Deciding to Go No-Contact With Family


Quotes + Episode Excerpts:

“You’re not required to abandon yourself and sacrifice everything or use yourself up to receive love. Your needs and your feelings are valid. You’re allowed to take up space. You’re deserving of a reciprocal relationship that’s based on equal value and equal respect.”

“Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.”

“May the bridges I burn light the way.”


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Episode transcript:


Welcome to the Overcoming Sexual Abuse podcast where you get the tools and inspiration to help you overcome childhood sexual abuse. I’m your host, Christina Enevoldsen, certified coach, author and incest survivor, and I’m here to help you heal and live your very best life!

The relationship with your family of origin is for your survival and well-being. But what if the relationship is actually harmful? At what point is estrangement a good option? I’ll share the pros and cons of staying and leaving, the specific ways you can gain more clarity, and the hidden signs that the relationship is actually already over.

If you’re considering estrangement from your family, nobody can tell you what’s right for you. And to be honest, there’s no perfect answer. There are benefits of staying and there are benefits of leaving, and both of those come with consequences. So you’re the one who lives with those results, and so it’s your choice to make. And there are judgments from people no matter which one you decide.

If you leave your family, people will judge you as, oh, high and mighty, or entitled, or unforgiving, or holding a grudge, and they don’t even have to hear any of the circumstances to make those judgments. And if they’ve heard your family side, you can be sure that it’s not an accurate version that they’ve heard.

And then there’s going to be judgments from people who think you shouldn’t put up with mistreatment, and they’re going to think you’re a pushover if you stay. In my case, it wasn’t only others who judged me, but I judged myself. I judged myself for being disloyal when I did stand up for myself, and I judged myself for being a doormat when I didn’t stand up for myself. And so there’s no escaping judgment, so maybe avoiding judgment isn’t the best way to make a decision.

Another thing that may influence that decision is guilt. I did an episode on that, in episode six, guilt over setting boundaries, and if that’s blocking you from setting boundaries, that’s a good one to listen to. The right thing doesn’t always feel right. So, you know, change when we grow, that usually feels wrong just because it’s unfair. And that’s part of the survival brain. So feeling guilty isn’t proof that you’re actually guilty, that you’ve done something wrong. It’s just a feeling and it needs investigation. With guilt, what rule are you telling yourself that you’ve broken? And is it an appropriate rule? Where did that rule come from? Does it work for you? And so when you’re standing up for yourself knowing that that is just a natural part of doing something new that you’re learning, you can give yourself a mantra to assure yourself that even if it doesn’t feel like the right thing, this is actually the right thing.

If your experience with your family is love mixed with fear and hurt and insecurity, you might believe that love hurts, that you have to pursue these people that you love, your family, that you need to expect to be let down a lot and that your expectations and standards have to be low. And you might feel unworthy of anything else and maybe not even think about that because it’s so ingrained in you. And you might not notice it, but you might cope with that by trying to be the bigger person in the relationship and therefore the one that just puts up with a lot.

However, you’re not required to abandon yourself and sacrifice everything or use yourself up to receive love. Your needs and your feelings are valid. You’re allowed to take up space. You’re deserving of a reciprocal relationship that’s based on equal value and equal respect.

Sometimes a relationship is over and nobody told you. And what I mean by that is you’re the only one who thinks about them. Maybe it’s your other family member and you’re always calling them, but you’re an afterthought.
afterthought to them or maybe not even an afterthought. Maybe you’re not even a thought. And maybe even if it’s not very frequently, you’re the one who reaches out. You keep the relationship alive and they never contact you and they don’t include you in the family news, whether it’s exciting or whether it’s mundane. They don’t think about calling you if something exciting happens or something terrible happens and you’re not even on their radar. And they live their lives as though you don’t exist. And maybe when you do text or call them, they don’t respond or maybe it takes them weeks or months to get back to you. And maybe you’re afraid of what would happen if you stopped pursuing them. What would that mean? Or maybe you know that they only reach out to you because of obligation or to appear loving to other people or because they’re dependent on you for something.

