kondili stresses the importance of talking to "someone who is impartial and can help you navigate the decision rationally, with wisdom and compassion." Besides counseling, forms of self-care such as yoga, meditation, journaling, etc. can help you to continually practice mindfulness and take mental and emotional inventory of how you’re doing. "The most important boundary one needs to establish is the mental one," Kondili says. "It doesn't do much good to stop talking to them if they still occupy a large space in your mind, and still affect your life."
11. Create and nurture close, healthy, relationships with others.
Cordova urges people facing familial estrangement to "explore ways of claiming a chosen family." Your best friend who feels like a sibling, the mentor who is a strong and positive parental figure in your life, the community or friend group that feels like a big family: Those are relationships to treasure and cultivate. "All of us have a biological, innate drive to connect, and repairing the loss of a relationship requires building healthy, new relationships," she says.Katya Weiss-Andersson is a vegan chef, freelance writer and Team Palestine marathon runner based in Denver. She writes about politics, sociology, and wellness, and helps folks cook and eat plant-based foods that don’t make them want to die inside. Follow her on Instagram @notanothertofuscramble or find her recipes on her website.