Oprah’s recent interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has sparked a lot of feelings in a lot of people, and I am no exception. I am not going to comment on the racism Meghan Markle has experienced, because let’s be honest–no one needs another white person to jump in with their “thoughts and feelings” about racism because doing so just drowns out the voices of people of color. And before anyone jumps in with comments about “reverse racism,” I’m going to go ahead and stop you right there. Reverse racism isn’t a real thing, it’s just something white people say when they’re not the center of attention for five seconds.
What I do feel qualified to comment on, however, is what it’s like to break up with a toxic family member. In May, it will be seven years since I cut off contact with my abuser and it has not been an easy road. I expected the hardest part to be getting that person to leave me alone, but in truth it’s been everyone else. I get that people mean well, and they are operating from their own experiences. For them, they have good relationships with their family members and simply can’t imagine what it would be like to never speak to a family member again. They feel like their lives would be less without them, so they assume I feel the same way.
Spoiler alert: I don’t. If you can tell me that I should “be the bigger person” and try to mend fences with my abuser, clearly you never hid in your laundry hamper or under your bed as a child to avoid the wrath of an adult who regularly took their anger out on your body. I already have an essay about this scheduled for tomorrow, but I wanted to take the time to talk about what it’s like to cut off contact with an abusive family member and what the fallout is like. Because even the most well meaning people can do a lot of damage in these types of situations.
If you know someone who has taken steps to limit or remove contact with an abusive family member, here are a few things you should never say to them:
“Oh, I wish you two could just work it out!”
Why? I don’t. This person physically abused me, manipulated me, and gaslit me until I had PTSD, a diagnosis that has been confirmed by no fewer than six therapists and is something I still have to deal with to this day. For god’s sake, I started self harming and contemplating suicide at age ten because of the abuse I survived. Just because you are related to someone by blood does not mean you are required to give them an infinite number of chances.
“But they’re your family/blood is thicker than water!”
Family is dictated by more than DNA, and I refuse to allow someone to continue to treat me like shit because of biology. This isn’t to say I’ve completely eschewed the family I was born into, because I haven’t. I feel close to my father and I have good relationships with other family members, but that’s not where my family ends. I’ve created a family with Jon (to whom I am thankfully not related), and I also have a best friend who feels more like a sister, and those connections don’t stop there.
I’m also continually annoyed by the constant misuse of the “blood is thicker than water” platitude. The full quote is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” which essentially means that the bonds forged in battle can be stronger than the bonds you are born into. If you want to use bumper sticker wisdom to convince me to reconnect with my abuser, you might want to try something else.
“You’ll regret it if you run out of time to reconcile!”
This is something I’ve talked about extensively with my therapist, and I really don’t anticipate this as being a problem for me. I think I would’ve regretted continuing to stay in that toxic relationship much more than I will regret getting out. As I said earlier, I’m not required to continue to allow an abuser to prey on me simply because standing up for myself makes other people uncomfortable.
“But what about Kiddo? Don’t you want him to have a relationship with them?”
Fuck no, I don’t. Having Kiddo is what gave me the courage to finally cut off contact with my abuser because in the first couple weeks of Kiddo’s life, my abuser showed a complete disregard for the precautions needed to keep him safe following his heart transplant and constantly blew past the boundaries I set as his mother. Before becoming a mother, I didn’t have the strength to stand up to my abuser, but when Kiddo’s health and safety were on the line, I finally found the spine I never knew I had.
Of course, choosing to cut off contact with my abuser is not without complications and consequences. I feel largely isolated from that side of the family, although that is partially by my abuser’s design–they repeatedly told me as a kid that they didn’t want me around the family because they didn’t want me to “be like them.” On the rare occasion I hear someone from my family say one of the aforementioned phrases about why I should get back in contact with my abuser, I end up rolling my eyes because they might not be so quick to defend my abuser if they only knew the shit my abuser has said about them when they’re not around.
I have no idea what version of the story my abuser has told them as to why we are not in contact, but I’m sure it’s one in which my abuser is framed as the helpless victim. I say this because about three years ago, I received a letter from one of my abuser’s friends, asking me to reconsider getting into contact with my abuser because they “missed me” and “didn’t understand why I was doing this.”
I’m sure the friend was well intentioned, but it was honestly none of her business and her kind intentions had done little more than turn her into one of my abuser’s flying monkeys. To me, my abuser does not seem interested in trying to make a genuine connection with me as much as they seem like they want to manipulate their way back into my life without ever having to apologize. For example: my abuser didn’t tell me when my uncle unexpectedly died from leukemia (I had to hear about it on social media from my cousins), but they emailed me about a scam phone call they received six months later–along with a pointed line that someone had informed my abuser that we had recently moved.
There’s nothing quite like having your abuser remind you that they know where you live to send you into a major panic attack.
Some people are never going to understand if you cut off contact with a toxic or abusive family member. They just aren’t. And it’s usually not because they don’t care, it’s because they are simply coming from their own, more positive life experiences and as a result, they have difficulty imagining a world in which they would distance themselves from family. If that’s what it’s like for you, then I hope you never know what it’s like. I hope the familial relationships you were born into are supportive and loving and continue to add value to your life instead of trauma. But not everyone is as lucky as you. Hell, I’m luckier than some because I have a good relationship with some of my family. But unless you were there with me, getting your mouth scrubbed out with green Lava soap or getting backhanded across the chest in the car for saying the wrong thing, you don’t get to tell me I’m overreacting or that I “need to reach out.”
Because as far as I can remember, I was alone in that laundry hamper.