All families have their squabbles and days when one member might not speak to another. However, there is one type of painful situation where the communication between family members stops; this is family estrangement.
Often, family estrangement occurs when an adult child is learning to cope with and get rid of harmful people in their lives, but it can happen under other circumstances as well.
This article will explore family estrangement, what it is, and what a person might do to help themselves when facing this devastating event.
The Definition of Family Estrangement
A good definition of family estrangement is as follows:
Family Estrangement (FE) is an emotional distancing and cessation of communication between one or more members of a family. It is the breakdown of the support from and to a person who can no longer trust their family to be on their side any longer.
Often FE happens when two members of a family disagree on the facts of a matter such as in the case of childhood trauma. The adult survivor might come out and talk about what happened to them, but the other member or members of the family think he or she is lying. This can lead to family estrangement, where the survivor refuses to speak to the family and often Vise Versa.
However, there are some situations where a family member becomes shunned by the rest of the group to the point where they may be an outcast to the entire family.
Any way one sees it, family estrangement is excruciatingly painful.
The Reasons for Family Estrangement
There are as many reasons for family estrangement as there are people who experience it, but the following list at least gives one a little understanding of the scope of the process.
- Bad Parenting
- Mental Illness
- Unsupportive Behavior
- Drug and Alcohol Abuse
The trauma involved in not only what caused the estrangement but also the estrangement itself is palpable as each side struggles with the shame and guilt that often accompanies FE.
For adult children who have survived highly traumatic events in childhood where one or both parents were abusive, the pain can be even more profound as they crave the love and compassion they can never receive.
While any form of estrangement in a family is uncomfortable, nothing compares to the agony when a parent and child become estranged.
The parent-child relationship isn’t something the child chooses, and they do not choose to become dependent upon people who are not reliable. It is nature that causes the most significant harm because children must bond with their parents for safety even if the parents never bond with them. This is where attachment disorders originate.
Societal views that say that the child-parent bond is sacred and is never broken make estrangement even more awkward and hurtful than it need be. There are times and situations where adult children of toxic parents need to distance themselves from them for self-preservation and to heal.
Adult children often find little to no support from others in their social network for two reasons. One is the fact, as mentioned above that society views an adult child should honor their parents no matter what because the bond is sacred. And, two, the adult child tends to hide the grief and anxiety they are feeling from their friends and other family members due to shame and guilt.
When Nature and Nurture Breakdown
When a baby is born, it’s first instinct is to cry out for a parent to care for it. Babies cannot forage for food, feed themselves, or even change their wet clothing and are utterly dependent on those who brought them into the world. Parents have an inborn instinct to care for the needs of their children. This is nature.
Nurture is a bit more complicated.
Nurturing a child means supporting him/her in other ways other than just physical support. It means protecting the child from danger, making sure they are clean, making certain their child feels wanted, accepted, loved, and heard.
When a parent or parents are unable or unwilling to follow their instincts, nature, and nurture, child abuse, and neglect are the results leaving the child to cope with enormously stressful years when growing up.
Family estrangement often begins with this breakdown of nature and nurture as the adult child finally understands that the toxic environment they grew up in was unnecessary and harmful to their mental and physical health.
Estrangement, then, is the natural outcome of parents not caring enough about their children, no matter what the reason, and adult children saying, no more.
Other Types of Family Estrangement
Parent-child estrangement isn’t the only type of FE that can happen; it can occur between any two family members or even who sides of a family. These begin as resentments, grow into arguments, and finally end with neither party speaking with, nor having anything to do with the other.
Never assume these kinds of estrangements are not painful because, to most humans, losing the support and possibly the love of someone in their family is utterly devastating.
Responding to Family Estrangement
What to do if you feel estranged from family? Do you run back to them and apologize? Should you continue your healing journey without them? The answer to both questions is yes. Before anyone gets upset, allow me to explain.
Under some circumstances, it is wise to return to the parent or parents and apologize and makeup with them. This should only happen if it is the survivor’s choice and only if it is healthy to do so. Allowing a toxic parent to gain access to your soul again is not wise, but if that parent has changed or you cannot live without some contact then go to them but limit your exposure to a timeframe you can handle.
If, on the other hand, the parent or parents involved in the estrangement are so toxic that being around them will cause more harm, then move on without them. Life will continue and you deserve and need better treatment than they will offer.
No matter what you decide to do, keep your chin up because there is no one more valuable to you than yourself. People can leave their parents, but they can never leave themselves.
You Can’t Un-Spill Milk
The old saying goes that one should not cry over spilled milk. The reason? Because one cannot un-spill it. What is done is done.
The same holds for the past. If you have become estranged from your family, you cannot go back in time and undo what has been done. That is pure physics; time is not reversible.
Instead of crying because the milk cannot be un-spilled, why not build a better life, in other words, pour a more significant, fresher, and better glass of milk.
This is especially true if you were abused by a parent or your parents as a child. While they cannot un-spill what they have done, you do not need to allow them to use and abuse you today.
The milk now belongs to you. You can pour it into a new glass and enjoy it or forever weep because it cannot be un-spilled. It’s entirely up to you.
Letting Go to Cope with Family Estrangement
Family estrangement is an excruciating event that leaves people shattered and feeling alone. This is true whether the family member or members were ever supportive of the person or not because we all have images in our mind of what family is and not having it shatters our dreams.
Broken dreams are hard to overcome. They nag at the back of our minds and make us feel lonely, especially during the holiday season.
Learning to let go is much harder than it looks on paper as we all want our families to be together in a Norman Rockwell fashion. We have in our minds how it should be and wonder what we can do to make things right and bring that fuzzy Christmas to ourselves with our estranged family.
There is little to nothing one can do to heal a breach, so stop trying to make it happen. Sitting and dreaming of the things you should have done or could do is counterintuitive and harmful. Letting go doesn’t mean you don’t love that person it means you are choosing to take care of yourself and allow them to live their own lives.
Planning for a Future Despite the Estrangement
If you crave to have a member of your family in your future as part of your life, you are not weak; you are a good son or daughter. Maybe your anger is overshadowing the love you harbor toward the people who have disavowed you or you have disavowed, but the only reason you are angry is that you care.
Moving on without a mom or dad, sister or brother or another family will hurt in the future. You get a new job you are proud of, you have a baby, you get married, all of these plus many more life experiences will bring a twinge of new pain because that person is not there.
However, making plans to move on is precisely what one must do, no matter how hard doing so becomes. Leave behind the old thoughts of how those people figure in the future and make a future for yourself.
Keep in mind that if those people who were toxic to you were indeed in your future, you would be miserable and wish they would go away. By making plans to move on without them you are saving yourself pain and standing on your own two feet and shouting to the world, I am worthwhile, I am kind, and I deserve respect, love, and dignity