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How to set boundaries when your family sides with your ex

You moved on from your relationship. Now your family has to move on too. 

An illustration of three people on a couch with the center person X’ed out, as an onlooker watches.
After a breakup, your family might have to recalibrate. Here’s how to go about it.
Shanée Benjamin for Vox
Jay Deitcher is a writer, dad to three kiddos, and former social worker living in Albany, New York. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Esquire, The Cut, and more.

Breaking up with someone is rarely easy, and that’s even more the case when your family refuses to let go. Maybe your former partner came for all the holidays, and your mom won’t stop talking about the time he saved her dog from choking; maybe your cousin keeps comparing your newest love interest to the relationship that ended half a decade ago. In my family’s case, my brother-in-law walking out on my sister slashed our family in two: those who empathized with my sister, and those who threw their lot in with her ex. This obviously got complicated because we had spent over two decades falling in love with my ex brother-in-law, but he was no longer the person we met long ago.

Ending a relationship doesn’t just mean extricating yourself; it can also mean navigating the often messy connections they have with other people in your life. I spoke with four relationship experts about setting clear expectations with family members who are facing their own losses from the breakup.

Leaving a relationship impacts the entire family system

Ending a relationship takes bravery and a willingness to face reality, says Jessica Ashley, a divorce coach for moms and the author of Divorce 911: How to Handle Everyday Divorce Emergencies. While many of the popular narratives around breakups and divorce are focused on failure and devastation, in truth, she says, it can often lead people to pursue a happier, healthier version of themselves. A relationship’s end can come after years of suffocating your own needs, especially for women who have often “put themselves so far down the list that sometimes they don’t even know what they want.” However, just because you accepted that your relationship did not play out as you envisioned doesn’t mean your extended family will easily be able to do the same.

Partners are often interwoven into family systems, and there is normally a way of vetting who is let in, says Nikki Coleman, a psychologist and relationship expert who practices in Houston, Texas. Once the ex was able to establish themselves as a trustworthy part of the group, they probably took on some specific roles. “There’s expectations for them in the group, and all of a sudden you take that person out. The system has to recalibrate itself, and that does not happen overnight,” Coleman says.

That recalibration can be confusing. It may take time. You might need to have many sensitive conversations with family members. You may waver on your boundaries yourself, testing your limits with your ex, maybe still hanging out or having sexual relations with them, says Coleman, and you shouldn’t judge yourself if you struggle to let go. Leaving the relationship is your choice to make and so are the boundaries you set, and they may fluctuate.

Setting boundaries

After a split, the first — and most important — boundary to set is how much information you plan to share with family members. “Don’t feel like you have to get into all the details of what went wrong or how the person wasn’t the right fit for you,” said Coleman. Keep in mind that it’s not your job to convince your family about your decisions; it’s your job to take care of yourself.

An easy method you can use to ease family into a routine is to set boundaries for 30 days, Ashley says. Establish a 30-day hiatus from discussing your ex at family dinners. When the boundary becomes a habit, you can extend it. When having the discussion to set the boundary, use clear and concise language: “It’s a tweet. It’s not a Facebook post your aunt wrote,” she says. “This is my healthy boundary. And I’m asking you to respect it. Period.”

The family might benefit from a quick explanation of why the boundary is important, says Coleman, who recommends using statements such as, “This doesn’t feel good to me. This isn’t helpful for me. There are things about this relationship that maybe you don’t know about.” Once boundaries are set, she says to “just forget it.” You did your part, now you just have to repeat them as needed, clarifying details.

When choosing the method to have the conversation — telephone, text, or in person — Ashley says it’s important to ask yourself, ”How does this serve me well?” She recommends you go in “clear, calm, and confident,” with an exit plan “so [you’re] not slamming the door, getting [yourself] all riled up or expending more energy.” Because the conversation can be incredibly emotional, it’s important to have a self-care plan for after, whether that be journaling, breath work, dancing with the music cranked up, or screaming from a balcony.

Boundaries are evolving

If it feels like you can’t be yourself in family situations or are taken for granted, it might be time to renegotiate boundaries, says Coleman.

“It’s usually not the person setting [boundaries] that has a hard time [keeping them]. It’s the people on the other side of the boundaries that continue to push,” Coleman says. Ensure that your needs are interpreted as boundaries and not suggestions by holding people accountable. If they keep crossing lines, that might mean telling them, “I’ll see you on holidays. And that’s it.”

