Letting Go: How to cut ties with the bad in your life

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Over the weekend, I received a request via my twitter from the lovely Lady Grinning Soul for some advice on how to let go of people, situations and relationships that are bad for us. It was a brilliant, timely idea; something we all struggle with, but ultimately something that we all have to do.

While I’m not Champion of Letting Go by any means, I do have some hard-won wisdom on the subject. I thought a lot about my own experiences as I wrote this, and I was reminded me of a few important things I’d forgotten. So not only was this cathartic, it was also really beneficial for me. I hope it helps you guys, too.

I credit most of my ability to let go to Al-Anon, which is a program for family members of alcoholics. One of their key tenets involves detaching with love, which is straight-up cutting emotional ties to the person who is hurting you. You have to take the focus off the other person’s problems and put it back on yourself. Obsessing over another person and their behaviour–whether that entails substance abuse, partying, flirting, cheating, neglect, general fuckery, whatever–is not love.

The essential truth here is that you are not responsible for the actions of anyone else. Within the context of a relationship, for instance, this means that it’s not up to you to make sure that your partner doesn’t go to the bar and make out with a stranger. Within the context of a recently ended relationship, this means it isn’t up to you to make sure that the other person is “alright,” and it certainly isn’t up to you to police their now you-free life. You can’t MAKE anyone else do (or stop doing) anything. You have to focus on what YOU can do and how YOU can live with dignity & self-respect. This means:

  • Not suffering because of other people’s actions/inaction.
  • Not letting yourself be used by someone else in the name of “helping.”
  • Not doing for others what they can do for themselves.
  • Not covering up or ignoring transgressions.

Al-Anon taught me that detaching isn’t kind nor unkind. It’s not a judgement or approval. It’s about separating yourself from the hurtful effects of someone else’s behaviour. This step back will help give you the distance to see the situation as it really is, not as you want it to be, and allow you to make better choices in the future.

You’ve detached. Well done. Now you have to choose to let go, and know right from the start what that will mean. It means the end. It means this is done. It means no late-night phone calls, no faux-concern where you’re really measuring how much better you’re doing, no explosive emotional purges six months from now. View it like a surgical cut; it’ll bleed in the moment, it’ll ache while it heals, but in the end it’s going to be better and you’ll have a cool scar to talk about.

There is a time for everything. Immediately after cutting ties with a relationship, no matter how bad, you will feel lost at sea. You’ll feel sore and confused and lonely, or maybe you’ll feel angry, or maybe you’ll just feel empty. This is fine! Express however you feel (or don’t feel)–talk to your friends, write in a journal, keep a private blog. Do this as much as you want for two weeks at the most, but longer than that and you run the risk of getting trapped. Don’t get stuck in a pain-rut. We’ve all done it: All you do is talk about how much you miss this relationship, which causes you to remember how much it hurt to be done with it, which causes more pain, which gets all bound up with painful memories of the person, and next thing you know you’re stuck in an endless cycle of hurt. To bring back the surgical cut simile, what you’re doing here is pulling at your stitches. It won’t change anything, it will just make you hurt worse for longer and push the day where you feel okay again further into the future.

There will be a time, though it probably seems distant right now, when you will feel okay again. It’s probably around this time that the person who wasn’t great for you will make an attempt to get back into your life. Say no. Why would you want to re-establish a relationship that has already proven to be toxic? You’re smarter and worth more than that.

This person may have been wonderful at one point. But as Mama Malice always says, when a person shows you who they are, BELIEVE THEM. You’ve taken distance and time to see the situation as it really was. Don’t put yourself back in it again. Trust in the fact that there are other people out there who will bring out the best in you, who will be kind and loving and good to you, who will build with you the kind of relationship you want. Don’t go back to the bad because of nostalgia or because it’s safe.

This is another play straight from the Al-Anon handbook. It’s probably the hardest one, but it’s truly essential. You have to accept what has happened, forgive the person and let go of the resentment. This sounds very gracious but it’s actually for you more than for the other person. Holding a grudge or hating someone will corrode you from the inside out; it has never once been beneficial. I know–God, do I know–that this can feel nigh impossible. It doesn’t help that the closer the person has been to you, the worse the hurt and the harder it is to forgive. It can take a long time to get here and that’s fine, but it has to be done.

