What Is Estrangement?
Broadly speaking, estrangement is defined as one or more relatives (or loved ones) intentionally choosing to end contact because of an ongoing negative relationship. (Relatives who go long stretches without a phone call because of external circumstances like a military deployment or incarceration don’t fit the bill.)
In the past five years, a clearer picture of estrangement has been emerging as more researchers have turned their attention to this kind of family rupture. Their findings challenge the deeply held notion that family relationships can’t be dissolved and suggest that estrangement is not all that uncommon.
Relationships are the dynamic between two people. Relationships take care, upkeep, and resources. However, they are not always easy, and rifts may develop between two or more people. When this rift grows, and two people grow apart, the relationship becomes estranged.
Estrangement can lead to many relationship consequences, such as separation, divorce, and alienation. Estrangement is a rift or division that is the result of unmet expectations or other disruptions in a relationship. Estrangements come in all forms, particularly in families: partner from partner, parent from child, sibling from sibling, grandparent from child, aunt/uncle from niece/nephew, and so forth. Even the best of friends can become estranged from one another because of unmet expectations or other disruptions in the friendship.
When families have endured disruption related to abuse, addiction, or other trauma, adult children may sometimes step back from their parents as they sort through their childhood experience. However, estrangement can also occur when adult children experience their parent as failing to honor established boundaries, when there is a conflict over money or when there are long-standing resentments. Parental divorce and remarriage are frequent sources of distress. The disconnection that occurs when an adult child alerts a parent of the need to take a break from the relationship differs from the type that results from an angry, unexpected cutoff.
Estrangement is widely misunderstood, but as more and more people share their experiences, some misconceptions are being overturned. Assuming that every relationship between a parent and child will last a lifetime is as simplistic as assuming every couple will never split up.
How Does Family Estrangement Occur?
The Psychology of Splitting From Your Family of Origin
Estrangements from family are one of the most psychologically painful experiences to experience. Estranging yourself from family is absolutely counterintuitive: Who, after all, would think to terminate a relationship with someone who raised you? Sadly, the answer is that it’s typically only people who have been neglected, abused, or exploited in some way who would pursue such a tumultuous split within the family dynamic.
Adding more stress to the already-stressful mix, society tends to give harsh judgment on people who reject their family – even as disturbed as some families can be. We must work to find the empathy for anyone who shares his or her story, it’s hard to understand that some people can be so judgmental about others’ experience – especially when they have no real idea about how bad things may have been in the estranger’s family.
After years of discontent, some adults choose to stop talking to their parents or returning home for family gatherings, and parents may disapprove of a child so intensely that he or she is no longer welcome home.
Sometimes families become so dysfunctional that a family member decides that he can’t stay connected any longer to a specific person in the family or, in some cases, the entire family. Typically people who estrange themselves from family tend to be over the age of 18 because that is the point when they begin to reach adulthood and increased independence.
In a study published in June 2017, Dr. Scharp spoke to 52 adult children and found they distanced themselves from their parents in various ways over time.
Some adult children moved away. Others no longer made an effort to fulfill expectations of their roles, such as a 48-year-old woman who, after 33 years with no contact with her father, declined to visit him in the hospital or to attend his funeral.
Still, others chose to limit conversations with a family member to superficial small talk or reduce the amount of contact. One 21-year-old man described how he called and texted his mother, but not his father, after leaving for college.
Estrangement is a “continual process,” Dr. Scharp said. “In our culture, there’s a ton of guilt around not forgiving your family,” she explained. So “achieving distance is hard, but maintaining distance is harder.”
Family estrangement is often experienced as a considerable loss; its ambiguous nature and social disenfranchisement can contribute to significant grief responses, perceived stigma, and social isolation. It’s amazing how little research actually exists on this topic, that lack is due largely to the stigma associated with estrangement:
Most people don’t want to talk openly about why they estranged themselves from family for fear of judgment.
A Few Statistics
On the website Estranged Stories, both parents and their adult children can fill out surveys about their estrangement. The results are surprising. For one thing, the parents who are estranged are older than one might expect, with over one-third falling into the 70-80 age group. When asked to describe the parent-child relationship before the rift, the most popular answer given by the adult children was “moral obligation.” The second most popular answer was “volatile and/or not close.” When asked whether they bear some responsibility for the estrangement, slightly more than half said yes.
In 2014, 8 percent of roughly 2,000 British adults said that they had cut off a family member, which translates to more than five million people, according to a nationally representative survey commissioned by Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged people.
Kylie Agllias, a social worker in Australia who wrote a 2016 book called “Family Estrangement,” has found that estrangement “occurs across years and decades. All the hurt and betrayals, all the things that accumulate, undermine a person’s sense of trust.”
Another interesting area concerns whether the children ever “concretely” told the cut-off parent the reasons for the estrangement. Over 67% said they had. This is a reverse mirror image of the parents’ response in a similar survey when over 60% said that they had never been told the reasons for the estrangement. This disparity reflects the difficulties that parents sometimes have in communicating with adult children.
