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
My name is Shirley Davis and I am a freelance writer with over 40-years- experience writing short stories and poetry. Living as I do among the corn and bean fields of Illinois (USA), working from home using the Internet has become the best way to communicate with the world. My interests are wide and varied. I love any kind of science and read several research papers per week to satisfy my curiosity. I have earned an Associate Degree in Psychology and enjoy writing books on the subjects that most interest me.
The spilling of the milk! Great metaphor! I’ve been in treatment for nine years. The hardest and the best of uncovering of an accidental life. Were all just doing are best after spilling the milk.
I’m glad you found the piece helpful. Me too. I’m making the best after the milk was spilled for me. Now it is up to me to clean up the mess as best I can and move on. Shirley
I am one of those people who made the painful decision to no longer have contact with my family of origin and it took years to reach that point. Almost 3 years later I still have days I struggle with it. My struggle has been the ingrained belief that I am responsible for my mother’s happiness in life and unless I am making her happy, I cannot be happy. It took me a long time to get in touch with that core belief having been raised by parents who had severe narcissistic behaviors. This article is so well written and so healing to my soul.
Aww, thank you. I’m so happy I could help. Shirley
Very good article. I turned my back on my family after a lifetime of abuse, (emotional,physical,sexual). When this same abuse began to be perpetrated on my own children, that’s when I went “no contact” The problem was that they (my Mother,Father,and Sister) kept tabs on everything I did and all contacts/friendships that I made and damaged those associations with lies and “smack”. Most of these people broke off their friendships with me and some even perpetrated more harming lies. My brother and his wife refused to believe that any abuse really happened because it didn’t happen to him. (He was the golden boy). I realize that many people believe that an abuser will abuse all, not a select few. To make things worse my Mother and Sister made my oldest son their”Golden Boy” replacement and worked relentlessly to brainwash him into believing I was a terrible mother and he didn’t want to be a part of this family. He has now broken off all contact with me and has extremely little contact with his brothers. I could go on and on recounting the atrocities that I and my children were submitted to but that is not the purpose of my response. I just want to say that I grew up in an era of ‘family doings stayed behind closed doors” (I’m 65) and my life has been a train-wreck. I’m still living in the aftermath and trying to cope with a bleak future. I am trying to survive on a fixed income. I just want to say that I think it is “OK” not to feel forgiveness for the abuse that was done because sometimes it is so emotionally and spiritually devastating that it is all one can do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Support can be minimal due to a lack of understanding. I am grateful that finally there are people out there who realize this and I’m finding more articles and sites regarding this subject.
Thank you for your comment. I am sorry you are facing family estrangement. I too had to leave my family behind because they were toxic to me. You are certainly not alone, and I respect your need not to forgive. It’s okay to hurt and grieve over the loss of any family support and we stand behind you. Shirley
Nan, I thank you for raising the issue of not feeling forgiveness. I went no contact with my family ( excluding one brother) five years ago and I still struggle with forgiveness. What I have embraced is acceptance of who they are and understanding to the best of my ability, what might cause them to be as they are. ( I do not feel that it’s a requirement to explore their issues, it was just something that I personally wanted to do in the hope that it would bring some peace) . It doesn’t take the pain away but it helps stabilize me in the present. Is it forgivable to emotionally , psychologically,and spiritually abuse another for decades and absolutely refuse to acknowledge any of it ? If I’m honest, I’m not sure that it is. Some claim that forgiveness is letting go of the control the situation has on our lives. That is pretty much what I now focus on every day.
Please know that I hear and affirm your feelings. I’m with you in spirit and support your journey back to yourself. We’ve got this.
Thanks Sue. I believe that forgiveness is a process that can take a very long time, maybe even a lifetime to “achieve” I spend my time trying to be “grateful” for what I have right now,,,a home, 3 wonderful and caring Sons, and 2 loving Granddaughters and even tho I’m financially very limited, I have been able to pay my bills and eat. What those people did and tried to do in the past should have totally devastated me and put me in the “gutter” so to speak. But here I am.
“There but for the grace of God go I”
It’s good to know that I am not alone in being alone. The estrangement is indeed very painful and it actually feels good to read this article that validates that pain. I’ve always felt that although the abuse was horrible that being cast out, disregarded and demonized by my entire family as a liar was far worse and hurt more. I used to say that I have no family except a mother and brother and even they were dubious as they played both sides, content to leave me alone in the outskirts while they participated in traditional family gatherings that i wasn’t welcome at, never speaking up or defending me to the rest for fear that they would be cast out too.
It hurt so much to conduct these 2 half relationships that I often wondered if it was worth it. Maybe it would have been less painful if I had just walked away from them both and just closed that door. when my mother turned ill and eventually passed my brother had no problem in choosing which side and it wasn’t mine…so now I truly am alone. I don’t miss him and I cringe at the thought of him calling me to lay down some phony “I love yous” to appease his guilt over abandoning me.
You are definitely not alone my friend. I too lost almost my entire family after I told on an abuser. The pain never goes away but it does ease some with time. It’s time to find wells with water in them, that is, find true friends who will fulfill the role of family. Brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers aren’t the only ones who can do this. I have a family in a support group who I claim as my family of choice. It still hurts that the family of origin is gone, but they help fill in some of the gaps. Take good care of yourself, my friend. We are your family now and we truly care.
There is also estrangement from toxic adult children. Abusive, even violent adult children.
After 25 years of abuse, I had to walk away to save my heart and soul.
