As time passes and people grow (or refuse to) - our relationships with our parents change. It also probably hasn’t helped many people that our political conditions have polarized and sharpened some particularly ugly qualities of the human condition. With how hard it already is to navigate family relations, the added pressure of Mother’s Day can feel like an awful burden – especially if we’re not even sure we want to maintain those relationships.
The decision to cut ties or assert boundaries is rarely an easy decision, and can at times be so overwhelming that it gets put off until something gives. Being proactive about drawing new boundaries can sometimes spare you from the consequences of allowing a toxic relationship to run its natural course (i.e. until it explodes or you wither away). It can mean saving one or both parties significant suffering and potentially even allowing for repair down the line.
While it is usually best to talk through some of these issues with someone you trust (especially a therapist if you have access to one), I’ve prepared a list of questions for structured reflection on some important aspects of parent/child relationships that could be an extra resource for making this difficult and painful decision. Two important themes that will run throughout these questions are boundaries and power.
Boundaries and Power Inequality
Boundaries are a fundamental aspect of who we are as social creatures. They’re what separate us from the rest of the world, allowing for a sense of self. They come in several forms, including physical, mental, emotional, material, sexual, and spiritual (This is a good intro to various forms of boundaries). The task of navigating interpersonal boundaries is one of the most important and challenging aspects we face as humans who don’t want to harm others (I am making some wild assumptions about my readership, I know). An inability or unwillingness to respect boundaries is a defining feature of abuse, perhaps even the hallmark feature.
For numerous reasons, boundaries can be incredibly difficult to identify, respect, and assert. Firstly, boundaries are taught/learned – so for those of us who come from families with ambiguous boundaries, these are typically dynamics that have been passed down for generations. Secondly, power differentials obscure and distort peoples’ sensitivities to boundaries, enabling abuse and violation. When there is a significant imbalance of power, it can prevent the person in the more powerful position from experiencing the interpersonal consequences of having violated someone’s boundaries (e.g. we’re less likely to address a boundary violation with a boss out of fear of being fired).
Because there are global systems of inequality, boundary violations are epidemic in our society. Our social relationships are shaped by formal (e.g. laws, policies, etc.) and informal (e.g. cultural norms, family dynamics, etc.) hierarchical institutions, giving some people access to more power (e.g. money, social status, positions of authority, etc.) over others. With these hierarchical social relationships, we have economic exploitation, mass incarceration and police brutality, gender/racial/ability discrimination, etc. These systems subtly (and sometimes overtly) render some people less deserving of rights and having their needs met or their boundaries acknowledged or respected.
Keeping in mind these larger social structures and how we are embedded in them, one dynamic we are almost universally exposed to and are faced with navigating is the parent[/guardian]/child relationship. Our relationships with our parents are loaded with inherent power differentials, some culturally imbued, others that begin by necessity (human babies are ridiculously defenseless compared to the rest of the animal kingdom). These larger patterns of social organization are the settings for our familial organization, and our parents’ coping and parenting styles are strongly impacted by these larger settings.
As activists, many of us have done a lot of work to understand these systems of power and abuse on a large scale, but it can sometimes be difficult to make those connections in our personal lives. Using a lens of power dynamics and boundaries can be helpful when thinking about how your relationships with your parents evolved and how you might try to modify them.
Structured Reflection Questions
The following are some questions that might be helpful to think through in order to gain a more holistic picture of your relationships and needs:
- What are the power dynamics of your relationship? Are there power inequalities?
- Do you depend on them for any of your basic needs? (e.g. money, housing, etc.)
- If you are still dependent on your parent for whatever reason, this will obviously change the calculus in a fundamental way. If you simply cannot survive without their support right now, then the question becomes: how do you mitigate the damage? Some of the following questions may still be helpful for you.
- Do you have power over them? Do they rely on you materially or emotionally?
- If so, when did this power dynamic start? If some of these demands began in childhood, this can be indicative of an abusive relationship, or covert or emotional incest.
- If these dynamics have shifted more recently in your adulthood, how have these shifts impacted your relationship?
- Is there an imbalance in who gets upset, or do you tend upset each other? Is there an imbalance in who expresses their emotions or needs?
- What are you boundaries like?