A British survey found that children are usually the ones who cut off contact. In fact, researchers found that members of the younger generation initiated the break about ten times more often than did members of the older generation.
Some Repeated Themes
Reasons for conflicts with adult children vary. Some adult children have severed relationships with parents due to traumatic childhoods: They were abused or grew up with parents who were alcoholics or drug users. Occasionally, family disputes have erupted over money. In the majority of cases, however, the reasons for estrangement are not so clear-cut. Still, certain themes occur over and over in commentary from adult children who have divorced their parents.
“You Weren’t a Good Parent.”
Some children feel that they weren’t loved or nurtured sufficiently. Sometimes, that’s because they were reared in a time or a culture that didn’t value open expressions of love. Sometimes it is because their parents truly had a hard time expressing their feelings. Occasionally adult children still feel hurt from episodes that occurred years ago, things that the parents may not even be aware of.
Therapists working with parents who are estranged from their adult children note powerful consequences from the cutoff. Depression related to loss and shame along with a strong sense of failure are commonly reported. Some have pursued grief counseling to deal with the overwhelming feelings of loss, while others have sought assistance to mend the relationship. There are others who suffer silently because they feel ashamed of their perceived failure.
Indeed, horrific parental behavior is sometimes assumed to be the cause of parent-child disconnection, an assumption that can heighten discomfort and despair.
“You Broke Up Our Family.”
The children of divorce often blame one party or another for the divorce. Sometimes that is due to what they have been told by one or another of their parents. Even when the divorcing parties remain civil, children often place the blame on one partner or another. After adult children marry themselves, they don’t always gain sympathy for their parents’ marital troubles. While they acknowledge that marriage is tough, they tend to feel that if their parents had persevered, they could have made it work.
“You Still See Me As A Child.”
Parents and children live for many years in a specific relationship, with parents in charge. Parents sometimes have difficulty giving up that construct. Children, on the other hand, are usually ready and willing to make their own decisions. When adult children say that their parents don’t see them as adults, they are sometimes correct. Many times parents persist in giving unwanted advice. Voicing disapproval of a child’s spouse or partner can definitely cause conflict. Finances, jobs, and lifestyle are other frustrations for conflict.
“We Don’t Have the Same Values.”
When children make choices that aren’t consistent with their parents’ values, the parents sometimes say, “We didn’t raise you that way.” They have trouble acknowledging that grown children are responsible for developing their own moral compasses. Also, trouble can arise when an adult child marries someone who differs in important ways from his or her family of birth. Sometimes the difficulty springs from differences in political leanings or religious beliefs. These issues present especially difficult challenges because political and religious beliefs tend to be closely held. Some families learn to live with such differences. Others never do.
Exactly what is meant by a “toxic person” depends upon the speaker. It’s not included in standard handbooks of psychological disorders, but generally, it’s understood to mean a person who is harmful to another’s emotional equilibrium. Those who are overwhelmingly negative, who blame others, who are excessively needy or who are casually cruel sometimes are called toxic.
Other labels that are often used to justify ending a relationship are narcissistic and bipolar. Both of these are genuine psychological disorders, but the labels are often casually applied, without any professional diagnosis.
What Are Some Of The Contributing Factors To Estrangement?
There are a number of contributors that may act as a catalyst for an estranged relationship. Unresolved issues such as trust, money, safety, emotional abuse, neglect, domestic abuse, anger, child abuse, sexual abuse or incest – all can contribute to two or more people becoming estranged.
In a study published in the journal Australian Social Work in 2015, 26 adults reported being estranged from parents for three main reasons: abuse (everything from belittling to physical or sexual abuse), betrayal (keeping secrets or sabotaging them) and poor parenting (being overly critical, shaming children or making them scapegoats). The three were not mutually exclusive and often overlapped.
Most of the participants said that their estrangements followed childhoods in which they had already had poor connections with parents who were physically or emotionally unavailable.
Along with individual characteristics, environment can play a factor. Extreme social isolation can lead to estrangement. In particular, social isolation is often key to the control exerted by strict religious sects and cults over their members.
In addition, if one or both of the individuals involved have any of the following personality disorders, there is a greater risk of estrangement occurring:
- Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism Those who struggle with Asperger’s may have more difficulty with social skills and interpersonal relationships.
- Bipolar Disorder: Impulsive behaviors and decisions may lead to troubled relationships. Further, irritability and paranoia may strain relationships.
- Depression: Depression may cause social isolation, irritability, sadness, and other symptoms that may lead to an estranged relationship.
- Borderline Personality Disorder: Extreme difficulty with interpersonal relationships can lead to estrangement in both home and work relationships
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Self-centered approaches to relationships can lead to confused or one-sided relationships. There is also a tendency to project insecurities or attribute characteristics upon others.
Deciding Upon Estrangement:
Family estrangement is often experienced as a considerable loss; its ambiguous nature and social disenfranchisement can contribute to significant grief responses, perceived stigma, and social isolation for some of us.
Family estrangement or disownment is a complicated process. Each person has their own unique set of reasons for cutting contact or experiencing rejection from a family unit. Some of our community members have been distanced because of a lifestyle choice, their sexuality, a gender choice, disagreements over money, religious differences, marrying someone from a different background, or not behaving to the satisfaction of their core family members.
