Going no contact with a relative? Here's how to have that 'break-up' convo

So you’ve decided to cut things off with a relative who’s done you wrong – now what?

First of all, it’s important to point out that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to estrangement because every situation is different.

Someone might benefit from having a ‘break-up’ conversation with the family member they want to go no contact with, while others – and this goes double for those who’ve been abused – may benefit most from just ghosting.

If you decide you’re in the former category and want to have that tough talk, there are some things you should keep in mind.

Clinical psychologist Dr Joseph Barker tells Metro.co.uk the first thing you need to do is decide what you really want the outcome of the conversation to be, because the complicated mixture of guilt, shame, regret, uncertainty and/or abandonment can easily make us waver in the moment.

‘Hyperarousal (emotions such as anxiety, anger, and fear) is often at its most intense immediately before and during the conversation itself,’ he explains, ‘while hypoarousal (emotions like sadness, guilt, shame, numbness, sadness) is often most intense following the conversation.

‘This means without a clear aim of the conversation to cut contact, we are likely to be pulled into relenting to gain relief from strong emotions and allow the person another opportunity to remain in our lives.’

And what does a reasonable, realistic outcome look like?

‘Clearly stating our boundaries and expectations should be a key goal for the conversation,’ advises Dr Joseph. ‘We are aiming to establish a new relational pattern in place of an old one. Establishing clear boundaries for the new pattern is important to allow both parties to stick to it.

‘Outlining exactly what “no contact” means in practice, when this will take effect, and what actions you will take to reinforce this is key. For example, explicitly stating you do not wish to have any future contact face to face, by phone call, text, or social media, or indirect contact through acquaintances or children is often helpful.

‘Outlining your responses to attempts to cross this boundary is also important, for example setting the expectation that you will not reply to calls, will block the other party on social media, and will not open any emails or letters.’

Part of being realistic about your goals means accepting that you cannot make somebody change – if things were that simple, you probably wouldn’t feel the need to go no-contact in the first place.

Dr Joseph explains: ‘While you may wish to explain the reasons for cutting the person out of your life, it is important to understand what you hope to gain from this. It is impossible to control other people’s behaviour, and it is possible that we will not receive the apology, acknowledgement or closure we desire.’

It’s tempting to try and get them to understand you one last time, but Dr Joseph warns that this can open you up to manipulation tactics – that’s why it’s best to keep things as brief as possible.

‘At this point,’ he says, ‘the other person is likely to have a number of strategies that have prevented you from cutting off the relationship previously. These may include gaslighting, guilt-tripping, excuses, fear, or financial control.

‘Understanding which strategies have kept you in the relationship to date will make it easier not to be influenced by them in this conversation. Ultimately the conversation should be kept brief, allow you to state the points you need to and end with a clear set of expectations of the new boundary.’

You might also want to do some admin prep ahead of time, considering things like what your living arrangements will be, and how you might get any of your possessions back.

It’s also a good idea to think about how you’ll manage relationships with any family members who still have the person or people you’re cutting off in their lives.

‘Asking your social circle not to give any updates about the person you wish to cut contact with and asking them not to share any information about you can also be helpful,’ Dr Joseph adds.

You can also write down what you want to say, and the likely responses you might get in return.

‘Having key points and responses prepared in advance means we don’t need to think of responses on the spot,’ he tells us. ‘This may also reduce the emotional impact of the conversation at the time and allow the key points to be heard.’

But remember, no matter how much perfect prep you do, there’s still a good chance the conversation could turn sour.

So, make sure you’re certain you definitely want to do this in person or would something with a bit more distance like a letter serve your purposes just as well?

There’s also your personal safety to consider.

‘It is advisable to let a friend know where you are going and your intention, with a plan to check in at a specific time,’ says Dr Joseph.

‘This may mean rather than speaking face to face, other forms of communication are preferable such as video call, phone, or letter.’

Remember, while it might not be a satisfying thought, the search for perfect closure can sometimes lead you to places that aren’t worth going.

So just keep it simple, stick to your guns, and then get busy living.

Degrees of Separation

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.

If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]

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