Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Is It Ever Okay to End a Relationship with a Family Member?

Dear Emily,

Is it ever acceptable to remove oneself (and spouse) from family relationships that repeatedly cause pain and trouble in a marriage? Using crucial conversations skills has worked in several cases, but not all. I guess I am seeking validation for my decision to severely limit contact with the difficult family members. I want the love and support of my husband. I also want the family members to be at peace. While it is a shame to lose the intimacy of our contact, limiting it will be better off for us. Your thoughts?

Needing Space

Dear Needing Space,

Yes. Yes. Yes. Full stop. I sincerely considered simply ending there. Because the answer to your question is yes! Absolutely nothing about Crucial Conversations says we need to subject ourselves to relationships that are harmful, abusive, or destructive.

Crucial Conversations is about two things: truth-speaking and love. The objective of any crucial conversation should be to fill the pool of shared meaning. That means I need to speak up and tell my truth. And, equally important, I need to bring your truth into the pool.

Truth-speaking and truth-hearing are hard to do. But I do these things in a crucial conversation because of love. It might be because we both love the same person—my spouse, your child. The love that brings me to a crucial conversation may be for the love of a purpose, outcome, or result; that is, I care so much about the issue we are discussing that I will show up in this conversation to the very best of my ability. It may even be that all I can bring to the conversation is love of peace, connection, or humanity.

But underlying all of this must be love of self. I have to love me in order to effectively bring truth and love to any conversation. I have to know deep-down that what I think and feel are valid, worthy of sharing, worthy of consideration, and worthy of respect.

I, like you, have been amazed at the power of truth and love to heal broken relationships—relationships in which people hurt me. I have stepped up to those conversations with trepidation and been awed by the beauty and truth that has flowed.

But not always. For me, crucial conversations skills have the most impact to heal destructive relationships when both people are well-intentioned and willing to commit to truth and love—when they can find a mutual purpose and honestly commit to it. But crucial conversations skills are not a magic wand. They cannot transform ill-intent and selfishness.

So, what do you do when you need to take a step back from a harmful relationship?

    1. Hold on to your truth and your love. I used to think that a crucial conversation was successful if both parties had come to a mutual agreement, or at least walked away both feeling good about the conversation. But time and experience have taught me that I can’t control the outcome of a conversation or even how someone else will feel at the end of it. I can bring my best intent and my best skills and influence to that conversation, but I can’t control it. So a successful conversation is one in which I hold to my truth, I respectfully express my meaning, and I deeply listen to someone else. I do it all without frustration or anger.
    2. Define your boundaries. As you step away from this relationship, I encourage you to think deeply about what behaviors and situations didn’t work for you and draw those as your boundaries. It is easy to focus on the people we want to step back from. Try instead to think about what behaviors and situations you want to step back from. You may find there are ways to step back from the behaviors and situations that trouble you without fully stepping back from the person.
    3. Forgive. Once you take the step back, forgive. Forgive the other person. And forgive yourself. This was not your failure.
    4. Be open to new connections with old relationships. As you move forward, in a new and different direction, away from this person and this relationship, you will find that you change and grow. A year from now, you will be both the same person you are today as well as different. Let that also be true of the other person. Let him or her change and grow. He or she need not necessarily “be dead to you forever.” There may come a time when either you or the other person has changed enough that reconnection could be possible.

So coming back to what I said at the beginning: yes. Yes, it is okay to step back. Yes, it is okay to acknowledge that crucial conversations alone can’t mend all relationships. Yes, it is important to care for yourself. This may not feel like success, but it is most assuredly not failure.

Best of luck,

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12 thoughts on “Is It Ever Okay to End a Relationship with a Family Member?”

  1. acbryant75

    Hi Emily, I think you missed the mark on your reply concerning ending relationships. Family relationships are often very complicated. But they are very important to one’s soul. We should do all that we can not to end these type relationships. Truth and love are important. Our “truth” however is not always, “the” truth. And I would suggest that love trumps truth. So we need to be careful. I would also suggest that forgiveness should come before one takes a step back.

  2. GrizzlyBearMom

    I had a sister that always had something negative to say or do regarding my being potty trained, the size of my teenage niece’s breasts, etc., until I broke things off with her. I stopped talking to her after I referred to my dog as my “love puppy”. She said that people would THINK things. I replied that if I could get past bestiality and incest, my dog was castrated; and anyone who thought like that was a pervert. It meant that I was calling HER a pervert. I have the occasional negative thought and sometimes want to punch people in the nose. I wonder if my sister every screened anything out. After this happened I limited visits to my mom’s when she was there, went to the mall or the movies and lot while we were under the same roof, and avoided talking to her about anything. It was better than crying in the parking lot with my husband. She died 6 years ago.

  3. Jenni

    Wow this is extremely good! Thank you for answering this question and hitting on so many good points in the process! I especially appreciate your points on forgiving and allowing each person the ability to change and grow and maybe in the future it being possible to reconnect. Great, great article. Thank you again.

  4. Melanie Gao

    There is so much wisdom in this – “time and experience have taught me that I can’t control the outcome of a conversation or even how someone else will feel at the end of it.” We don’t control how other people will feel and we’re not responsible for their feelings. We are responsible for treating them with love and truth. Thanks Emily!

  5. Lover of Truth

    There is no ‘your truth’ or ‘my truth’. There is only ‘the truth’ and your opinion and perceptions and my opinion and perceptions. Talking about your and my truth and/or your and my reality only messes up the world, including or especially when trying to have crucial conversations..

    1. Genie

      I gave up trying to make things work with my family. It’s a 40 year history of very unfair/inappropriate behavior. Siblings have gossiped about me to potential and actual employers. They’ve given my information to exes/stalkers and take sides with my enemies. I’m excluded from their important events and decline mine. They make anything else a priority over spending time with me. They’re never happy for my wins and always try to outdo me. They’re careless with my property. They never call first. They brush off my son when they run into him. They haven’t tried to call or email in over 6 years. They make up excuses for not meeting me. I’d always helped them but they never helped me. I could go on for days. They’ll never change and they’re never good company except to strangers. As an adult, I don’t need them in my life. It’s always been painful and damaging. If people don’t add to your well being, you need to build a new team. I surround myself with caring people who don’t play mean girl games now that we’re all over 50.

  6. Thomas W. O'Reilly

    Emily, this is such a poignant and beautifully expressed answer to this question. I want to thank you that you didn’t stop at “Yes!” as your answer!

    Everything in our lives fits into one of 2 buckets: that which we can control, and that which we can’t. The ONLY thing that fits into the 1st bucket is ourselves; everything & everyone else fits into the other.

    Againg, thank you!


  7. Laura

    Wonderful article. Thank you

  8. Laura

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  9. Hanne

    Yes!!! Beautiful answer.

    This really means before you start the crucial conversation with the other person, have one with yourself: be in alignment with who you are and from there lead (or start or stay in) the conversation with the other. Know your own standards and behaviors, make sure your standards are congruent with your behaviors and you’ll find this family member/loved one won’t bother you as much, naturally. And if they do, approach the other with tact and at the same time be clear about your clean boundaries.

    No one is perfect, but we can all try to become better.

    Hanne from

  10. Denna

    Family is sometimes “fornever” when it means you must compromise your integrity to float along in the boat. When no one else has the courage to seek the truth and repeats a happening that didn’t happen, they come to believe whatever is said and said and said. That’s comprising integrity.


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