Family Estrangement Takes an Emotional Toll — Here’s How To Manage Guilt, Sadness, and Other Side Effects
Self reflection, professional help, and reaching out to family members are just a few options.
The last couple of years have been hard. Not because of politics or the pandemic — though those weren’t easy — but because neither of my adult children have spoken to me since the end of 2020. When they were kids, I made baby food from scratch, cheered at their soccer games (rain or shine), and hugged them every day. By all accounts, I was a loving and dutiful mother. I believe I still am. And yet, here we are.
I never imagined I’d have first-hand experience of family estrangement. Knowing what I know now, that lack of awareness feels foolish. Family estrangement happens more often than we think, and often to relations with whom we’ve shared tremendous affection in the past. In a recent survey of 1,340 Americans, 27 percent of respondents said they were not speaking to at least one family member. Shockingly sad as this number may be, I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in my estrangement.
In the last two years, I’ve talked to a lot of people and done a lot of research on how to deal with the emotional toll it takes. Below is what I’ve learned, including how to move forward despite being out of touch with those you’re meant to love the most. If you’re experiencing family estrangement, I hope it provides support and solace.
What is family estrangement?
Estrangement is a term used to describe a breakdown in a family relationship. It’s distinct from a family feud or dispute, as it involves one or more family members intentionally or unintentionally cut off from each other. Typically, these issues are deeply entrenched, and they often take years to resolve. It’s important to recognize the complexities of estrangement and interpersonal conflict, as their effects can damage family dynamics and the emotional well-being of those directly involved.
What are the different types of estrangement?
Family estrangement is characterized by physical or emotional distance, and it comes in varied forms. It can occur between parent and child, siblings, and extended family members. Each of these types of estrangement directly impacts the family life of the estranged person.
Parent-Child Relationship Estrangement
The most common estrangement is family conflict between parent and child. Parent-child estrangement can result from emotional abuse, trauma, communication issues, mental health concerns, or combinations of these factors, and it’s marked by either a degradation in relations or a complete cease in relations over and/or lasting for long periods of time. Among the types of estrangement that occur within a family system, parent-child the most difficult to repair. That’s because parents present the initial impression of the world to their children; thus, their healthy and unhealthy habits have profound and lasting effects on their children. Similarly, a child’s cruel or dismissive behavior can wound a parent deeply, leading to feelings of grief and mistrust for all involved.
Sibling estrangement is a lesser-known form of family discord. Siblings can drift apart for personal reasons or due to a larger family estrangement that wedges between them. In some cases, a sibling may establish physical distance between themselves and their family members because they feel that they stand alone in their beliefs, or they perceive themselves as a “black sheep.”
Extended Family Estrangement
Estrangement can also occur between extended family members like aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. This type of estrangement often results from a disagreement that goes unresolved and, thus, grows roots and branches. It can also occur following a life change or life choice that not every family member embraces or agrees with; for example, a divorce or remarriage. Here, the fact of the distance between the aggrieved family members (e.g. they are extended versus primary family members) plays a role in reconciliation, effectively reducing its potential.
What is the impact of estrangement?
Family estrangement can profoundly affect both those who are directly and those who are tangentially involved in several ways.
Estrangement can cause immense emotional pain and suffering. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety can be exacerbated when a family member is distanced from relations. Recognizing the toll that estrangement can take, which often manifests in the form of anger, fear, mistrust, and grief, is important, as identifying these feelings is the first step towards either reconciliation or closure.
Estrangement also negatively impacts the family unit as a whole. The dynamics between family members can become strained, communication can suffer, and trust can be broken. Each of these has a ripple effect that can even impact future generations, as children inherit old grievances and learn unhealthy behavioral patterns from their parents and other family members.
Estrangement can have a financial impact, as well. Where money is shared among family members, a strain in relations can make coordinating things like weddings, family vacations, and even simple get-togethers extremely difficult. For example, a sibling estranged from her elderly parents might refuse to share the financial responsibilities of caring for her mother and father with her siblings. A situation like this places significant financial strain on the family as a whole, exacerbating existing rifts and creating new ones.
