Joanne Lawrence stopped talking to her parents right before she got married.
In 2014, the 28-year-old sent a text message to her father letting him know that he wouldn’t be walking her down the aisle. And as hard as it was, the Toronto woman knew she had to make the decision for her own mental health.
“My parents have always been physically, mentally and financially abusive to my brother, myself and each other,” she told Global News. “Going through diaries from when I was 10, I wrote about the moment I would cut them out and never look back.”
Last year, Lawrence also cut out her only sibling.
“He tried to guilt me into resuming a relationship with last year,” she explained. “He said if I cared about him, I would reach out to my parents. He told me the only reason he talks to me is because ‘you’re my bloody family; I will always be there for you because that is what family is.'”
Family estrangements as a reality
Family estrangement is a reality for some Canadians, but there isn’t hard data on how many people fall into this category.
Dr. Saunia Ahmad, director and clinical psychologist at the Toronto Psychology Clinic, added that there is a difference between not speaking with family members and full estrangement.
“Sometimes, you stop talking to someone and you may start talking to them again not too long afterwards,” she explained. “Estrangement is a bit more consistent and a decision to really cut off contact with someone physically and emotionally.”
One 2015 report published by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, U.K., and Stand Alone — a U.K. charity supporting adults with estranged family — found more than 800 adults in the U.K. said they were estranged from family members.
“This British study revealed that people estranged from a family member sought but found little support,” psychologist Terri Apter wrote in Psychology Today.
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“Some complained that social services were ‘useless’ a quarter of those who asked advice from a doctor said she or he seemed ill-equipped to provide it.”
Birthdays were triggering, but the holiday season was worse.
“Nine out of 10 people who suffer family estrangement report finding ‘challenging.’ Quintessential times of family gatherings, communal hopefulness, gratitude and celebration become hollow-eyed reminders of continuing emotional loss,” Apter added.
Ahmad said there are plenty of reasons people choose to cut off family members. Often, this can boil down to trauma, mental and physical abuse or other negative experiences. Other times, family members are not willing to accept others for their sexuality, choice in partners or for other reasons.
The backlash and pressure
Some may also feel pressure to keep these relationships intact, even if they are abusive. For Lawrence, it was about being grateful.
“My brother would remind me how my parents clothed, fed and housed me and paid for my education. How hard it was for them to immigrate to Canada. I really did think I owed it to them to have a relationship with them,” she explained.
“It didn’t come from people I cared about so it didn’t feel as hurtful as it might’ve been when they said: ‘But she’s your mother.’ Other relatives actually took the opportunity to bad-mouth my mom to me so I stopped contacting them, too.”
Caroline McInnes, 40, of Oshawa, Ont., didn’t face backlash when she cut off her mother.
“Other family members followed suit for very much the same reasons but with their own experiences, and everyone is understanding of each other,” she told Global News. “If anything, this brought the rest of the family closer together.”
McInnes was once very close to her mother; at one point, they lived a five-minute drive from one another. But for her, the decision to cut off her mother came down to greed and lies.
“My family and I were renting a townhouse from my parents for seven years. At this time, mom and dad were separated, with dad living in Alberta,” she said.
McInnes was going to purchase the townhouse in December 2015, but her mother decided to sell it six months before without telling her.
“She did not forewarn me about this but instead chose to go through a paralegal to communicate this to me. I tried to talk to her afterwards, but she would not speak to me.”
In a messy string of events involving lawyers, her father and dividing assets, McInnes’ relationship with her mother again turned into that of a landlord and tenant.
“ was fine until I responded to an inspection of the house… mom went completely off the wall and attacked various family members in a letter for no apparent reason. The only viable explanation I have come up with is because she did not like being called out on her lies and tried to turn everything around to make it look like it was everyone else and not her. I cut all communication with her from then on,” McInnes explained.
Ahmad said the belief that “blood is thicker than water” is often normalized and could create a barrier for people to cut off certain relationships.
“It is very common, if someone is related to you by blood. They will be more protective, prioritize you more and care about you more, however that is not always the case,” she said. “It is necessary for some people to be estranged from their family members.”
The initial steps
Taking steps to disconnect yourself from a family member is not streamlined. Sometimes, it’s about having a conversation with the family member, but other times, people do it without warning.
“The person who initiates it has to do the work internally come to an agreement with themselves, either talking to someone or over time,” said Ahmad.
Today, McInnes has no communication with her mother. She blocked her on social media, while her other family members have followed.
“Life is so much happier and easier now without having someone to drag you down with their negativity, to believe their web of lies and get caught up in their drama,” she said.
For Lawrence, she still sees her parents and brother at family events but tries not to communicate with them.
“I have no regrets about cutting my parents out,” she said. “I’m still holding out hope that my brother will come around, but it’s a small hope.”
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