Because families can be a source of pain and alienation rather than love and support.
Maybe it’s been a long time coming, or maybe it’s all boiled up since the election, but if you’re considering going no contact with abusive family members, you need to know that you have every right to exercise self-care.
Previously I wrote about avoiding abusive family during the holidays and how that’s totally OK, but sometimes that’s not enough. When the abuse doesn’t end or when it involves invalidating your identity or rights, cutting people off can be a means of survival.
If you’re at that point already, this will help you stay strong. If you’re considering action, this will help you know what may lie ahead. If you’ve never considered removing people from your life or think people who do are babies or snowflakes, this will help you learn.
What “No Contact” Means
In the simplest terms, going no contact means avoiding specific people who have hurt you and who you believe will continue to hurt you. It’s a means of protecting yourself from further abuse.
This can involve physically removing yourself from situations like family events as well as controlling your communication by ignoring calls, texts, and other messages. The distance is up to you. But as important as it is to understand the limits you’re setting, it’s also crucial to be aware of what you’re not doing so you can explain it to others and yourself.
What it Doesn’t Mean
No contact is not about vindictiveness. It’s not done out of spite or anger. Like donning armor or running from an attack, you’re doing this to keep yourself safe in a world that feels increasingly unsafe. You’re doing this to prevent yet another attack. Some people won’t understand that, but you don’t owe them any more explanation than you choose to give. The only one who needs to comprehend every part of this decision is you.
Know Your Reasons
Some abuse is obvious. Physical and sexual assaults are absolutely rational reasons to cut someone out of your life, if not seek criminal charges, and few people would argue otherwise. But abuse tactics that are subtle or unseen are more difficult to justify to a world that can’t feel what you feel.
Psychological and emotional abuse are valid reasons to go no contact. They don’t leave the same scars as other forms of abuse, and people aren’t as likely to see or comprehend the damage, but the damage is real. A person who constantly mocks you, makes you feel worthless, calls you names, disregards your accomplishments, exaggerates your mistakes, negates your feelings, controls your actions, tries to control your thoughts or worldview, or all around makes you feel like shit, is abusive. So is someone who tells you to accept these behaviors as normal or loving. They aren’t.
In your life, these are actions that cause direct harm. In our country, political actions have similar repercussions.
When people vote against your basic human rights, that’s violence. It’s real. Political actions affect real lives. When those people tell you to get over it, to let it go, or to accept a loss, they’re dismissing your realities. You don’t have to take it. We have the right to our lives and to a family that wants us to live. And we have a right to a family that understands how their votes affect us.
No matter the type of abuse, the visible scars, or the fears you struggle to describe, going no contact is a means of pursuing a life free from harm. Understanding your reasons for pulling away will remind you to never fall back into the abuse and give you something to focus on when people push you to reestablish contact.
Only Divulge What You Want
I haven’t spoken to my parents in two and half years, and I’m not telling you why. That’s my right. I know what’s happened in the past, I know how I feel about it, and I know the patterns of behavior that led me to believe nothing would have changed had I not fled. I also know how much I’m prepared to tell and to whom.
When you go no contact, it leaves a gulf. People you mutually know may come to you with questions. Sometimes they’re trying to figure out for themselves how to bridge the divide, and sometimes they’re trying to gather info to take back to your abusers.
Remember that you control your own information flow. You decide what you tell your friends, your partners, your other family members, and randoms off the street. You decide it today, ten years from now, and at the moment you have your last interactions.
To Announce or Fade Away
Decisions are a part of cutting people out. Do you want to make a statement? Send a letter? Storm out at a family gathering? Just stop returning calls? It’s all on the table and every approach is valid.
Undoubtedly, the easiest is to ghost. It keeps you safe from both aggression and guilt. Statements allow you to raise concerns with other members of the family who may have similar feelings. Whatever you choose, remember that you’re likely to face some predictable backlash.
Beware of Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a term that’s thrown around a lot lately. You might know that it comes from an Ingrid Bergman film or that the film is based on a play. Or maybe you’re more familiar with it as an Internet concept than as something you’ve actually experienced. Regardless, hopefully you know that it’s an abuse tactic. If you decide to go no contact with abusive family, gaslighting is something you should be prepared for.
Gaslighting is all about distorting your view of reality. It’s control by confusion. It can come in many forms, like the abuser saying that your memories of abuse are false, you’re overreacting, or you need them too much to escape their abusive influence. They may come as bold statements out of nowhere or subtle implications over the course of years.