- Do you struggle with boundaries? If you do, this is likely a reaction to inappropriate or distorted boundaries within a parent/child relationship. We primarily learn about boundaries from our families, so if you struggle with any of the behaviors identified on this list, it might be indicative of an imbalance in your relationship with your parent.
- Does your parent respect your boundaries? For example, do they respect your privacy or when you ask them to stop a specific behavior?
- What happens if you attempt to assert a boundary? How do they respond?
- Do you feel empowered to even attempt to draw a boundary?
- What are the specific behaviors that you find troubling?
- In what ways does your own behavior feed into the troubling dynamic?
- Be careful when engaging in this question for numerous reasons:
- It is critical to acknowledge that while our behaviors may contribute to an abusive dynamic, which does not mean that we are responsible for our abuse. The person who has more power is always the one who is responsible for abuse.
- However, by acknowledging that we are products of our environments and we have been shaped by our families we give ourselves a chance to increase our awareness and agency. Understanding how our behaviors fit into to an abusive dynamic can empower us to adjust those behaviors and patterns.
- Sometimes the nature of abuse makes it so that our needs are minimized, and we are made to feel responsible for the other person’s suffering. If this is a part of your dynamic (a chronic sense of guilt or resentment is an especially tell-tale sign here), try to keep that in mind when exploring this question.
- What have you done to try to adjust or repair the relationship?
- Have you tried to address the problem in indirect ways? (e.g. withdrawing, avoiding certain topics, etc.)
- Have you tried directly discussing some of the problems? If not, why not? Are you scared of how they might react?
- Do you believe it is possible to repair the relationship?
- What are your values when it comes to your relationships? What kind of child do you want to be? (e.g. caring, loyal, attentive, etc.)
- What would a good relationship with your parent look like? What specific changes would need to be made on both ends?
- How well are you living up to your values in your relationship? What gets in the way?
- Conversely, how might your values be taken advantage of?
- For example, if you value being loyal, does it make it harder for you to draw boundaries? Or if you value being giving or nurturing, does this open you up to being exploited?
- When considering if a relationship is toxic or just strained, it is important to think about power dynamics:
- Abuse is about power and control, but not all conflict is abuse. Sometimes there is simply an ill-fit between dispositions and personality types, even when you share half of your genetics!
- If you don’t feel like you’re being controlled or manipulated, it can be helpful to keep that in mind when you fight. A painful relationship may be better than no relationship (depending on what you value), and you may want to focus more energy on ways to adjust and repair, rather than on how to separate.
- Is it worth trying to repair?
- If you haven’t tried to directly address a problematic dynamic in your relationship and you feel it makes sense to try to speak with your parent about it, how they respond to that conversation can give you critical information about how you want to proceed in the future.
- This guide provides good information for thinking about how to build and preserve healthier boundaries. You can begin implementing some of these insights into your interactions and see how that impacts your relationships.
- When to know it’s time to cut someone off:
- If after having explored these questions and a pattern of control and abuse emerges, strong measures for drawing boundaries might be warranted.
- Sometimes a person’s forceful will is too strong for us to try to protect our sense of self in more incremental ways - or sometimes we’re just so early in our efforts to assert boundaries - that wholly cutting them off (at least for a while) is essential for giving us space to find our needs.
- If you have tried to draw boundaries and they continue to violate them despite your clear directions/protestation, this is a strong indication that cutting someone off might be in your best interest.
- Sometimes someone needs to experience consequences for their continual violations in order to be motivated to listen and change. Withdrawing as punishment is definitely not an ideal motivator in relationships - but if your relationship gets to this point, it can very likely be the most effective move.
Cutting someone off, especially a family member, is rarely an easy thing to do. It can be helpful to remember that cutting off contact with someone doesn’t have to be forever. Sometimes we just need some space to breathe and re-evaluate what our needs and values are. Sometimes, though, an indefinite cleavage is warranted. Allowing an abusive relationship to continue might feel like a way of showing our care - but it isn’t. When someone engages in abuse, they objectify that person, preventing true connection and vulnerability. It denies them the opportunity to grow and understand their own boundaries.
To assert your boundaries in a way that aligns with your values can, perhaps counter-intuitively, can give everyone involved a chance to grow and more fully connect down the line. You cannot control what your parent does or how they will react - but learning how to draw your boundaries, show yourself compassion, and find ways to more appropriately meet your needs, can give you a fighting chance to disrupt dynamics that have likely been passed down for generations.