An empathic guide to cutting all ties when there’s no other choice
Have you ever felt the need to cut ties with a highly toxic person who plays a significant role in your life? I have. On more than one occasion, regrettably, I have been involved with narcissistic people.
Achieving that realization and understanding the reasons why that kept happening wasn’t easy or quick. So, nowadays, I’m working on setting boundaries to prevent the whole story from repeating itself.
What successfully got me out of relationships with narcissistic people was setting in motion the strategies described below.
Ghosting is a radical way to set effective boundaries with people who lack empathy or who have an inability to respect your boundaries. It means to cut off all contact with the person as if you are dead to each other. After years in therapy, I feel it might be the only way to deal with people like this.
This strategy can give you the capacity to work on yourself by ending a relationship that doesn’t add anything positive to your life.
But how do you make that decision? Is it OK to cut your boyfriend loose? Friends? A family member?
Negativity can do much more than drag you down. It can block your path to success, affect your health, and overshadow your other relationships.
The relationships in my family, and especially between my sisters and me, were toxic in many ways. Of course, one can empathize with all of us and how the troubles we endured explain everything. However, as adults, we all have the responsibility to make decisions and stand behind them. After almost 40 years, the excuses of childhood get old, too.
These days, I can put myself in everyone else’s shoes and understand some of the reasons and motivations behind our family dynamic. This empathy has allowed me to heal tremendously, and seeing everyone’s fragility has helped me to accept my own.
Yet, no one has the right to use the issues of their past to abuse you in the present. They must learn new ways to deal with their personal problems, and if they’re not doing that, it’s not your job to fix them.
I have read so many books on this subject, you wouldn’t believe how many, and I have shared this material with my sisters — but each time they rejected it. Twenty years of this can leave you with emotional scars that are hard to deal with, and a toxic pattern of attracting similar relationships over and over again.
Luckily, with the right guidance and a strong determination, I came to realize not everything wrong with the world was my fault.
This was a hard lesson because the problem is, changing how you see yourself and your relationships—and how you behave—can come with a heavy price: your family, toxic partners, and friends won’t like it.
Being a scapegoat is like being the book responsible for leveling an uneven leg on a table. You help to keep everything balanced by taking all the extra pressure your relatives can’t handle, even though it’s not really your job.
Freeing yourself from that burden means you’re putting the entire table off-balance, and they often are not prepared to accept that.
After years of hard work in therapy, I ghosted some of my “BFFs” and cut two of my three sisters loose.
Toxic relationships in your life set you up for failure unless you do one of two things:
- Find a way to turn the relationship around with them, working like crazy to overcome those barriers together.
- Radically accept there’s nothing else you can try. You aren’t feeling loved, accepted, or even respected anymore. You’ve invested enough energy and time already, and it’s time to let this person go.
This article deals with the second situation. And some of those people can take the hint, accept the relationship’s over, and make peace with the fact they won’t have you in their lives that way again.
But, no matter what you say or how many times you say it, others will keep coming back to drain their anxieties, fears, and insecurities, effectively abusing you as a way to blow off steam. You need to know how to recognize this situation and know that ghosting can be an effective way to set your boundaries.
Powerful, but not easy
As a person who has no contact with people I formerly considered essential in my life, I can tell you that it isn’t easy, it isn’t pleasant, and it isn’t for everyone.
There are cases in which a healthy conversation can fix the differences and strengthen the relationship.
I have managed to understand my parents and get them to respect my decisions in my family dynamics. With my sisters, on the other hand, the situation is more like: “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, let me call Nataly. She will take the heat.”
I’m not answering those calls anymore.
There are cases where no matter how many discussions, therapy, coaching sessions, self-help books, or rituals you do, you’re dealing with a lost cause.
Especially when it comes to cutting a family member out of your life, the decision often comes with a pang of overwhelming guilt.
No contact is powerful because it gives you space to listen to new, different, and cheerful voices. It clears up your schedule so you can go and find new hobbies, follow your passion, and find your path.
When you can turn off the pessimistic noise that comes with a toxic relationship, you’re closer to finding balance. When those voices that were constantly pulling you down or humiliating you are out of the picture, you will have the opportunity to reflect on the critical issues of your own life.
The danger of not handling this
Having a toxic person in your life can even change your brain chemistry. When a person’s under stress, whether it be because of their partners’ jealousy, a narcissistically abusive boss, or a manipulative sister, their body and mind respond accordingly.
The traumatic stress you are constantly putting up with to sustain those relationships comes with a price.
Due to the permanent state of anxiety, your brain changes and produces enough cortisol, the stress hormone, for you to “respond appropriately” to the situation you face.
The problem is that shaking that scare up isn’t easy. Your brain slowly adapts to be in “fight or flight mode,” making you more aggressive, jumpy, or anxious.
I will start by clarifying that this isn’t about some sleazy dating strategy to gain your significant other’s attention. On the contrary, no contact is a method to eliminate all chances of that person having a relationship with you.
