Ending dysfunctional family relationships can be a wrenching process, because of the natural desire to maintain emotional connections, even with people who treat you badly. The alternative, however, is allowing an unhealthy situation to continue eroding your emotional and mental well-being. Once you accept your situation, you must decide whether to stay in limited contact or end the relationship, and stick to a consistent set of ground rules to avoid reopening the issue.
1. Recognize the Signs
Breaking away from dysfunctional families implies that you recognize the dynamics that characterize such relationships. Constant arguments, extreme rigidity in family rules and lack of communication are some of the more common signs, according to the Texas State University Counseling Center. Family members become vulnerable to chemical dependency, compulsive behaviors and emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Adult children must accept the need for change or risk repeating the cycle in their own lives.
2. Accept the Situation
At some point, you must accept that a toxic family member won't change or risk further damage to your psychological well-being, asserts Richard A. Friedman, a psychiatry professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, in a commentary for "The New York Times." Admitting that a relationship is unhealthy can be traumatizing, especially for adult children seeking a dysfunctional parent's love and acceptance. However, failure to confront the need for change only diminishes your chance of recovering from the situation psychologically. (See Reference 3)
3. Determine Your Options
Several outcomes are possible once you stop dealing with a family member who's acting in a cruel or abusive way. You can try a temporary separation, to work on your own recovery, says Karyl McBride, a licensed family and marriage therapist writing for "Psychology Today." Alternatively, you can pursue a civil connection, keeping encounters brief, polite and unemotional. You can cut off all contact with family members who refuse to change their behavior, advises McBride.
4. Establish Your Boundaries
If the relationship isn't viable, you can call, email or write the person and establish some boundaries to manage the situation. If you're still convinced that a break is required, you should explain why you're taking that step, according to Kyle Killian, a family psychologist interviewed for "The Globe & Mail" newspaper. Cutting family members abruptly out of your life carries less impact than sharing your reasons in a brief conversation with the other person. (See Reference 4)
5. Other Considerations
Before ending any family relationship, it's important to consider the conditions by which you might resume contact. Most counselors don't recommend permanently cutting off relationships, except for situations that lead to further trauma -- such as cases of severe emotional, physical or sexual abuse, "The Globe & Mail" reports. Otherwise, when a family member attempts to reconnect, the criteria that you've established will determine whether to respond favorably, or avoid further contact. (See Reference 4)