The Many Reasons for Estrangement

I have kept coming across articles talking about family estrangement. One article I read talked about how mental health practitioners were responsible for the increase in estrangement because of promoting this from toxic people (it was a pretty scathing, blaming and shaming article). I was initially going to write a response to this article but that didn’t feel quite right, plus then the article disappeared into the internet nethersphere and I have not seen it again. Nevertheless, it got me thinking more about this topic which is very personal to me, both because I am a healthcare provider and also because I am currently estranged from my primary guardians and have been for over two years. Yikes! Who does that? Well, actually, lots of people. The opinions that I am about to write are just that, opinions. They are not based on facts and data but, rather, common sense and anecdotal observation.

What I have started to realize in observing the clients and information around me, as well as drawing from my own personal experience, is that estrangement has always been a thing. I don’t actually know if it has increased in frequency, but I suspect it has increased in awareness because we now have the glorious internet where people share information at a fast pace. Now we hear stories and have information that we never did in the past. Awareness does not necessarily mean increased frequency, it just means people are now talking about this. Even in my own family, on both sides, there were multiple family members who were estranged from the family, whether certain members or all of it. These family members were disregarded as black sheep, maybe given some other labels or reasons they had detached. “They were abused” or “They’re odd” and that was it. No further exploration or conversation about what might have actually been going on. I suspect this is true for most families. So what is going on in situations of estrangements? What is the cause of it?

As with most things, causes are complicated and there are likely a variety of factors and reasons that feed into an action. Some reasons for estrangement can be:

1) Differing values. This came out of another article on estrangement I recently read, which pointed out that there are significant generational gaps between parents and children in core values and beliefs. This can lead to a breakdown in connection and communication. I suspect we might see a flare-up of this during and after COVID as people react to how their family members are dealing with things. Will anti-maskers be able to sit around a dinner table again playing nice with those who are pro-mask? Time will tell, I suppose, but I can see those interactions becoming very challenging, and perhaps people will no longer be up to the task of putting on their happy face to sit with people they only interact with a few times/year or where there was already a disconnect.

2) Abuse. This is a very real reason for estrangement. Continuing to participate in a relationship where there is a history or current presence of physical, emotional, financial, sexual, cultural, or other abuse may not be possible (nor would I recommend it). For one’s own safety and health, estrangement and detachment may feel like the only safe path forward.

3) Increased self-awareness. This is a vast topic that could bring in various elements but, basically, this is what that first scathing article I referred to was talking about (sort of). As people learn more about themselves, their patterns, healthy ways of being and interacting, Addiction, recovery, mental health, boundaries, parenting, or any related topics not listed, the awareness that what you grew up with was insufficient may grow, to the point that you just feel unable to continue connection. I think my personal story falls under this category. Becoming a mother myself changed everything for me with my own relationship with my parents. No longer could I accept the platitude of “They did their best” or “They didn’t know any better.” As I went through parenthood myself, I saw how different it could be approached with openness, willingness, and health. I challenged my parents to look at their own unhealthy patterns which, I felt, was a necessary step in improving our relationship. This, however, was met with defensiveness and unwillingness. In fact, full on blame that I was the creator and perpetrator of the problems in the relationship. I was willing to consider this, as I’m a pragmatic person. I was open to looking at and owning my part in the relationship breakdown. Where it fell apart for me was that they were not willing to look at theirs. They would not look at their missteps as parents as well as individuals and that, to me, was the breaking point. That’s just me. Everyone’s experience with pain, generational patterns and trauma, is different.

4) Acceptance of estrangement. As estrangement is being more talked about, that helps to normalize it and people realize that it’s an option. When something’s not talked about, people don’t even consider that it’s possible. With more discussion may come an increase in estrangement (or, again, just increased awareness of something that’s already been happening for a long time).

5) Promotion of self-care. Depending on where you look and who you follow, there is lots of encouragement for people to look after themselves. This includes being mindful of where you get your energy and where your energy gets drained. Ever heard of the book ‘How Full is Your Bucket?’ by Rath and Reckmeyer? This book is now taught to kids in school. It’s the idea that certain things fill us up (get put into the bucket) and other things empty our bucket. If kids are taught this, I suspect there will be less tolerance for the people that empty their bucket with judgment, criticism, differing values, and that even if these bucket emptiers are family, their commitment to themselves and happiness might be greater than the societal “shoulds” they carry.

If you are considering stepping back from a family member or larger group for a period of time, that is something I would recommend seeking some outside counsel around. Talk to supports, professionals, write about it, try to look at from all angles. It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not taken lightly. It can come with guilt, shame, sadness, loss, pain, it’s not all freedom and rainbows. With every action comes a reaction and you must be prepared for both the external and internal reactions that come from estrangement. It is the same when people are looking to end a marital relationship or friendship. Be thoughtful, considerate, as well as prepared to sit with the actions that you take. My journey of being an estranged daughter over the past 28 months has been tumultuous. I’ve been joyful, free, happy, as well as ridden with guilt, anxiety, pain, loss, sadness, with some hearty doses of anger and resentment thrown in there. This emotional flow has gone up and down over time. For the most part now I’m peaceful, accepting that there is space there. I don’t know if I’ll have contact again or what that will look like. I recently heard from my estranged parent and I had to sit with that. My reaction to the message told me that I wasn’t ready. Am I selfish? I feel it sometimes. At others I feel comfortable and settled with this action. I hope rather then judge me or focus on what’s right or wrong, you will look at yourself and your own situation.

If you are a parent or loved one who has had a family member become estranged, I implore you to look at your role in that. If you have stepped away from your family, I implore you to look at your role in that. On both sides there needs to be accountability. This may not lead to reparation or a relationship, but it will lead to healing.