03/28/2012 01:44 pm ET Updated May 28, 2012

Divorcing Your Family

My article, Divorcing an Old Friend, evoked nearly 1,200 comments, most agreeing that sometimes there's no choice. My old friend isn't the only person I've left behind. I divorced my family after decades of hoping our relationship could be different. The misguided pain families frequently inflict on their members is inexplicable. What's even more inexplicable, however, is why anyone would suffer what I term insider abuse. After all, who knows your strengths and weaknesses better than family? But that information is a sacred trust, and using it to inflict pain is a betrayal of that trust.

If you're in a harsh or painful situation with your family and your game plan is to simply continue ignoring it and get on with your life, you're ensuring that your pain will last for as long as it takes before you finally deal with it. There is no such thing as stuffing pain and pretending it no longer exists. That's a myth. You either deal with your pain or suffer the consequences. It takes courage to take a stand and stop playing your dysfunctional family's game.

But deserting a family can feel as painful as the abuse, and that feeling of anxiety is the issue to confront. Why is leaving pain behind so scary? The thought of being alone in the world can feel unbearable. That's when friendships play a vital role. My friends and I have heard each other's stories and supported each other decisions regarding family, and my wife also supports me.

The excuses offered for intentionally hurting any family member are varied, but none are valid. Inflicting pain as a methodology to change someone's behavior is ignorant. Not respecting a family member's choices is meant to crush that person's spirit. There's no love in that, so pretending otherwise is just rationalization. No one has the right to foist his or her agenda on anyone. I'm not referring to tough love, a practice often invoked for alcohol and drug addicted people meant to wake them up to the realities. I'm referring to personal choices people make that don't always measure up to a family's purported standards.

My father worked, but couldn't pay his bills. I wore hand-me-down clothing and worked to earn money, but I didn't mind, especially since none of my boyhood friends had money, either. Being broke wasn't something I held against my father. But the fallout from our family's financial woes was that my father took his financial frustrations out on me. He wailed on a small boy as if somehow I was responsible for his plight. This went on for years, and my mother's contribution was silence, which may have been her only protection. My sister hid. No one in my family has ever mentioned this violence, and no one has ever acknowledged it ever happened, either. That denial has caused me more pain than the actual events.

Not surprisingly, my father died at 52 from a heart attack. He literally imploded. I was in my last year of college, and what became clear was that when I graduated and was employed, my mother was going to become my financial responsibility, no matter that I had a wife and infant son to support. I was so desperate to feel loved that I began supporting my mother right out of college, and did so for twenty-five years, without a thank you. I couldn't even buy love in my family. This is a family theme I've heard from other people.

When she died, my sister insisted she wanted a relationship with me, but was unwilling to be open and honest about what had occurred in our family. After a few years of dancing around our family's issues, I walked away. I divorced her. To ignore a sibling's pain simply to maintain a delusion is not an act of love. Do I feel wonderful about any of this? Absolutely not, but I'm taking care of myself in a manner that my family didn't, and coming from a dysfunctional family, that's critical.

There are too many folks who still suffer the fallout from dysfunctional families. I hope to encourage them to make the choice not to continue suffering. There is no reason to allow any family member to hurt you. Whether or not you did something that caused pain in your family isn't a valid excuse. Punishment is a perilous road to travel, particularly since few of us are perfect. Punishing someone rather than loving them is self-righteous and sanctimonious.

Taking care of myself became paramount, even though that meant forgoing any family beyond my son and grandson. While that's painful, it doesn't begin to equal the pain I felt from being mistreated just to make someone else feel better. Be your own best friend. Divorce is ugly, but the alternative, continued pain, is worse. No family member has the right to hurt you.