Family relationships are considered lifelong and unbreakable. However, being in a toxic or abusive family relationship can be devastating and estrangement becomes the way out wherein someone physically and emotionally distances themselves to cut family ties. It is often seen as an event or outcome with only two possibilities: estranged or not estranged. However, an alternate view argues that it is an ongoing process reflected in a spectrum with different degrees.
Family estrangement is nearly as common as divorce. According to a 2015 survey, nine out of ten adults were estranged from their mother or father. Similarly, from the parents’ perspective, more than 90% of parents were estranged from a daughter or a son. Meanwhile, the proportion of being estranged from at least one sister or one brother reduces to seven out of ten adults.
Causes of estrangement
It might not be easy to understand what would make someone cut a family member out of their life. The reasons to cut off communication and distance one’s self from certain family members differ from the parents’ and children’s perspectives as well as between siblings. It can be caused by a major event or disagreement and arguments that have been building over time to serve as a trigger.
The 2015 survey revealed emotional abuse as the most cited reason as to why adults become estranged from their parents. Other reasons include mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, a clash in personality or values, neglect, issues relating to mental health problems, and traumatic family events. The report also cited that the parents’ estrangement from their grown-up children is caused by conflicting expectations in the family, issues relating to in-laws, and the experience of divorce. Aside from these factors, people also blame parental favoritism as the cause of estrangement between siblings.
Other issues that may lead to family tensions and estrangement include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by other family members, conflicting political or religious views, a family member’s sexual orientation, and choice of spouse. This results in the feelings of being unloved, rejected, and hurt by people who are expected to be the main source of affection, safety, and support. While cutting off family members is a means to separate one’s self from these emotions attributed to them, it also acts as a double-edged sword to the person as they are separated from the ones they love.
Dealing with estrangement
There are a few ways to deal with estrangement:
- Acknowledge and apologize. Meeting in person and apologizing for your share of the problem can be uncomfortable. However, it is necessary to talk through things, listen to each other, and acknowledge the trauma and pain that everyone experienced. Even if reconciliation is not the goal, letting go of guilt, shame, grudge, and other emotional burdens is an essential step to moving forward.
- Give space. You and the person you are estranged from may need time to work through the pain. It is important to respect the other person’s decision by suspending sending texts, calling, or any other contact that may lead to conflict and worsen the situation.
- Reconcile. Reconciliation may be expected after passing through emotional distress. However, every person involved needs to be physically and emotionally ready to reconnect. In a case where the estrangement is caused by conflicts that put someone’s life at risk such as domestic violence, you may reach out to professionals to mediate and to know what to expect from the reformed relationship.
- Maintain distance. In some relationships, permanent distancing may be a healthy solution and empowering for everyone involved. This means either physically distancing while maintaining occasional contact or cutting off communication entirely. Depending on the effects of estrangement, you need to assess your tolerance to connect with your estranged family members.
- Seek support. Whether you are the one cutting off contact or being cut off by a family member, you might need support to cope with the consequences such as feeling ashamed of going against social expectations. You can seek support from friends, other loved ones, and even a professional. For example, people going through family estrangement found therapy and counseling with a professional to be helpful as it makes them feel supported, develop insight and understanding, and move forward.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to family estrangement as it depends on the cause and its effects on your quality of life. Life is never ideal, and so is a family relationship. You might not talk or spend the holidays together with some family members. However, it doesn’t determine your capacity to love, especially if distancing is the only way to give you the comfort and safety you need.