And I’ll share something with you that someone shared with me many years ago. Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated. If your family only tolerates you, you might think it’s because of you and that wherever you go, whoever you’re with, that’s how people will treat you. But that’s not true.

This treatment from your family might be an invitation to change something. There’s this quote that I love, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.” So sometimes a change of environment can make a huge difference in how you see yourself and how you’re treated.

I tried and tried to get my mom’s love and attention when I was a child and for most of my adult life. And for the most part, all I got was more feeling of shame for being unwanted. And as a child, I didn’t have another family to join. I didn’t have another mom I could go to. But as I got older, my options broadened. And though for a long time I didn’t respond as though I had other options, I just continued to pursue her love. And when I experienced rejection and invalidation and feeling inferior, I didn’t get the hint. It was just as though my parents were the only source. So if you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to gain your family’s acceptance and connection, consider other possible sources.

So what about the relationship? Like, can you continue? Can you move forward or move on with it? So there are some things to consider and one:
Is there hope for their behavior changing?

Don’t make the mistake that I did. I didn’t think that I had to address it directly. I thought that the passage of time was enough. I thought that if enough time went by, that meant the person was sorry and they wouldn’t do it again. And as you hear that, I hope you hear what a story I was making up about that, that I totally made up the meaning that time equals a feeling of regret. And do you see how there was nothing to base that on?

And the truth about that is that if someone does something to hurt you, especially someone who’s supposed to love you, let’s say they betray your trust, time doesn’t make that person more trustworthy. And if you think that it does, you might be getting it confused like I did. And maybe that’s because it does take time to rebuild trust. That part is true, but it’s not time alone. Trust has to be built on something solid. And so if you never address it with a person, if you just brush it under the rug as though it didn’t happen, you’re probably not going to have the information you need to decide if it is safe to move forward.

When you do address it, ask for a time to talk about something important to you. And that creates a container around this discussion and it gives it the honor that it deserves. And the way that they respond to your request is valuable information in itself. How do they treat your need to talk? If they are willing to talk, state it something like this. When you did this, I felt this. Or when you do this, I feel this. An example that I might use is when you choose to spend the holiday with my abuser rather than with me, I felt betrayed.

And then how do they respond to that? This is what you pay attention to. Do they own it? Do they have empathy? Do they apologize? Do they regret it? Or do they admit it but the apology is full of excuses? “It’s because…”

Or do they not even apologize and they blame you for it? Or do they just take no responsibility at all? They say that never happened.

So those things give you the information. The ones you can work with are the ones where they take some level of responsibility. There’s just nothing to work with when they don’t. That’s a good indication that the relationship will never change. change, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Now when I suggested talking with a family member or family members, you might intuitively know it’s just not safe to bring this up. And you might know that there’s some kind of a punishment or backlash that you’ll get for doing that. And unfortunately, that’s very common. If you’re already anticipating that, maybe you have all the information you need. Do you want to stay in this relationship?

My daughter Bethany and I have joked about using the escape by expulsion method of closing the door on the relationship that we’ve had with family. And that’s where instead of you walking away, you get kicked out. And that was how both Bethany and I separately had our relationship end with my parents and with Bethany’s grandparents. So Bethany shared her experience with that in episodes 4 and 5 on standing up to our incest family. And I shared my estrangement story in episode 17, Family Loyalty and Betrayal. This expulsion method isn’t something I recommend as a strategy, but we did find some benefits in it after it had already happened to us. And just to be clear, we weren’t intentionally doing something to get kicked out, at least not consciously. But the benefit we found was that when the temptation came to crawl back to them, the door was closed on the other side because they were disgusted with us. So there was no going back. And because we were both afraid that we were going to, once we’d walked away, we’d compromise our boundaries and go back. Because of course, there’s a lot of pain in that.

One of the cons of this expulsion method is that in a sense, it was them saying, “You’re not one of us. You don’t belong with us.” Versus when we walk away, it’s saying, “I’m not one of you.” And so when it’s your choice to walk away, even though it might not be easy and it still is painful, it can feel really empowering versus victimized yet again.

