Family estrangement, simply put, is a loss or a termination of a relationship that previously existed between family members. An estrangement can occur between two people or multiple family members. An estrangement can occur between a parent and a child, sibling to sibling, a child to a parent or grandparent, or any combination you can imagine. Family estrangements can occur at any age. Estrangements in young adults are most common, however, as this is when a person is more financially stable and no longer dependent on their parents for the necessities. Family estrangements do not discriminate. There is no single population that is predisposed to estrangements. Family estrangements can affect any culture, socioeconomic group, profession, religion, or gender.
Estrangement from parents, siblings, children, or other relatives is one of the most painful experiences as a human. From our birth, we are typically born into a close family tie, where we literally depend on our family members to keep us alive. As humans during early developmental stages of growth, we depend upon our parents’ love and care to get our basic needs met. This dependence evolves into an emotional attachment as we age. Children and adolescents have little power during this developmental cycle. They need their parents for food, shelter, and financial support. However, what happens when the child becomes a young adult, and the relationship is no longer manageable or emotionally healthy for the now adult-child? In addition, what does it mean for the caregiver who has little ability to set boundaries with their grown children?
Typically, estrangements do not just happen out of the blue. There is often not one blow-out, knock-down, drag-out fight that leads to an estrangement. There is often not one particular event that facilitates an estrangement. Often there are periods of estrangement, rapprochement, reconciliation, as well as many different boundary setting attempts. These boundary setting attempts often look like structured-contact or low-contact, eventually moving into no-contact when boundaries are not honored.
If cutting off contact with our families is so painful, no matter how unhealthy they are, then why does it happen?
Emotional abuse, physical abuse, mismatched values or expectations, neglect, mental health issues, or a traumatic family event are all common reasons for family estrangement. Think of it this way, we would never tell someone to go back to an unhealthy and damaging relationship, so why would we tell someone to stay in a relationship that is mentally, emotionally, or physically damaging simply because they are related? Sometimes, family estrangement can be the only way to cope with and heal from an unhealthy relationship.
So how can a person cope with family estrangement?
First, ask yourself how you can best take care of yourself in the situation. Prioritize self-care and self-compassion in this difficult time. Ask yourself what boundaries you are comfortable setting. A cost/benefit analysis can also be helpful in the situation to consider possible advantages and disadvantages. Some helpful questions can be:
- How much contact are you comfortable having with this person?
- What will your life look like if you remove this person?
- What are the consequences of removing this person from your life?
- Can you tolerate it?
- What are the consequences of keeping this person in your life?
- Can you tolerate it?
- What are the possible benefits of keeping this person in your life?
- What are the benefits of removing this person from your life?
Estrangement can come with feelings of shame and guilt. How many times have you heard someone say, “But they are your family!” or “Family is all you’ve got!”? This can be invalidating to those who have suffered pain from these relationships and can suggest that they should stay in an unhealthy relationship because it is a societal expectation.
I am here to tell you, you are not alone. Estrangement is a difficult, painful process. Set your boundaries, be protective of yourself and your needs, and honor your emotions. If you can seek help from a therapist to cope with the loss and grief, please do so! Holidays and certain dates like birthdays can be difficult and upsetting. It can be helpful on these days to form a plan beforehand; engage in extra self-care on these difficult, often emotionally triggering days. Above all, remember that a relationship is a privilege, not a right, regardless of whether it is with an adult-child, a parent, a relative, or a friend. Ultimately, you have the choice of who deserves to be in your life.
Jennifer Grayson, B.A.
Pre-Doctoral Psychology Trainee