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Barton Goldsmith column: Divorcing or disowning a family member

The new year can give us the vigor to take on a fresh start. If you are in a toxic environment, you have every reason and right to strike out on your own and see if you can create something better.

Barton Goldsmith
Barton Goldsmith is a columnist for Tribune News Service.
Contributed / Tribune News Service
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Some lawyers report that they see divorce filings spike in January. I guess people try to give it one last shot over the holidays, and when that goes bad, they pull the plug. What most family therapists have seen over the years is that this is also when people most often choose to end other toxic family relationships.

The new year can give us the vigor to take on a fresh start. If you are in a toxic environment, you have every reason and right to strike out on your own and see if you can create something better. In most cases you can, but it does take guts and fortitude.

If you have lived in an uncomfortable emotional environment for a decade or more and are used to walling off the emotions, you may tell yourself there are many reasons to stay as well as to leave. The No. 1 reason people stay is the fear of the unknown. They used to say, “The devil you know is better than the one you don’t.” But with your experience, and using your brain, you can make a better world for yourself.

Think about it this way: If you know someone is toxic and they are not working on changing, all you will get from them is their negative projections. When any difficulty occurs — or if the other person is just in a bad mood — and you are made to feel that you are bad, wrong or evil, you need to get out.

The idea of “divorcing” a family member you aren’t married to may sound a little dramatic, but the truth is that there is already plenty of drama. This is just another way to make sense of what it is you need to do to keep your sanity and achieve your goals. You may be able to feel some happiness in your new life, which is also an empowering thought.


Leaving does not need to be an ugly, drawn-out experience that just heightens the toxicity around you. If you know what you need to do, start gathering a support system of people you can talk to about this move and who can help you. There’s no need to discuss what you’re planning with the toxic person in your life. In fact, you may be better off keeping it from them, so they don’t try to make you wrong for saving your own sanity.

Gathering the strength to start the process will come more naturally as you get better at walling off the negativity being thrown at you. Once you have made your decision, the rest is getting yourself organized, which can be daunting if you don’t have money or another place to go. There are shelters if you are struggling financially, but if you can, I suggest finding a room in a house with some friends.

If you look at this as a time of new beginnings, and not as an ending, it will help. Of course, there will be some struggle, but that’s something you have the strength to handle. No matter what, you’ll be better off without people who are being unkind to you. Just remember that you have made the right decision for yourself, and never doubt that.

Dr. Barton Goldsmith, a psychotherapist in Westlake Village, California, is the author of "The Happy Couple: How to Make Happiness a Habit One Little Loving Thing at a Time." Follow his daily insights on Twitter at @BartonGoldsmith , or email him at . ©2021 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Related Topics: FAMILY
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