Estrangement also has a social impact. People who are estranged from family miss out on significant rituals like graduations and funerals, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. It’s important for those who are estranged to seek support from friends, peers, and mental health professionals, if needed.
What are the most common causes of estrangement?
The root causes of family estrangement vary. Commonly, estrangement occurs due to abuse, trauma, mental health concerns, and/or communication issues.
Abuse — including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse — is one of the most common causes of family estrangement. Typically, this estrangement manifests in one of three ways: the abused person separating from the family in order to avoid the abuser; the abused person separating from the family in order to avoid family members who continue to associate with the abuser (causing the abused person to feel unsupported); or the abused person separating from the family because their abuse is not believed by family members. In cases where the abused person chooses the estrangement (versus being ousted from the family), it is a mental health trade-off wherein the emotional toll of repeatedly revisiting the abuse when confronted with the abuser at family gatherings is weighed against the emotional toll of the estrangement itself.
Trauma can lead to estrangement if the individual traumatized person is not properly supported. Traumatic experiences like military service, imprisonment, and a death in the family (among numerous other things) can all yield rifts between family members. If not properly addressed, these issues can erode family relationships, resulting in unwitting estrangement.
Mental health issues are a key contributor to family estrangement. A family member’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, can push them away from other family members who struggle to relate to their compulsive behaviors. The ups and downs of a family member’s manic depression might prove too difficult for other family members to handle. Aggression and impulsivity resulting from bipolar disorder can cause family member’s to feel unsafe and cause them to distance themselves as protection. In each of these cases, mental health issues are at the root of the estrangement.
Communication is key when it comes to family relationships, as breakdowns in communication can lead to estrangement. Often, relations between family members quietly but consistently devolve over time due to simple misunderstandings that are never addressed or disputes that are never resolved. Poor communication, which can manifest as avoidance, defensiveness, dishonesty, dismissiveness, and lack of attendance at family events, is thus both a cause and a byproduct of estrangement. While these signs of poor communication are often present in the wake of estrangement, they can also grow within a family and lead to estrangement in and of themselves.
To mitigate poor communication, practice active listening — asking follow-up questions, staying engaged when others are talking, sharing empathy — and be fully open and honest when communicating with family members.
Is it possible to move forward and repair family estrangement?
Estrangement can be a difficult reality to face, but it is possible to move forward and repair the family bond.
The first step towards healing is self-reflection. Taking the time to think about your role in the estrangement and assume responsibility for the part your actions played is vital, whether your goal is to mend the relationship or move on without it. Examine the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs that led to the disconnect. It’s a difficult but necessary process.
Setting Realistic Expectations
When attempting to repair your relationship, don’t set astronomically high expectations. Too often, the result of high expectations that aren’t immediately met is frustration, disappointment, and forfeiture of the relationship’s recovery. Instead, look at the big picture and focus on what’s attainable right now. Change is incremental, and typically occurs in baby steps. Just to stay in touch with formerly estranged family members can be a major first step toward healing.
Don’t expect everything to return to what it was before right away. Instead, allow yourself time and space to slowly cross fault lines and rebuild these relationships step by step.
If possible, seek professional help when dealing with family estrangement. A mental health professional can help identify and address underlying issues and provide guidance as to how to move forward.
Reaching out is both the most difficult and most important step toward healing family relationships. Approach family members with understanding and respect, as well as a willingness to listen more than you speak.
Make sure you’re taking care of yourself emotionally while working on your relationship recovery. Engage in activities that bring you joy; reading a book, listening to music, spending time outdoors, and doing yoga are great outlets for pent up tension. Taking care of yourself ensures that you are sufficiently strong to handle the outcome of your endeavor, whether reconciliation or continued estrangement.
Giving Yourself Time
Healing doesn’t happen overnight; it takes patience and compassion to work through difficult times. Give yourself space to process your emotions before diving into a full-fledged reconciliation attempt.
All I Know
Family estrangement is an emotionally complex issue, and the process of healing can be difficult. It’s important to recognize the causes of estrangement and to take the necessary steps to move forward. Self-reflection, professional help, and reaching out to family members can all help to restore relationships and to reconnect the family bond. While it can be painful to face estrangement, it is possible to heal and move forward positively.
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