It is the last resource to maintain an emotional balance when you have tried everything, and nothing has seemed to change that person’s behavior toward you.
Time after time, does that person push the buttons that send you down the rabbit hole? Then it is time to consider cutting off communications and opportunities where you could get hurt.
Assertive communication should always be our first, second, and perhaps third option. If, for example, that person is going through a nasty divorce, I encourage you to cut them some slack and put a safe distance between both of you until the storm passes.
Give yourself the time to regain some perspective so you can prevent making hasty decisions.
Make this decision when you find there is nothing else you can do; you have tried everything, and every single time the result has been the same: abuse.
An abusive relationship is commonly characterized by:
If you find this to be your day-to-day situation, you can be 100% sure there’s no hope the relationship could improve. It’s time to close the curtain and end the show.
In a way, we’re talking about a grieving process in which we assume the “symbolic death” of a relationship that jeopardizes our mental health. Although painful, it can lead you to tremendous personal growth.
For me, it has been a mix between feeling lonely but safer. By refusing to keep playing the role of the scapegoat, I’ve learned about boundaries, learned to appreciate my achievements, and learned to find my own voice.
When “no contact” is your only option
Addressing your feelings before making such a radical decision is essential. Yes, sometimes the people we love the most, or should love the most, are precisely the ones who harm us the most.
Unfortunately, these relationships tend to have more potential to hurt us than any other. It is not by chance that it is at home that we learn to love.
A no-contact strategy is a tool that you shouldn’t take lightly. With the proper distance, certain people can stay in your life without causing any harm or problem.
But when the possibility of being hurt is a constant, and we avoid taking action, we need to look at the issues within ourselves. Sometimes, it’s as if it were an addiction — which is often the case. Sometimes we refuse to let go of codependent relationships that, like a bad habit, hold our progress back.
Consider the benefits of having them out of the picture vs. the pain of keeping them in.
- Have you tried everything?
- Have they ever listened to you and changed their behavior?
- Are they using you as their scapegoat?
- Are they constantly trying to manipulate you?
- Are they isolating you? Making you doubt your self-worth?
Answer these questions honestly, and you’ll be able to make the right call.
Depending on their importance in your life, you can go no contact with a person without explaining anything. Even then, if — and especially if — they’re narcissists, I strongly advise you to take this path. You simply cut off contact without notifying them.
Remember, no contact is about you, not about them. It’s about your decision to feel safe, respected, and empowered. What does no contact mean? It means to stop contacting them for any reason and erase the possibility of them getting in touch.
Do not seek their attention in any way. Forget about those social media manipulation strategies in which you “dress to impress,” hoping they will see your photo.
Erase and block their phone numbers from your phone, and those of “friends in common” who only serve as their agent.
Stop following them on social media.
Unfriend and block them on social media.
Do not “cyber stalk” them to try to see what they are up to. It is no longer any of your concern. Remove reminders of them from your environment.
Do not pick up if they call. Do not respond to messages.
Stop frequenting places where you can “accidentally” bump into your abuser. That’s relatively easy when we’re talking about a boyfriend who might not even live on the same side of town. But when it comes to a parent, things can be a lot more complex. In that case, I recommend that you review the gray-rock strategy that I have described before.
Cutting familiar ties is heartbreaking. If you still have some healthy relationships, family gatherings can be a problem. My strategy is to show up late to every single celebration. I get there after the candles are blown, the holidays are over, and even when the curtains have been drawn. That allows me the opportunity to hang out with the people that I truly care about without all the hassle.
Certain cases will require a bigger sacrifice than others, but it’s worth it, trust me.
A great indicator of how necessary it is to stop contacting someone is the fear you feel about the possibility of meeting that person again. When butterflies and excitement turn into anxiety and somatization, it’s time to do this.
It hurts. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Accepting there’s an important person in your life that doesn’t do you any good hurts. That pain stems from the importance that person has in your life.
Let’s face it. If we talked about a cranky landlord or an annoying colleague, this would be a very short article.
There is a lot of talk about relationships being like plants. They need watering and care, yes, but they also need space to grow.
We all go through different processes, and sometimes we need to distance ourselves a little. Sometimes a relationship only requires some work.
I wish my “BFFs” and sisters the best. I hope they all have the opportunity to work on themselves and learn how to cope with anxiety without abusing others. I really do. But in the meantime, I’d rather stay out of their way.
Stepping outside of your previous patterns can allow you to see yourself from a different, fresher perspective. Now that I live in another country, I’m fascinated with the number of times I’ve heard others describing me with words like “patient,” “friendly,” and “loving.”
They weren’t introduced to the narrative in my family of me being a lost cause; they get to see me for what I really am: a person with some virtues and some defects, like anyone else.
I have never felt this free.
I know you might wonder: how bad could it be keeping this person in my life? It’s the way it is.
Let me ask you: how bad does it have to get before you put an end to that abuse cycle?