There can be room for negotiation if you are open to it, says Coleman. Maybe your ex and your brother have always played baseball on Saturdays. But if you give a family member permission to hang out with an ex, there should be a zero-tolerance rule for discussing your business with your ex or your ex’s with you. “They don’t get access to who I’m dating,” Coleman explains. “What else I’m doing. If I’m changing jobs. I’m not part of your conversation when y’all are together. And I don’t want you to bring the stuff from them to me.”

Of course, “The rules change if children are involved,” says Rachel Sussman, a psychotherapist and the author of The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce. “If you have a decent divorce, I have seen parents say to their daughter or son, ‘For the sake of our grandchildren, we want to maintain a relationship with your ex-wife or your ex-husband.’”

Ashley believes learning to advocate for yourself and set boundaries can be a powerful model for your children. She says you should think about what you would want your children to do if they were leaving an unhealthy relationship. “What would you say to them? What will you want them to know? My hope is that when my children experience [a breakup], they will come to me because they not only know that I have made the choice for us and for them and changed my life when it wasn’t easy, but that they’ve seen it in action.”

When parents can settle into separate spaces and create appropriate boundaries, it can allow everyone involved to “build the health they need,” says Ashley. “That doesn’t mean there’s not pain and trauma to get there. But in some situations, families can figure out amicable and respectable ways to interact, and sometimes it’s healthier to be separate completely.”

It’s their issues, not yours

Often, family members create an image of a person, and we put them in a box, says Coleman. “When people violate that box, some of us aren’t able to integrate that new information. We just can’t make it make sense.” This is especially true when abuse is involved. Our society often portrays abusers as horrible people, so when a family member loves the abuser, when the abuser has truly been kind to them, it can be nearly impossible to align the images. So family members may outright dismiss the abuse.

But Sussman says that when family hangs out with an abusive ex like nothing happened, it “is like re-abusing the person.” Still, it’s important to remember that they are the ones with issues, not you.

Josh Jonas, psychotherapist and the director of the Village Institute for Psychotherapy in New York City, believes that when a parent or family member knows the abuse you’ve been through and still says, “‘Well, hey, look, we understand this person did X, Y, and Z, but we like him,’ it’s a very narcissistic statement.”

This lack of support, Jonas guarantees, is nothing new. “It’s maybe a different flavor, but it’s the same frustration that [you’ve] been feeling with [your] parents for decades … Which is, I don’t feel understood by them. I don’t feel heard by them. They seem to just do what they want to do.”

Debating with a narcissist will go nowhere, says Jonas, so you need to give up hope that they will change and take on a new objective: “solving for calmness.” That might mean that you still see the family member, but the moment you find yourself fighting with them, you make your exit.

Coleman recommends being relentless with boundaries toward family who are still in contact with an abuser. If you remain in a relationship with the family member, the question to ask is, “How do we hold space together as a family when there’s this legitimate disconnect that’s happening here? What are the ways that we can be together and still love each other and demonstrate that relationship as family, but also, let’s just be honest, things have shifted.”

Holding firm boundaries might mean cutting a family member off, says Sussman, until “you get to a place in your own growth, in your own recovery, where you can say to yourself, I feel compassion for this person because of their own flaws.”

Surround yourself with people who support you

“You can’t heal your burns while you’re standing in the fire,” says Ashley. If your family isn’t supporting you, find people who are. That may include a therapist, divorce coach, cousin, or mom from playgroup. Just make sure everyone shows up for you so you can thrive.

“Don’t let divorce be your personality,” says Ashley. “You still get to go to book club and have political discussions and be who you are with those people outside of your divorce.” Distance yourself from anyone who wants to linger on breakup drama or cause more.

Healing from a breakup takes time, but learning to advocate for yourself and set boundaries can be deeply empowering. When my sister started her new life as a single mom, she clearly stated her needs to each family member, then she went and lived her life, embarking on a new adventure on the opposite side of the country, rediscovering her passions, finding the joy she lacked during the last years of her marriage. “We have this great opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what I’m changing about my life and here’s who I choose to be,’” says Ashley. “And that can be big. And it can be incredibly powerful.”

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