What these all have in common is that they erode your own sense of self so that you only see yourself the way your abuser wants you to—diminished and disempowered. The longer you’re out from under that thrall, the more your true self reignites. That’s why getting out is so important.
Your abuser can’t control you if you’re not around. That’s why you want to leave. But that doesn’t mean they’ll instantly learn their lesson and stop trying to control the way the world sees you. Whether they continue to contact you, use intermediaries to deliver messages, or use platforms they know you’ll see, you may have to face disturbing actions, especially in the early days.
I was told I was overreacting. I had people contact me and call me selfish when they knew nothing about the situation. I still get the occasional letter trying to undermine my very identity. Gaslighting is an abuse tactic that seems unfortunately natural for some people. Sometimes it’s premeditated. Sometimes it’s unintentional. What matters is the damage it does and how you weather the storm.
Rise above the Repercussions
You did all this to get away. You worked up the courage, you’re learning about the realities, and you’re finding support, so don’t get swept up in the downsides. All it takes for abuse to recur is your abusers sparking a negative response. That can hurt as much as a strike from an open palm.
There will be bad days. There will be days when you question your decisions. If your abusers were also a support system, a source of comfort or security in between the battles, there will be regrets. If you still love them, there will be pain. You might lose more than you expected. But hopefully, you’ll gain a new sense of safety and hope as time goes on.
Remember that you’re doing all this to rise—to be higher and happier than you could have been beneath your abuser’s heel. And no matter what happens, remember that you’re nowhere near the first person to take this leap.
Extended Family and Friend Groups
For anyone who’s experienced abuse, especially at the hands of people who are supposed to love you, finding support in friends and other family members is essential. It reminds us that there are good people who care about us in appropriate ways and that we are worth that compassion. When you go no contact with certain people, others are often forced to make choices they weren’t prepared for. That can show you who to trust.
Some will follow you. Some will cut back. Some will try to straddle the line and make excuses for why they want every relationship, even when some are mutually exclusive. No one but you can decide how to react to each person who views your situation from inside, outside, or any and all angles. And no one should tell you that you need to respect someone who won’t stand up for you when you take the monumental step of standing up for yourself.
I lost people I didn’t expect to, and I have gained so many more. It took time, and it was lonely for a while. But what I learned is that when people are confronted with the realities of abuse, they’re presented with a choice. How they respond matters much more than all the reasons they can conjure up to stay in contact with someone abusive.
For the ones who, to whatever degree, maintain relationships with your abusers, remember who has their ear. Gaslighting isn’t always aimed directly at the victim. Gaslighters love to poison wells they know you still try to drink from. If someone in your life hears poison about you every day, it can be hard, though not impossible, to counter with the truth.
For those who always have your back, hold them tight. These are the people who’ve seen you enduring abuse and who will see you long after. They will spot the difference and become testaments to your progress. They’ll be the ones to remind you how much you’ve gained.
The Future is Up to You
It’s OK if it takes a few swings to hit the ball. It’s OK if the first hit is just a single and the grand slam doesn’t come until the next game. Going no contact isn’t about a clean break as much as it’s about the right break for you. No matter what you decide today, what you decide tomorrow, or what you decide ten years from now, certain aspects remain true.
Find yourself a support system. Knowing family is out there but a source of pain can be agonizing. Finding people who understand you, friends who love you, and a new family that accepts you for exactly who you are—these are critical to the self-care and compassion at the heart of it all.
Listen to your former abusers if you want, but don’t expect much change. For me, I wanted to believe they’d all turn into intellectual progressives who care about my rights and actually use my name and pronouns, but I’m still not optimistic.
It’s great if you still read those letters that show up on your birthday, and it’s great if you hold out hope that one of them will be a sincere apology. But don’t base your life on that happening. Don’t make your life about waiting for someone to stop being hurtful. It’s your life, and you have to live it unchained.
Find the resources you need to keep going. Whether that’s a therapist to whom you can tell all the details, a support group that knows what you’re going through, or organizations that provide articles and information on abuse tactics and their impact, remember you’re not alone no matter how lonely it feels.
Going no contact with abusive family is as much a right as stepping away from someone who raises their hand in violence. It’s as much a right as covering your ears when someone calls you names. And in a world in which our rights are under heavy assault, exercising them as a means of self-protection is a precious and powerful act.