The Commonality of and Coping with Family Estrangement
Posted On December 15, 2019
The article below is part three in the family estrangement series I’m writing for the CPTSD Foundation. Shirley
Family Estrangement 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 family estrangement happens when two or more members of a family disagree on the facts on matters 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 vice versa.
The past two posts about family estrangement have focused on what it is and why it happens. This post will continue our examination of family estrangement.
The Two Different Types of Family Estrangement
According to a piece posted in Psychology Today, family estrangement is when there is an intense emotional reaction that causes the distancing between one or more members of a family.
There are two types of family estrangement, physical and emotional. With physical family estrangement, family members stop talking and lose contact with one another. Perhaps a mother feels her children are toxic to her and need to distance herself by not calling or writing to them, or an adult daughter refuses to speak to her parents. Both are examples of physical family estrangement.
Emotional family estrangement occurs when family members have little contact with one another, and when they do, it is uncomfortable and superficial. For instance, siblings who are civil with one another when in contact with one another, but they avoid that contact as much as possible or parents who have discussions with their adult children but there is depth to the encounter. This behavior is called emotional family estrangement.
How Common is Family Estrangement?
Research on the topic of family estrangement is minimal, but one study conducted by Merril Silverstein and Vern Bengtson at the University of Southern California found that of adult children studied, 7% reported being detached from Mom and 27% from Dad. Those figures are probably much higher, but the stigma and pain involved in reporting family estrangement often keeps people from reporting it.1
Family estrangement isn’t just an American cultural problem either. A German study found that 10% over 40 years old stated there was an intergenerational conflict with half avoiding or cutting off contact altogether.2
The fact is the above statistics do not account for other types of family estrangement such as siblings, grandparents, and other family dynamics. So, family estrangement is not an uncommon phenomenon at all.
Why Isn’t Family Estrangement Spoken of More Often?
There are many reasons why research is not more prevalent for family estrangement, with the main forces being social and religious.
In the societal context, the family is supposed to be an unalterable and never-changing staple of social life. We are born into a family and must remain loyal to them until we die. However, that premise is false, as many people find they are facing circumstances where their families have become so toxic as to harm their mental and emotional health.
Religious beliefs also anchor many to their family of origins, with many houses of worship looking solidly down on anyone who violates the “sanctity of the family.”
To conquer over these prejudices would be the greatest gift that could be given to anyone caught up in the emotional firestorm of either being rejected or needing to reject someone they should be able to count on for love.
Thus, pain and fear keep many people silent about the agony they experience, especially during the holidays as the Norman Rockwell perfect family hubbub begins in earnest.
Coping by Setting Boundaries When Choosing to Make Contact
Boundaries are healthy lines drawn by someone in the proverbial sand that someone else may not cross. It is vital always to remember that it is perfectly okay to set firm boundaries with people who have harmed you or may harm you. That is not being a bad sister, brother, father, mother, grandchild, or daughter, son. It is taking care of yourself and making sure you are respected and your dignity remains intact.
There are as many boundaries as there are people to set them. Still, basically, boundaries have three parts to them, including a description of the behavior that will not be tolerated, a description of the action that will be taken if it occurs, and a promised response.
To be clear, the first two parts of a boundary are all that is necessary to share with a possibly offending party. The third need not be shared but needs to be known so that action will be taken should the boundary be crossed.
An example of a description of the behavior that will not be tolerated might be:
I will not allow inappropriate sexual talk or behaviors from you.
An example of an action that will be taken might be:
If you assault me, I will most definitely call the police and leave this relationship for good.
The third part of the boundary might consist of the following:
I will do whatever it takes to make sure this person never harms me again including estranging myself from them and taking out an order of protection should they bother me in any way.
Understanding the Consequences of Family Estrangement
There are times when the solution to keeping one’s health and dignity intact is to become estranged from a toxic family member. If that is what it takes to feel safe and in control of one’s life, then that is what must be done.
When taking action, there are many things to consider when estranging oneself from a family member or an entire side of a family; these include understanding the consequences.
It is vital to speak about the consequences of family estrangement not to discourage anyone from carrying out what must be done, but because it may not at first be obvious what to expect.
When the family is no longer allowed in your life, there will inevitably be a void left where the dream of what a family resided. We were all raised in a society steeped in bologna about what family life is supposed to be like, and not having that pie in the sky relationship with a family member might leave one feeling hollow or worse yet, a failure.
There will be moments not just of pain but shame, especially if someone asks you how your family member is doing, and you are speechless. Even faking an answer will not quell the hard feelings in the center of your guts.
Finding and Using Support is Key
Annie Wright, therapist, coach, and consultant offers some significant advice to share when dealing with the aftermath of family estrangement. She states in her blog post that therapy is a valuable help in the processing of the grief and pain that comes along with the devastation of family estrangement.
However, she also believes that people must ask specific questions of themselves when facing the prospect or fact of family estrangement. These questions include:
How much contact can you tolerate with that family member?
What boundaries do you need to set?
What kind of help will you need to set up and help you hold the boundaries you have set up?
If you cannot allow this family member around you, what can you do to take care of your feelings right now?
Please, read the post I linked above on Annie Wright’s website.
Ways to Take Good Care of Yourself
Whether you choose to meet up with family you are estranged from or altogether avoid them; there are some tips listed below that can help get you through the holidays.
Number one, and perhaps the most important do not abandon yourself. Instead, stand up for yourself and remember who you are and where you have come from. This means not allowing others to bully or in any way harass you. You are no longer a helpless child who must cling to harmful family members any longer. Remembering you are a full-grown adult and that you can choose to leave the situation at any point will help enormously to remind you that you are your own person.
If your family of choice is too toxic to be around, don’t go. Stay away from them and find a family of choice to spend the holidays instead. People who love you will not use their toxicity to harm you, and to allow family members or anyone else to do so is to wrong and abuse yourself.
Volunteer for and do service with an organization that reaches out to the less fortunate in the holidays. The satisfaction and new contacts you will make will be enormous.
Stay sober. Don’t imbibe to excess because the pain and sorrow will not go away by using a substance. The pain and sorrow will be waiting for you when you wake up. Keep in mind that you cannot protect yourself against those who would harm you if you are drunk. Drinking or using other substances is not the answer.
If you should decide to visit someone you have been estranged from, use the bathroom as a safe harbor. When you feel overwhelmed, lock yourself into the bathroom and calm yourself, call a friend, or even call your therapist. Use the time alone to decide if you should leave and if you do want to go, then do so.
If you feel you need to go, then go. Don’t allow anyone to dissuade you or to guilt you into remaining where you do not wish to be. That is your right as an adult to choose whom you wish to spend time with and where. It is okay, just go.
Your worth is not predicated on whether or not you can tolerate being with family on the holidays. Instead, it is set in the fact that you are a human being capable of love and deserving of respect.
The CPTSD Foundation is standing behind you 100% of the way, and invite you to partake in their services. Check out their webpage to find out more information and keep reading because next week, we shall tackle together the positive sides to family estrangement.
“Have patience with all things but first with yourself. Never confuse your mistakes with your value as a human being. You are a perfectly valuable, creative, worthwhile person simply because you exist. And no amount of triumphs or tribulations can ever change that.” ~ Saint Frances de Sale
Silverstein, M., & Bengtson, V. L. (1997). Intergenerational solidarity and the structure of adult child-parent relationships in American families. American journal of Sociology, 103(2), 429-60.
Agllias, K., (2014). Family estrangement: aberration or common occurrence?. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: Psychology Today.