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How to Leave a Dysfunctional Family

by Melody Causewell

The choice to leave a dysfunctional family does not come easily, even in cases of abuse or addiction. Once you have decided to make a break, identifying your reasons, expecting resistance, setting boundaries and finding other support will all help you to leave a dysfunctional family behind.

Identify Who You’re Leaving (and Why)

Tell those around you who you intend to break from. But whoever you want to cut loose deserves a good explanation outside of “I’m angry.” Those with tense relationships overall tend to have less positive feelings about each other, says Kira S. Birditt (et.al.) in “Tensions in the Parent and Adult Child Relationship” published in Psychology and Aging. But this alone isn’t a reason to leave, and they aren’t likely to buy that either. Have some concrete behaviors in mind to justify leaving. Instead of, “You make me sad,” try, “Your constant criticism hurts my feelings and I no longer want to be around it.” Being clear about who you are leaving and why you are choosing this path will make the process easier.

Expect Resistance

Parents tend to be more conflicted and have lower well-being when they have less contact with their children, notes researcher Russel Ward in “Multiple Parent-Adult Child Relations and Well-Being in Middle and Later Life”, a study published in The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences in 2009. If you are trying to leave a mother or father behind, understand that they may fight you on it. But it isn’t only parents; expect that you may get a few extra phone calls and emails from aunts, uncles and cousins if you are trying to leave your immediate family. Be ready with a list of reasons when family members ask why you are not open to patching things up.

Set Boundaries

Boundaries are a critical part of any relationship break. To be effective, they must be clear and concise. “I do not intend to speak with you any longer,” is more clear than, “I need a break.” If there is hope for reconciliation, let your family member know that things might improve if they behave in a different way; for instance, “If you stop drinking and start going to AA meetings I may speak to you again.” You may also add consequences into the mix to ensure boundaries are respected, such as, “If you keep trying to contact me, I will change my phone number.” Being clear about your boundaries and intentions makes leaving a dysfunctional family easier.

Find Support

Breaking away from your family will not be a walk in the park. Make sure you have support in the form of friends or other loved ones that you can rely on. If you miss your family, call one of your friends to come over and chat. If you are feeling conflicted, these are the people you can hash things out with and who will support you in your decisions. These are also the people who will check you if they think you made a mistake. Having friends to ease the blow of family stress will make you more likely to stick to your decisions.

About the Author

Melody Causewell has been a writer in the mental health field since 2001. She written training manuals and clinical programs for mental health organizations. She has published feature articles "Leaven" magazine and has been published in "Natural Awakenings." She has a degree in psychology, a Masters degree in social work and is a La Leche League leader.

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