Blood Ties

Should You Divorce Your Family After the Holidays?

Splitting from a bad spouse is accepted but a stigma remains about cutting out a damaging sibling or parent. How do you decide to let one go?


January has long been considered the most popular month for divorces with many unhappy spouses ready to make a fresh start after faking it through the holidays for the sake of the kids or other family members. But what if the dysfunctional relationship in your life isn’t with your spouse, but with another family member? Is January a good time to consider divorcing a sibling, parent or other family member who makes you miserable?

While divorce is widely accepted today there remains a stigma around ending a relationship with other family members, often no matter how egregious their behavior. I was reminded of this just before the holidays when on a recent episode of Oprah Winfrey’s Lifeclass, megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes chastised two sisters who had not spoken in years. The reason for the estrangement: one sister tried to engage in an affair with the other’s boyfriend but was caught before the relationship was consummated. The sister in question had never apologized to her sibling for this transgression. Yet for some reason Jakes seemed under the impression that having this woman out of her life was a major loss for the sister who’s boyfriend the other one had tried to shag and insisted they reconcile. But the question I kept asking is why?

Why should this woman want a person she cannot trust and has shown her no remorse or empathy to remain in her life? What benefit is there in such a relationship? Jakes insisted on the importance of blood, which seems an odd reasoning to focus on when it comes to defining what constitutes a worthwhile relationship, particularly since we live in a society in which there are plenty of strong, healthy adoptive families who do not define family along bloodlines. He did mention the possibility of needing a kidney one day, which I guess is something. But by that logic children should never be taken from abusive parents and adopted by others because “you never know when they might need a kidney.”

Jakes is not alone in believing that your family must stay your family no matter how hurtful or dysfunctional they may be. Academy Award-winning actress Mo’Nique talked publicly about being a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her brother as a child. After confiding about the abuse to her parents, her brother was sent away briefly, then returned to the family who pretended nothing happened. Her brother was eventually convicted of sexually abusing another girl, and Mo’Nique became estranged from the entire family as an adult. (This is not as rare of an occurrence as people might think. I personally know of two families that handled incidents of sexual abuse similarly.)

So where exactly is the line that a family member must cross for estrangement to be justified and furthermore not stigmatized?

The short answer is, it depends on whom you ask. Dr. Jeff Gardere said a tell tale sign is “When you feel your self getting emotionally ill, but even worse, physically ill” when interacting with the relative in question. He explained that “Back and stomach problems, ulcers, migraine headaches, etc., that is the body saying; ‘Enough, you are killing me!’” Dr. Michelle Golland suggested a sort of checklist of traits that are warning signs a familial relationship is unhealthy and may be worth ending, including: “You feel drained when associating with the person. The person continuously makes you angry. The person is manipulative towards you to get what they want.” But perhaps most seriously, “You often feel threatened with the person.”

Bill Doherty is a Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. While he is a pioneer in the field of discernment counseling, a form of therapy in which married couples are encouraged to consider divorce as an equally healthy therapeutic outcome alongside possible reconciliation, Doherty believes a higher bar should be set when it comes to ending other familial relationships. He explained that ending a familial relationship altogether should only be done in extreme circumstances when all other avenues of reconciliation and coexistence have failed. More specifically, “when active emotional cruelty or physical/sexual abuse continues to occur and all efforts to limit it or distance from the person have failed.” Doherty later explained that a “state occasions only” rule tends to be an emotionally healthier option for most people. This means that while you may not speak regularly to the sibling or parent that has hurt you, you do not allow that relationship to derail your relationships with other family members by skipping family functions such as weddings to avoid him or her. He cautioned that avoiding such events to avoid that person might take “more emotional energy,” than simply setting firm boundaries with the relationship and your level of interaction in adulthood.

When asked to clarify why he thinks divorce is a more acceptable option for spouses who hurt each other versus two siblings who hurt each other he replied, “marriage is a contractual relationship entered in adulthood with vows/promises made about mutual obligations and legal norms created in nearly every culture for ending the marriage for serious reasons. Other family relationships (so-called blood relationships) are not contractual in the same way and they generally begin when at least one of the parties is born; thus they are inherited and not chosen.” He concluded, “You can have an ex-spouse but not an ex-sister. Even adopted kids refer to their ‘birth mother’ even if they never met her.”

For this reason and others we all tend to tolerate behavior from siblings and parents we never would from spouses or romantic partners. But Doherty and the other therapists interviewed also believe we tolerate more from family members because society expects us to. Pressure, particularly on those who are religious, to forgive can often result in the mistaken assumption that forgiveness means one should tolerate unhealthy behavior for a lifetime.

But Rev. Jacqui Lewis, a pastor at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan said this is not the case. While she stressed that as a pastor her focus tends to be on healing, counseling, therapy if necessary and ideally reconciliation, “sometimes we have to break up to stay healthy in our lives.” She added, “I think in some blood-related families there can be such toxicity, such violence to the spirit that it’s not healthy to be in that relationship.” She also noted that biblical text does not support the idea of staying in a harmful, destructive relationship with anyone for any reason.

All of those interviewed suggested various ways of coping with the social stigma of ending a family relationship. Doherty suggested that in a situation in which abuse has occurred and no amends have been made it might be best to simply tell other family members who have asked the full story. Strangers and acquaintances on the other hand just need an “it’s complicated.” Dr. Golland similarly advised “to keep it simple and honest without too much detail. I know people can be curious but it is important to set boundaries if others are being rude or judgmental around your decision.”

Ultimately when asked about the idea of familial divorce Rev. Lewis concluded, “If your heart is broken day in and day out the same way, by the same person, you probably need to think about changing your pattern. We can’t change anybody except ourselves. The only person we can change in relationships that are not healthy is us, and one way to change is to disconnect.”