How to Cope with a Toxic and Estranged Family Relationship

“Letting go doesn’t mean giving up, but rather accepting that there are things that cannot be.” ~Unknown

You two are family. Perhaps you were there for most of their lives as a child. You shared a lot, laughed a lot, and even cried a lot. There was also some fighting.

You know how their brain works probably better than anyone else. But sometimes, in adulthood, those closest to you can become unrecognizable—estranged, cold, and careless. Sometimes, for no obvious reason you are unable to be part of someone’s life. Your peaceful feelings are being increasingly ignored. You’ve been left out in the cold.

People do what they do because there is always a reason. But, sometimes the metamorphosis is so gradual that it sneaks up on you, and one day, you wake up and wonder, “How did it come to this?”

You want them back. So you start to question and blame yourself. Did it come down to me choosing to attend the party rather than keeping my friend company? It was when I took his stuff without asking. Was it because I used his things without asking? What can I do?

While it’s good to ask yourself such questions, sometimes the lesson you are meant to learn is to let go of the memory of who they were and accept who they have become.

This comes from my relationship with my sister. We’d always been close, and when I was growing up, I looked up to her as my role model. I was shy and nerdy. I was popular and pretty. She excelled at sports.

But after she went to college and, four years later, I followed suit on another continent, our lives didn’t really intersect. When we did meet, we’d butt heads about a lot of things. She had grown bitter in the years post high school, while I’d grown up, become assertive, and was impulsively exploring the world. Still, despite our differences, I thought we’d always be there for one another.

Then she got married to a man who doesn’t get along with me or our parents. Their relationship became a bizarre one.

After becoming very bitter, cold and defensive towards her family, she began to exclude me from her daily life. She refused to talk to me and I tried to make contact. She’s always been proud that way.

One day when I told her I loved her and wished we could be close like before, she replied, “That was a long time ago.”

Over the last few years, the relationship has really gone downhill. I’ve struggled with the hurt of “losing” my sister, as well as feelings of self-blame as I struggled to find a reason for her change. I have racked my brain for memories of what I could’ve done wrong, but my mind draws a blank.

Then, I decided I didn’t want to dwell on feeling hurt any longer. I didn’t want to keep longing for and trying to rekindle the sisterhood we once had.

It has been a while since I realized my sister isn’t the person I knew. Now I need to learn to be open to that truth, to allow it to pass, and to continue to grow. This is how I made certain choices for my happiness and mental well-being.

These tips may help someone who is in an unhealthy and discordant relationship with a loved one.

1. Consider the ways in which your relationship is toxic. Also, consider how you feel about it.

There are many signs that a toxic relationship could be. You might find that your relative puts you down all the time, is passive-aggressive or acts irritably when you talk.

Once you have pinpointed the person’s patterns of behavior, become aware of how this affects your mood, body language, energy levels, self-esteem, and peace of mind. Understanding how toxic behavior affects your emotions is the first step in understanding them and giving yourself the tools to manage the situation.

2. Accept that you may never find the root cause for your relative’s behavior.

People do therapy for years—there’s never a simple answer. It is possible to speak to your relative and find out why they behave the way that they do. You may not. Sometimes, the reason why a person treats you badly may not have anything to do with what you’ve done, but might just be the way they process and respond to their own life experiences. A person’s ability to endure hardships can make them stronger or more bitter.

Try to understand that toxicity is often rooted in unhappiness and discontent. People’s hurtful actions will then become less hurtful to you when you realize they reflect their inner state rather than you.

3. Normalize toxicity.

If you have done nothing wrong, don’t forget it is not normal for anyone to continually be negative, inconsiderate, and hurtful toward you. It is very easy to lose perspective about what is right and wrong, especially when you are constantly justifying a person’s behavior with stories of their past traumas or hardships.

It is easy to give up on loved ones who are difficult to love because you want to forgive them, forget about conflict and not push them away. It is important to show empathy, but not excuse for bad behavior. Sometimes you need to set limits and say “enough!” before such behavior becomes the new normal.

4. Don’t expect anything from your estranged relative.

Yes, you might expect your family to have your back because you’d do the same, but don’t count on it with an estranged relative with whom you struggle to maintain a relationship. I’ve learned not to be dependent or expect any help from my sister, even though I grew up believing that’s what siblings should do for one another.

5. You must realize that it takes two to fix a relationship.

It doesn’t matter what you do, it won’t work if you don’t want to change. As long as they are unable or unwilling to make changes, the relationship is toxic. This is your fault. It was your fault.

6. You should decide how much room you will give your relative in your daily life.

It is likely that you will see your relative at family gatherings again, or may have to speak with them regarding family matters. You should limit the time that you spend with them and minimize communication.

However, sometimes you might need to remove them from your life, temporarily or permanently. Emotionally exhausting is keeping a place open for them, and making an effort to reach out.

Once you have deemed you have tried enough and done your best, don’t feel guilty about drawing the line and deciding that enough is enough.

7. Don’t bottle things up.

Tell people who you trust about your feelings. It is possible that the relative you are speaking to may also feel the same emotions of disappointment and hurt.

It is therapeutic to talk through your emotions and help you gain perspective.

It was also a bad relationship between my siblings and my parents. My parents were not happy with me and my brother, so I let them discuss it.

8. Avoid gossiping about your relative to anyone, even if it is a large circle.

It is important to be open with friends and family and not focus on the individual’s actions or words. Talking negatively about someone can lead to a vicious circle of negative conversations. Also, the negative talk can return to your relative’s ears and feed the cycle of negativity and estrangement.

Instead, decrease the mental and emotional energy spent thinking about your relative, and focus on the positive aspects of your life and your loved-ones’ lives.

9. Don’t give your relative an opportunity to blame you.

Extreme narcissists like my sister often blame others, but not themselves. This is why it’s important to not allow them or their family members ammunition. Do not allow him/her to blame you if he/she is always late or rude. Do the right thing and s/he won’t be able to reproach you for anything.

10. You may be unwilling to open up and have honest, intimate conversations.

My sister is a strong character, showing no vulnerability and little weakness throughout her life. You may need to face the reality that an emotionally distant and proud person may make it difficult for you to have that moment of truth. Keep your sanity and persevere.

11. Refocus your attention.

Do not dwell on the pain and hurt of “losing” a relative. Don’t focus on trying to grapple with the toxic relationships in your life. Focus on the positive relationships that you do have and build upon them. Accept what life gives you, and use it to your advantage. You can live your life, and you can cultivate your spirit. For happiness, be content with what you have.

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