This doesn’t mean that you forget everything that has happened and accept the person back into your life with open arms. If they’re bad for you, it’s best that you don’t. But you have to make peace with what happened, whatever it was, so that you can forgive the other person AND yourself. It’s an essential part of healing, letting go and moving on.

All of this healing and painful forgiving doesn’t mean anything if you turn around and stake your fortunes on the next jerkwagon that comes along. Everyone has patterns, but repeating them once you know they’re bad is futile and silly. Look at your own actions and see how you could do things differently. You can’t control anyone but yourself, so make sure that YOU are in control, not insecurities or childhood hurts or fear. That’s a wonderful, powerful thing. Embrace it.

What do you think? How do you let go of the bad things in your life? Any additional advice for the currently struggling?

Let me know in detail, I love hearing from you guys.

21 thoughts on “Letting Go: How to cut ties with the bad in your life

  1. I love this whole post, but the line that stuck out for me was “don’t do for others what they could do for themselves.” Oh yes. I think I need to write that somewhere where I’ll remember it. I know I’m a smart cookie and very useful person to have in one’s life, but that doesn’t mean I am obligated to save your ass time and time again!

  2. I think you’re dead on with cutting ties. It does suck but after the whole process is said and done it feels much better knowing you aren’t involved in other people’s crap or getting used than having that lingering pain of “I just want to help them so bad blah blah blah one day what I’m doing will make a difference” you can’t change other people but you can change you and the way you do things. Well said!

  3. Ah! Alle! How I love you! All the bullet points in your Detach section? Yep. All too familiar. Sorry it took me a few days to get over here and read after it was me who requested the piece, haha, BUT on the plus side it meant that by the time I read it (now) I’ve already detached, made the decision and so far, no picking. I’m a little concerned about the “Say No” part because this is where I’ve fallen down in the past, and I know this is going to be an issue much sooner than it would be in most situations… BUT, and this may sound a little strange, I am holding onto just enough pain from when I was at my lowest to remind me how bad it can be, and to prevent me from saying Yes.

    Plus, my situation is a little different – although I’m sure lots of people will relate to this – in that I can’t completely cut the person out of my life due to us being on the same quite small course at college… for the next three and a half years. But I think I can still be strong, sane and friendly and remember to care for me, rather than him. (It also helps that he knows and understands all of the above and agrees, so hopefully he’ll be going through this process too; I might even send him over here.)

    Anyway! thank you so much hun. This is wonderful. And so very liberating. I cannot tell you how happy I am to be able to say “I’m fine!” and mean it.

    Oh and when I have my own place this and the break-up article are SO going to be on my refrigerator. Love.

  4. Agh, so true. But it’s incredibly hard to get to the point where you choose to detach. Even when you do realize that you’re suffering, and realize that you’re being used, it can sometimes serve to motivate you all the more to keep going: because, dammit, even if you know you’ll never fix them, you have to prove to yourself that you’ve got the steel to see it through to the end. Your head gets filled up with all these poisonously “affirming” ideas about never giving up, never being a quitter… and when you’ve gone over the deep end like that, it’s even harder to get back out, because you’ve already abandoned realistic concerns and thrust yourself into a realm of idealism. No practical argument can touch you, when it all just FEELS right in some higher emotional sense — nevermind the misery you actually feel on a daily basis. I could blather on (and on) about all that rot.

    But, trite as it may be, I did want to add one crucial bit to the section about forgiveness: you also have to be able to forgive yourself. None of the detachment can work if you’re not willing to step back, understand that what you’ve done might be considered wrong or a mistake, understand that this does not make YOU a wrong or mistaken or irrational person, and forgive yourself for having expended your time and effort (and more) on the object of your devotion. If you don’t realize that it was mistaken AND forgive yourself for being mistaken, you’ll be all the more tempted to keep going back to prove yourself right.

