I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year or so about the notion of friends and family ‘sticking together’, or working through issues and differences to remain in each others’ lives. And of course, I’ve been thinking about cutting ties, because I’ve done it many times myself.
Sometimes I hear about couples that really shouldn’t be together, but they fight and fight to stay together for their kids/marriage/house/cat/dog. Or they try and stay together because they’re used to being with each other, and being unhappy together is preferable to being unhappy and alone. Even the prospect of being happy and alone scares some people, because it includes being alone. But that’s a topic for another post.
Don’t get me wrong; people should move beyond simple differences and try to get along. In all of our deepest relationships, there is, has, or will be conflict. We’re human and we make mistakes. We hurt each other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. It’s usually worth working through these things.
But sometimes there are situations where it becomes too much to be part of someone’s life. Perhaps they change into something you can’t rationally endorse or support. Maybe they intentionally hurt you or someone you love, or maybe they feel like it’s necessary to push their religious or political beliefs on you. Sometimes, there’s a tipping point and you realise that the effort involved in staying in someone’s life is disproportionate to the happiness you bring each other. And that’s okay.
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A while ago I came to a realisation that someone I thought I was good friends with was incredibly toxic and an adept gaslighter. He knew how to push my buttons and knew which situations to push them in so that I’d react publicly and irrationally. Why? I still don’t know, although several people close to us both have suggested it’s a combination of his incredibly low self esteem (apparently thanks to his parents), or that he sees me as some kind of threat (I still have no idea what that means). When I finally realised that no one else could see how difficult it was for me to associate with him, and that I’d prefer to never see or have anything to do with him again, I cut him off.
Social events with that particular circle of friends became difficult. This was, aside from him, a great group of people I’d become increasingly close to and enjoyed spending time with. I got to the point where I had to ask if he was going to be at something, so that I could decline the invitation if he was.
At some point, a lightbulb went off in my head. The angst and anxiety around always avoiding this person meant that this person was always popping into my thoughts. Every time a mutual friend invited me somewhere, I had to think about him, and I didn’t want to think about him ever again. The problem was that everyone seemed to think he was great, so there was no chance of the situation changing. I could have swallowed my pride and just shown up to things and let him be the awkward one, but I did that a couple of times and it was anxiety-ridden for me and not worth the trouble.
So, on somewhat of a whim, I removed almost everyone in that group from my social circle. Or, rather, I removed myself from that group.
Why almost everyone and not just everyone? A few people contacted me to ask what was going on, and I told them. Most got angry and bid me good riddance—but a couple of them flat out refused to stop being friends with me, and started making time for me outside of group things.
Within a couple of days of removing everyone, it felt like an immense weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Sure, I had about 50% less friends overnight, but I never had to worry about him again. It felt incredible, and it also changed my life—I started making time for new friends and discovered the people that are now my people. I definitely miss some of the friends I left behind with him, but it was worth it.
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There have been other people I’ve removed from my life (or that have removed themselves from my life) too; old and new friends, and most recently, my only sibling. I find there’s always a lightbulb moment when I realise what has to happen, or when I realize that they’ve cut me out. I’ve been called ruthless, but not once have I regretted any of my decisions, or fought theirs. I go on with my life and they go on with theirs, and everyone is happier for it.
I find the push to stay close to (or in contact with) family members to be strange sometimes, especially when that family member is clearly causing more difficulty than happiness in your life. At this point, the only thing my sibling and I have in common is our parents, and being in contact seems to always end in some kind of angst for one or both of us. So why do we keep pushing ourselves to be close?
Estrangement doesn’t have to be traumatic or awful. I read somewhere that we have the right to curate our own lives, and I stand by that. I certainly have friends that challenge my views and that I can debate concepts with, without it harming our friendship or state of mind, so it’s not a case of only keeping people around that don’t challenge my status quo. If anything, I love them more for challenging my existing views.
I simply believe that after a certain point, it’s not valuable for either party to continue the relationship. Generally, I look back on the people I cut out (or who cut me out) without malice or hatred. I have some great memories with a lot of people, including my sibling, and I still look upon those memories and people with fondness and happiness, even though he chose to stop contact.
But now they’re just that: memories. And I’m far happier this way, as I’m sure they are too.
You are in total control of your life. If your life is a movie and the actors are repeatedly burning down the set—and you’ve tried to resolve the issue but they just won’t stop—then go ahead and fire them. You’re allowed to do that, and both of you will be better off. I promise.