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Family Feuds: 6 Things to Consider When Contact Is Cut Off

More than 1 in 4 of us has parted ways with a relative and that includes me. Mental health experts share coping tips for both sides of an estrangement.

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Eliana Rodgers
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Last week, on March 15, singer Kelly Rowland, who was cohosting the fourth hour of Today with Hoda Kotb, opened up about reuniting with her estranged father. Christopher Lovett and his daughter didn't speak for three decades. He joined her on the set as the two shared their story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Recalling their separation during her childhood, the 41-year-old singer said in a pre-recorded interview, “I was angry at him, I was disappointed in him, I had all those feelings of abandonment. I didn’t know why he wasn’t there.”

Kelly Rowland
Getty Images

Later, as an adult, she distanced herself by choice. Concert security knew not to allow him backstage.

Father and daughter reunited five years ago at an Atlanta hotel. "I wanted her to hear the other side of the story," Lovett said on Today. "Some of the things that other people said (about me) weren't true. And I couldn't get a chance to see her ... and tell her that I love her."

With tears in her eyes, Rowland recalled, "It was necessary. The little girl in me needed to hear that."

It happens in nearly every family

You’ve heard the saying blood is thicker than water. Welp, it seems many people don’t agree. At least 27 percent of Americans are estranged from a relative, according to a recent national survey. Although defining estrangement is kind of tricky, it’s usually a situation in which someone has cut off contact with one or more relatives (or has been cut off), according to Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. The book looks at the whys and hows of these family breakdowns and gives personal insight (and advice) from those cut off and the folks doing the cutting.

Unfortunately, I’ve been on both sides. I cut off an aunt for five years. And about a year ago, my sister decided to “take a break” from me for several months. As someone who has been the initiator, the one cut off and a third party to rifts (breakups are a thing for my kinfolk), I know how devastating these divides can be for the whole family.

What causes family members to part ways?

The reasons for family separations are numerous and include things that occurred earlier in life, such as harsh parenting or abuse, or disagreements about lifestyle choices, money and unmet expectations (like a relative not being there for you in a time of crisis).

In my case, my aunt said something extremely disrespectful about my young child who was undergoing surgery. Since this kind of behavior was typical for her, I ended contact.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The decision to break up with a loved one isn’t easy. That’s true, especially for Black women. “We have a history of significant stereotypes about the ‘superwoman’ or ‘strong Black woman’ that lead us to experience profound guilt for opting to prioritize our emotional and physical safety over loyalty,” says Jessica M. Smedley, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. Therefore, when we do split from a relative, it’s a big deal.

The toll of breaking family ties

Whether someone gives the cold shoulder or is on the receiving end, the separation can lead to chronic stress. As we know, chronic stress can contribute to health issues, including headaches, upset stomach, trouble sleeping, weight gain, concentration problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

Beyond that, estrangements affect the entire family. My sister told me she needed a break from me after she asked for, but didn’t like, my advice. We didn’t speak for months. Our silence meant we also didn’t have any contact with our nieces and nephews.

Also, oftentimes, when a breakup occurs within a family, other relatives choose a side, which causes more division, says Alisha Powell, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker at Amethyst Counseling and Consulting. This is true for my family. The many different estrangements that have occurred between various people mean we have relatives who’ve never met. So, a separation between two or a few loved ones can have a ripple effect.

Some Coping Tips

Think before you act
Of course, in extreme cases like abuse (whether physical, verbal or emotional), do what’s necessary for your safety. In other situations, though, pause and determine why you’re considering cutting the cord. “It’s important to understand if cutting off someone is an overreaction or an appropriate response to the situation,” says Smedley.

Give space
If you’ve been put on freeze, don’t try to force a discussion or tell off your loved one. Both will make the situation worse. Instead, Powell says, “Let the person know, ‘I love you and want us to have a relationship, but I also want to give you your space. Reach out when you're ready for us to talk again.’”

Obviously, if you’re a parent and your child has cut you off, that’s easier said than done. You likely feel guilt and regret and question your parenting skills. Still, don’t try to push them for answers. Take some time to reflect and really consider why your child may have taken this step. There’s a chance both of you view the same events through a different lens.

“Reconciliation with an adult child can entail acknowledging and taking responsibility for actions and words that have been said in the past,” says Powell. Even if you don’t feel you were wrong, the simple fact your child was hurt by something you said or did, and it had an impact on them, should be acknowledged, she says. Only then will the two of you be able to focus on building a new future.

Create boundaries
After I cut off my aunt, I heard “that’s your auntie” many times. Folks tried to guilt-trip me. They would give me updates about her. One even tried to arrange an “accidental” meeting between us. I found myself avoiding conversations with some people and even snapped on a few.

We often shut people out because we don’t know how to set boundaries or we’re worried about how our family will react. However, boundaries are important and can bring people closer together. “Healthy boundaries can ensure that each person in a relationship feels valued, respected and heard,” says Powell. “This means that even if there isn't agreement, there is still mutual respect and clear communication,” she adds. Setting a boundary doesn’t have to mean going off (as I, unfortunately, did). You can set boundaries in a way that is clear yet still respectful. For example, Powell advises, “I know you’re still close to .... However, I don’t want to talk about them. Let’s talk about something else.”

Feel your feelings
When my sister took her break, I was hurt and angry. After I ghosted my aunt, I often felt guilty, wondering how I would feel if she passed away and I missed the opportunity to reconnect. “It’s normal to grieve a loss of a relationship, even if it was toxic, abusive or hurtful,” says Smedley. Allow yourself to feel those emotions but know that grief can coexist with making the right decision, she says.

Practice self-care
Regardless of which side you’re on, separating from a family member hurts. It takes a toll physically and emotionally. Write in a journal, pray, look for reasons to laugh, keep up your self-care habits and be kind to yourself.

Know when (and when not) to reconcile
Fortunately, my sister realized our relationship is worth saving. She eventually reached out to explain she was going through a lot and took it out on me. She apologized and we’re good.

Things with my aunt, however, have never been the same. After five years, I contacted her, hoping we could put the past behind us. Over the years, though, she’s continued to cross the line in one way or another. Now, our only interactions are infrequent likes on social media.

Although I wish the disconnects within my family didn’t exist, I’ve been living life the way Powell recommends. “You have to prioritize your own health, mental health and emotional well-being,” she says. For me, that means nourishing the relationships that are healthy and positive, and loving others — yes, even though they’re family — from a distance.