    And I could hammer on about the possible psychological underpinnings of that, as well, but I’ll spare you all. I think that my experience was an extreme statistical outlier, and I certainly HOPE it would be irrelevant to most people. hah!

    Fantastic advice, though — and oh how I could have used it, back in the bad old days.

    1. “If you don’t realize that it was mistaken AND forgive yourself for being mistaken, you’ll be all the more tempted to keep going back to prove yourself right.” Thank you. Thank you. This sentence saved me from more mistakes. During the good times I thought we were perfect together and then after the bad I realized we were not. But I keep holding on to the “we were perfect together” and ignored the bad, because I did not want to be wrong. I forgive myself.

  5. Love this post! I have printed it and will continue to reread it when I am weak! I know I have driven my friends crazy because I have kept going back to an unhealthy relationship. What is the definition of insanity? When you keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results! Thanks for writing this!

  6. Hi Alle

    I found your blog through LadyGrinSoul, and I just wanted to thank you for writing this post, because it could have not come at a better time. I am in a bit of a complicated situation with an old friend and I don’t really know how to get out of it. Your tips might help, but I don’t know how they will react.


    x Jilly Boyd

  7. Cori,
    Dont feel bad,i’ve done the same thing going back to an unhealthy relationship thinking that person might change this time.For awhile it seems everything is great and you’re happy n the next thing you know it’s back to the same old bullshit.
    My problem is i have 2 kids that want there parents to be together n after 18 years of being together we have grown apart n we’ve done the whole giving it a break thing n it hasnt done a damn thing

    1. That’s the thing about relationships–we WANT the best case scenario. Love blinds us to a lot of faults, and so when someone we love says that things will be different, we believe them. Because we WANT to. But what we want and what we know will happen are often two different things, which is a really hard thing to deal with.

      Julie, my parents were together for 18 years. Of that, twelve were good. The last six were bad, and I mean REALLY bad. I used to think that it was the divorce that has made me a wary, almost untrusting person who doesn’t almways put a lot of faith in the whole “love” thing. But then I realised that it wasn’t that my parents split. It was those six excruciating years that they stayed together–fighting, hating each other, not able to stay in the same room as one another–that caused the damage.

      Every situation is different, and I can’t tell you what to do with your relationship. I can tell you that yes, kids (especially young kids, but it really doesn’t change with age) want their parents to stay together. But deeper down, in a place they can’t speak from yet, kids want to feel safe, stable and loved. They can’t have those needs met properly if their parents barely tolerate each other. It’s also important for you and your partner to model the relationship that you’d be happy for THEM to be in one day. You sound like a really involved, loving mum who’s willing to sacrifice a lot for her kids. I don’t think you’d ever want to see either of your children stuck in a relationship that didn’t work just because they didn’t know what else to do.

  8. This article has blessed me so much. It so unfortunate that we carry so unnecessary loads in this life. Especially unforgiveness.

  9. Thank you so much for this….It came at the most perfect time. A friend sent this to me. I have the DETACH part down really well right now. I’ve just ended it today, although we are still in the same house. He only comes home every couple of weeks right now due to his job. I have just chosen not to be here when he does. And the worst part….this has been thru emails and texts….I know…I’m obviously chicken or something. The hurt is sinking in as I write this, but it’s been a long time coming. I just hope I have the strength to walk away, even though I am losing my best friend and right now….my heart hurts.

    1. I don’t think there’s anything chicken about it. Sometimes you’re not ready to go to the mat over a huge change. Sometimes you need time to adjust, clear your head and grieve the loss of the friendship.

      I’m giving you a big hug, because I know what that heart hurt feels like. All I can say is that every day it’ll get a little bit better. Time really does heal all wounds, and it’s the only thing that does.

  10. Shirley/ Wow-this couldn’t have come at a better time!!! I have been struggling with a relationship and when I read this article it was like a wake up call / Cori had a good idea about printing this and reading when I get weak / Thanks for this post /would love it if you came out with some more !!!!!

