The family you choose

“Blood is thicker than water.”

“Family is everything.”

I was watching one of my shows the other day, and there was a B plot about one of the main character’s strained relationship with his family. It didn’t get a lot of exposition or screen time; it was a sub-plot meant, I suppose, to give another dimension to the character. The problem of family issues is treated as just that: a problem. If you aren’t close to your family, there is something wrong there and you should fix it. I saw the anguish he had toward his father. His father, when he didn’t get what he wanted, said, “I won’t call you again.”

There have been few studies into the concept of family distancing, but one study suggests it may be as common as divorce. Family distancing is really best thought of as a continuum, rather than an all-or-nothing of either distant or not-distant. It is any process that limits interaction and decreases interdependence as the result of an ongoing negative relationship. This could be calling less, ignoring texts, skipping family events, sharing fewer personal details, or completely cutting off contact.

Family, especially parents, is typically thought of as a nurturing, loving, and sacrificial influence in people’s lives, but of course, we know that not all family units function that way. Reasons for estrangement include abuse, poor parenting, and betrayal but also mental illness, unsupportive behaviour, and toxicity. The family unit is not a place of safety, security, or love. It’s a place of anxiety and hurt.

To be clear, the estrangement process is traumatic. It can be clumsy and awkward trying to figure out how much distance you want or need and how to enact that. There also isn’t always support for such a thing. Family relationships are usually considered non-voluntary, which is the opposite of friendships and romantic relationships. We can end friendships when they become toxic or break up with a romantic partner, but when it comes to family, a lot of people don’t consider this an option.

I have a friend (I have his permission to write about his experiences for this post) who likes to say “my mother doesn’t like me” and wait for people to try to reason with him: “No, no, of course she does! She loves you!” His response is always the same: “She loves me because I am her child and she has to. But she does not like me.” They have a particularly strained relationship of which we have all been witnesses. Where some of us look forward to family holidays, they fill him with anxiety and dread.

I’ve watched this friend go through various stages in his distancing. He’s tried to repair, be on his best behaviour, fight back, and stay silent before finally coming to the conclusion that some members of his family are toxic for him. The healthiest choice for him is distance. It’s not a complete severing: he still shows up for things and goes through the motions. He just doesn’t go out of his way to call or update them on his life because it leads to hurt and pain anyway. He needs time to recover from time spent with his family. Sometimes he does go out of his way to avoid it when he feels like he can’t deal with it right then.

He’s told me that when he explains his family dynamic to people, their first response is usually, “I’m so sorry” and pity. But he explains to them that he is not alone. It would be a lot different if he had no one looking out for him, but he has a healthy support network. He has “surrogate” parents he can go to for help and advice, he has confidantes, and he has people who celebrate his victories wholeheartedly. Other members of his family are very close to him and fulfill those roles. Isn’t that what we want from our family anyway?

I asked him if he feels sad about the state of things with his family, and he explained that it’s a mixed bag. He’s come to a place of acceptance, and the distance is the healthier option for him. But he acknowledges that there is a part of him that yearns for a “normal” family (though, truly, what is and is not normal?). There will always be a part of him that craves a healthy relationship with his mother. He both looks forward to and dreads big moments in life (marriage, children) because his family’s involvement in those events can truly turn something great into something triggering and upsetting. He has many stories of times his family have downplayed his achievements or ruined good moments. He’s learning to let go of the bitterness, but there’s definitely some resentment there.

It breaks my heart sometimes when I see him react to things. He says he doesn’t care, but I see the hurt in his eyes. He wants a normal relationship with his mother, but he knows he can’t change the way she is. All he can do, unfortunately, is put more distance and lower his expectations. Birthdays, big moments, everything: he is always at risk of getting his heart broken again, of feeling like a forgotten child again.

It takes a measure of strength to decide to remove yourself from toxic familial relationships, no matter the reason why. But it’s important that people who have gone through this process have support from other, chosen relationships.

Perhaps people can be just as healthy and well-adjusted without the closeness of their blood-related or legal family.

Do you know someone who keeps distance from their family? How can we expand what it means to be “family”?

2 thoughts on “The family you choose

  1. As someone who came from a toxic family of origin, I can relate to your friend. I didn’t cut them off and we talk maybe once or twice a month. Fortunately, I have an awesome support network who act as buttresses during the rough times.


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