I’m so sorry you went through that. I plan on incorporating more about toxic adult children in the next piece. Shirley
Please do. There are thousands of us whose adult children have
Discarded them like yesterday’s garbage.
I have been searching for insight/support for estranging myself, a mother, from my only child, an abusive adult, for some years now. Except for one article, have come up empty. Seems estranging from this particular relationship holds stigma and more than likely taboo. Any info would be most appreciative.
There was another lady who left a comment here stating she was estranged from her children. Like you, she was coming up empty. I believe I will write some pieces about it to help those like yourself, who are suffering the pain of estrangement. I want to thank you for your comment. It is sad this hasn’t been and isn’t talked about more. Perhaps, working together, we can change that. Shirley
Awareness is always the first step…thanks for being a part of the process.
There is a woman named Sheri McGregor who has written a book and several articles about abusive adult children. Her book is called Done with the Crying. There also a website called estranged stories.
I hope this helps.
Thank you so much for helping. I’ll have to look up this book myself. Shirley
Can you address HOW I can form a Family Of Choice as a 63 year old retired and chronically (daily) ill person who doesn’t get out much-if at all? It’s hard to start life over with new friends at this stage. No work friends, can’t socialize or commit to groups or church (which I “attend” online). There’s no pool of people to open myself up to to try to form a new family!
I am in No Contact with my entire abusive family of origin and all who took their side when I exposed their lifelong abuse of me.
It gets so lonely being isolated and the chronic illnesses are a result of a lifetime of stress from their abuses from childhood through adulthood. I’m at a loss. I have only my husband to walk through this with me. He is my whole support system.
I understand. I have chronic illnesses too and don’t get out much. However, I do have one solution that may or may not work in your situation. I found friends and contacts through online support groups. I know, they are not flesh and blood contacts, and you have to be careful what group you choose, but it was very comforting to me when I have been homebound due to my health. You can take advantage of the programs the CPTSD Foundation offers including daily phone calls and other offerings. Check out our home page to find them. I understand also you may be on a fixed budget and not have resources to pay for the different things we offer. We offer scholarships to those who cannot pay. Just use the contact us page and let us know your situation. Just because you cannot reach out to people in person doesn’t mean you are out of options. Good luck on your journey and I hope to see you about. Shirley
Thank you Shirley. I do communicate with a couple of abuse survivors that are online. You’re right-it’s not flesh & blood in-person support which is so much better.
I am particularly thinking of this subject of making a new family of choice because my former parents are aged and ill. I know I’m going to have to face being in No Contact when they pass away. I will not be attending their funerals. I did not attend my brother’s funeral. He was their ally and turned against me for exposing the abuse-as did all extended family as well. So I have NO family.
I’m in therapy so that helps. But I’m worried (“anticipatory anxiety”) about the conflicting feelings I know I’ll have when they die. I was a mess when I grieved my brother’s death alone with my husband. It’s not normal! I had love for my brother as he wasn’t always against me. Just when it counted. I have no such feelings for my parents but I’m afraid of being triggered in my CPTSD. Any suggestions when I have no one to walk through that with me when it happens-soon (I suppose)?
Planning ahead by practicing grounding techniques to combat any triggers will help. They were your parents so even though you don’t like them and hate what they did to you, you are definitely going to feel some strong and conflicting emotions. My mother died in 2011 and I at first was upset but because of grounding techniques I had learned in therapy, I was able to quickly get grounded. I have written several posts on grounding techniques and am in fact writing one right now for my website http://www.morgan6062.com. I’d love for you to visit there and get some tips. The piece won’t be up until tomorrow or Saturday, but there are other great articles there. Anyway, you take good care of you and talk about plus practice grounding techniques with your therapist. Make sure they are aware of your fears and allow them to help you deal with the inevitability of the deaths of your parents. Shirley
Thank you for sharing this post. My mum and brother are both very toxic and secretive, and have ensured that I am almost entirely excluded from my mum’s side of the family. I do have contact with an uncle and aunt on my late dad’s side. My husband is supportive, but the situation is complex, not least because his side are, for the most part, even more toxic and narcissistic than my own, original family. They manipulate him, and shun myself and my side. The situation is isolating, and has led to my feeling suicidal at times.
I’m so sorry and I understand. I was disowned by a member of my family and soon that whole side of the family acted as if I didn’t exist. It is painful to say the least. I found help through therapy and through people I found who would treat me right. I don’t know if those would help you, but I thought I’d mention it. I’ve been told before that I urge everyone to get therapy but it is all I know because it helped me. Anyway, I hope you find some peace of mind soon. It is so hard when dealing with narcissists. Perhaps you and your partner could find each other as a family is enough and leave those who hurt you and continue to do so behind? just a thought. Shirley
Thank you for that, Shirley. In my personal and financial circumstances, therapy isn’t really an option. I feel lucky to have my writing, and this is its own form of therapy for me. I definitely feel, going forward, that I need to focus increasingly upon those who actually are supportive. Unfortunately, my in-law family will remain in the picture, because of my husband being in contact. I don’t see that changing, and have to find ways to get through, pretty much. Gratitude for what I do have helps.
My writing too has been a huge help in my healing so I understand. I forget that not everyone can get the help they need from therapists and such. I’m retired and get help with Medicare and can afford it but I have seen the day when I was going into deep debt paying for a therapist that could help me. I hope you find tons more support. Have you considered taking CPTSD Foundation up on some of the programs we offer? If you cannot afford our services there are scholarships available because we don’t want anyone to be left out who need us for support. Just go to https://cptsdfoundation.org/scholarship-application/. Shirley