  11. All he does is lie….he lies about evrything from how much money he will be making in a month to we will get a house in two months. He gets my hope

  12. You are a saint. I can’t tell you how much this post means to me and inspires me. I can’t even form the words about how to do a cateye and you summed up essentially how to do one of the most important things in life. Thank you so much. You’ve opened my eyes more, and I’m going to continue reading this until I don’t need it anymore.

  13. Tougher when after decades of numerous betrayals involving a narcissist father, and sibling enabler. These two chose to not phone me before they invited 25 other people to my moms hospital room to watch her life support removed. The sibling husband also did not call me nor my daughter. How does anyone ever get over this level of deep betrayal. An ICU nurse phoned me and told me the shocking news saying my mother died 5 minutes ago. I can never trust the remainder of my so called family again. My sibling only called me after that 4 times in 2 years where before my mom died she phoned me every day for about an hour call per night. No apologies ever from any of these people. So for the past 7 months me and my 26 yr old daughter have gone no contact with those family members. Much happier but not sure forgiveness for that and many other hurts can ever be forgiven or forgotten! Some things are just unforgivable.

    1. That’s not quite what I meant by forgive. “Forgive” doesn’t always mean the same thing as “get over.” You’ve experienced some horrible things, and I’m not saying that you need to wipe the slate clean and let these people keep treating you and your daughter badly. What I mean is that you can’t carry it around with you. Can you imagine being this hurt and sad for the rest of your life? Would you want your daughter to feel like that? Hell fucking no!

      You’ve decided to cut out your family. You’re an adult, and that’s your prerogative. The best thing about being grown is that you get to make choices about who is and is not in your life. Totally fine. How are you dealing with that choice? Have you found a therapist to work through the very real issues that nasty family members can cause? Has your daughter? If not, I’d suggest that you both do so.

      You have to let go of the things your family has done. Work through it. Talk about it. Get whatever closure you feel you need. But don’t spend your time dwelling on the horrible things they’ve done to you. It’s a waste. You are swallowing poison and expecting them to die.

      You will probably never get an apology from the people you want apologies from. Life is not fair this way. The key is recognising that you don’t NEED their apologies to move on. Because someone saying “I’m sorry” to you wouldn’t change who they are, would it? It won’t make you want them to be a part of your life. It can’t undo what’s been done. You want them to acknowledge that you were right and they were wrong. I get that want. I feel it myself sometimes. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if they ever acknowledge it. Right and wrong really aren’t a matter of opinion, and they don’t rely on someone else realising their existence. If you’re right, you’re right. And if they never say that or realise it, it doesn’t change the fact.

      I’m not saying that you forget what has happened–I have a mentally ill sibling, and I will never be able to forget the things he’s done and said to me–I’m saying that you let a scar form in your heart where there’s clearly right now an open wound, and you move on.

      I hope that things continue to get better for you and your daughter.

  14. Thanks for the reply. I’m the person whom father and sister chose not to call ke before they turned off my mother’s life support…. We had had decades of various controlling behaviors and moved to different states several times to have some peace. But they seemed obsessed and justified all of it to their fundamentalist religion which a psycHologist said their religion was just a replacement for alchohol… My mother enabled my father’s narcissism and abusive verbal and threatening behavior. He did it privately and always said ” no one will believe you if you tell them” and he was right, at least in?The family. His craziness seemed to come in cycles, he would seem ” better” (Dr Jeckle) relatively speaking but fir no reason would get back in months or years of crazy “mr Hyde”. All one on one and then over nice to me in public or around rest of family. Threats. Severe threats to ruin my life, to have me killed, etc.

    We had enough. My daughter and I are amazingly ok. It’s something we quite frankly got used to, the craziness, the delusion we had to live while interacting with them on holidays. Etc. Crazy. Bat shit crazy! Lol. We finally said done. Mon is gone, so don’t have to put up with that crazy game anymore. Though now he sends wired long rambling letters. Last one I decided nit to open, walked and threw it in the trash. Decided no I wouldn’t let him again get in my head! Done.


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