A journey from trauma to authenticity
Estrangement – Weak and Wrong or Healthy and Strong?
Estrangement – Weak and Wrong or Healthy and Strong?

Estrangement – Weak and Wrong or Healthy and Strong?

The Stigma of Estrangement

There is a stigma attached to being estranged from a family member. Historically, many cultures emphasized duty, obligations and responsibilities. People were very interdependent, and it was hard to cut yourself off from the support of your family. Elderly people relied on their children to provide for them in their old age.

Western cultures nowadays promote independence. Adults are now much more self-sufficient, and do not need the financial and material support of the extended family in the way they did in the past. People are empowered to set boundaries in relationships. They are much less likely to tolerate, for example, grandparents making comments that are in conflict with their own values, in front of their children. If such grandparents are unwilling to stop making, for example, racist comments in front of the children, the parents may decide this means an estrangement is necessary.

Despite this, the stigma remains. Health and social care professionals can still be heard commenting harshly about the children of an elderly person in a care centre, whose adult children never visit. Acquaintances of someone who has cut contact with a parent ask things like, “What do you tell people about that? Do many people know? Don’t you feel guilty for not helping them when they are frail and infirm?” 

The person who has initiated the estrangement, for very good reasons, can also feel guilt, shame and sorrow. They may experience pressure from other family members, or people in their religious community, to reconcile. This can cause an unhealthy cycle of reconciling and cutting contact for a period of time, until they realise that the other person is never going to change their behaviour.

How Common is it?

Estrangement can feel a huge decision to make, and is often only done after much deliberation and heart searching. And yet it is surprisingly common.

Karl Andrew Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, US, carried out a nationwide survey for his 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. The survey showed more than one in four Americans reported being estranged from another relative. British estrangement charity Stand Alone did similar research which suggests the phenomenon affects one in five families in the UK.

Most often adult children initiate the estrangement from their parents. However, it can also occur between siblings and other family members. The most common causes of estrangement are childhood abuse, antagonistic divorces, and conflicts in values especially regarding race, gender & sexuality and religious differences. People are also becoming more aware of how toxic relationships impact their own mental and emotional health. This can lead to a decision that estrangement is needed to protect their own mental health.

What are the consequences?

Estrangement from family members can have some negative consequences. People may experience feelings of guilt. They may lose the support of family members. Children may not be able to enjoy the benefits of knowing their grandparents. There may be loneliness at times of family festivals such as Christmas. There is the absence of the stability that long-term relationships with people who have always known you brings.

However, usually people make this decision because the benefits outweigh the losses. Often, the family was already dysfunctional, and not providing the stability, care and kindness that a healthy extended family provides. The person becomes free from toxic, abusive behaviours. They experience peace and freedom. They can develop agency and determine their own friendships and futures. They can protect their own children from damaging verbal and other abuse. They can find the space and distance to heal.

Sometimes reconciliation is possible. Some people are able to face their own behaviours and make changes. Sometimes therapy and/or mediation can facilitate the changes necessary for reconciliation to be a healthy choice.

But often, sadly, narcissistic, toxic people do not change. Sometimes the hurt and damage they have caused is so deep and serious, that renewing contact is simply asking for another wound to be inflicted.

Personal Experience

I cut contact with my father to stop the ongoing damage the relationship caused me, to give me the space and freedom I needed to seek healing, and to protect my daughters from being harmed. Later, bail conditions were set which made no contact legally binding. I feel sorrow. I have had to grieve losses these decisions brought. But I do not regret doing this. It was life-saving for me really. I feel relief, freedom and peace. My body is physically more relaxed.

In my work as a doctor, people tell me about their decisions to cut contact with relatives. I can listen to their story without judgement, and give them a safe space to express their emotions. There is always sadness involved, but there is often a process of healing going on also.

I also meet people who are plodding on in toxic relationships, wedded to the belief that it is their duty and responsibility, or trapped by enmeshment of some kind. Sometime there is betrayal blindness and denial still acting as their main survival mechanism. All too often, they are coming to the doctor because of the toll this is having on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

When I encounter people on the other side of the story, whose relative no longer contacts them, I can listen to their stories as well. I can be part of the health and social care services that can provide them with the care and support they need, without judgement. As a society, we can provide care for the frail and infirm, when it is not appropriate or healthy for their own close relatives to do so.

Human relationships are complex. To anyone who is making or has made the decision to cut contact with a family member, I would just like to say, you are not alone. I believe you have done this for good reasons. I hope you find relief and freedom in your decision, and that it is part of a healing journey. Listen to your inner voice. Don’t let others, looking in from the outside, place burdens and responsibilities on you that are not yours to carry. Little by little, day by day, make new connections that contribute to your mutual wellbeing. It takes courage to step up and do what is needed to protect yourself and others you are responsible for.

Be at peace.

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