And that rejection can really sting. I talked about that in episode 7, “Overcoming the Fear of Rejection.” So if you’re in that place experiencing that, I recommend that episode.

After my relationship with my parents ended, I was telling a friend that it wasn’t my choice to end the relationship with my parents. And she wisely told me that it could be my choice because I was stating it as though I was powerless to choose because they had already ended the relationship. But the truth was I could ask myself if I even wanted a relationship with them because that’s the way relationships work. Both parties decide. Both parties are a part of keeping the relationship going. I could work through that to get to the place of saying no to them.

Now, even if you know how harmful this relationship is for you, it can be extremely difficult to leave it. And there’s no shame in not being ready to leave or having a difficult time. One thing that you might do is to ask yourself how truly dependent you are on this relationship. It’s so so common to assume that you’re actually more dependent than you really are. And in my relationship with my parents, part of me was willing to be in the abuse and settle for the whole same stifling and restrictive and discounting and unequal relationship that we had to have something,
some sort of connection with my parents. And part of me was willing to walk away. And so that created a real conflict. So the relationship that I had was survival to my child self. And it was understandable that she wanted to do whatever she needed to to protect that relationship. But my higher self, the adult me, the loving parent in me wouldn’t let me do that. I needed to be compassionate and understanding of the child in me, but to make the decision as my adult self. And your child self will likely feel very dependent and doesn’t realize other options are available. It’s as though this real it’s this relationship or nothing. And those are legitimate needs. So how can your adult self meet those needs if you’re not in this relationship?

When I was sorting out my relationship with my parents, I was very much relating to my inner child. And that part of me was so hurt. And she really wanted her parents to comfort her and make things safe for her. But those were the people who were also hurting her. And so the adult part of me had to step in and I had to be the comfort to her and validate her pain and her and fear. I had to assure her that I’d meet her needs that she didn’t have to depend on those unreliable and untrustworthy people anymore. She needed that comfort, but she also needed to be kept safe. And so from that adult perspective, again, I saw the possible consequences for relieving the relationship. And it was my adult self who had to find the alternative ways of meeting those needs.
Because my adult self could also see the likely consequences of staying in the relationship. And my adult self could see the bigger picture. and the long-term effects.

So remember I mentioned there are a few things to consider. And the first was do you have hope for change, hope based on something realistic? And the other is what will happen if you stay?

When my daughter Bethany shared her story in episodes four and five,
she shared that when she wanted to end the relationship with her dad, she did this kind of practice run at separation. She did that by not talking with him for a few months before she reported him for the abuse. And that gave her a chance to test the water so she’d have a better sense of what it would be like. So it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you’re not sure if total estrangement will work for you, then you can set boundaries like just limiting contact, like only on the phone or only on text rather than in person. Or once a year, but not on holidays. They can be whatever you want. And it doesn’t have to be forever, at least not on your part. And it’s okay to say initially that it’s forever at first and then change your mind.

People have asked me if I have any regrets about my relationship with my parents. And admittedly, there’s been a lot of pain. I felt so left out of things, like when my mom died, I heard it secondhand. And I wasn’t able to go to the memorial service for either my mother or my father. And when my first grandson was born, then I would have loved to be able to share that experience with my mom because it was her first great-grandchild.
So there have been a lot of things, including anniversaries and birthdays and holidays of feeling on the outside.

Yet at the end of the relationship with my parents, that was really the beginning of my life. It gave me the freedom to be me and to live life on my terms. I’ve really developed my voice. And something that I realized after our estrangement was if you want peace at all costs, you’re not the one who decides the cost. So if peace and having a relationship is the highest priority, then those other people will decide how much you have to give or give up to have that. And with my parents, I had to believe like they did, that was a cost and do what they said. Otherwise, I was just out. And with the relationship so clearly defined for me, the choice was really clear.
I have no regrets.

There’s a quote that relates to this that I think goes back to the TV show, Beverly Hills 90210, “May the bridges I burn light the way.” I love that.

Thanks for joining me today. I’ll bring you more on healing, boundaries, self-care and family dysfunction. So be sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss any of it.

Deciding to Go No-Contact With Family