Family estrangement can be common for families with strong and rigid religious beliefs, where younger generations often feel conflicted about their cultural heritage and make decisions that are not seen favorably or are accepted by their extended family.
People say that they chose to become estranged after occasions such as a wedding, a death in the family or a bad Christmas. These people often felt their family could not work through the intense feelings of hurt and painful memories associated with something that happened on these occasions.
Some people become estranged from their family because their family has been emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive during childhood or beyond.
It’s immensely difficult to keep a relationship together if a member of your family has been abusive towards you, and it can be extremely risky to continue a genuine relationship with this family member without the right professional intervention and support. This can unfortunately also apply to other family members who may not have believed you, or were aware of the abuse but did not have the capacity to help you with the problem. For many, estrangement may begin when someone speaks about the abuse or tries to heal the hurt caused.
Family members who are experiencing the symptoms of mental health difficulties, which are often not acknowledged or treated, may also cause distance. It can be difficult to deal with inconsistency from a close family member, particularly if that family member can’t understand and acknowledge the impact of their behavior on your own wellbeing.
Marriage and/or divorce are common features in estrangements, and often when your parents get divorced it can significantly alter your motivation to stay in touch with one or both of your parents. If your parents become remarried, this could again alter how you feel towards your family of origin.
There are, of course, many other reasons why you may feel a relationship is untenable. And the points above are in no way exhaustive.
But whatever your circumstances, people often speak of the sadness of not being able to take part in the concept of family togetherness that is seen to be at the heart of society.
People may feel vilified, even after making the ‘best’ choice out of a set of hugely difficult life choices, or after being denied a voice in the process of expelling them from a family unit. There is simply no easy answer here.
Many people report that the moment in which they became estranged with family members or loved one was a particularly insignificant thing. The trigger for estrangement could be as easy as a disagreement over the shirt you’re wearing. See, over time, it’s incredibly easy to let the issues you have with another person be pushed away, in order to keep a positive relationship with a loved one. Unfortunately, much like a balloon popping, the years of anger, hurt, and sadness can build up until they boil over, at which time, you or your loved one simply explode over something previously innocuous. In this case, the grief and sadness and anger will be felt right up front and dealt with as additional time passes – in a perfect world, that is. Many people feel extreme emotions and emotional triggers throughout their life on significant days and often use talk therapy to cope with their feelings.
If you are in a position to make a more level-headed decision to estrange yourself, do not simply drop the issue of estrangement on your family member if at all possible.
- Make yourself an itemized list of the reasons you feel you need to estrange yourself
- Try instead to do it by measure, slowly reducing contact with your family member
- Decide what the best method of doing this may be for you – phone calls, emails, visits, texts. This is important especially if you know you won’t be able to get “out of their grasp” in certain situations.
- Decide how long you want to use this pre-estrangement – do you think six months is enough time? A year? A week? Your answer is as unique as you and shouldn’t be given as a standard amount of time. Just do it as comfortably for yourself as possible.
- Some may find it easier to put the dates on the calendar – as a reminder to reach out to your loved one and to fix a time in which you’re going to make your division.
- This action plan may cause you some anxiety or guilt or other unpleasant feelings. If/when this happens, take out your list of reasons why in order to stay true to your course. You don’t need the extra stress of this situation becoming heated enough that it drives you back to your dysfunctional family.
After your estrangement date, this may help, if you’ve not yet decided one way or another, and you’re still calm and level-headed, you can try these steps:
- If you’re feeling as though you’re ready to stop talking to them, write a letter, call, text, email, whatever method works for you, let them know that you need a break from them. Explain that you feel that taking some time apart could be helpful for you and them to take some time to figure out how to navigate the relationship better, and state, “Because I do want to get along with you and I do hope we can have a better relationship in the future.” (If you feel this way)
- Estrangements are messy and emotional for all parties involved. If you can avoid an estrangement and find a way to improve the relationship dynamics, that may cause you less stress in the long run – because the stress of maintaining your estrangement can be overwhelming.
A big part of an estrangement – whether or not you decide to stick with it is learning to create healthy emotional boundaries. If you’re estranged from your family, you probably didn’t have a healthy relationship with them. THIS IS OKAY. It’s NOT all your fault.
Emotional boundaries are put into place and can either affect the relationship as a positive or a negative, and you’re the one who gets to decide which way the boundaries go.
What Are Emotional Boundaries?
Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. It’s like an imaginary line or force field that separates you and others. Healthy boundaries prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally. High reactivity suggests weak emotional boundaries. Healthy emotional boundaries require clear internal boundaries – knowing your feelings and your responsibilities to yourself and others.
It’s hard for people who grow up in dysfunctional families to set boundaries because:
- They put others’ needs and feelings first
- They don’t know themselves
- They don’t feel they have rights
- They believe setting boundaries jeopardizes the relationship
- They never learned to have healthy boundaries
Boundaries are learned. If yours weren’t valued as a child, you didn’t learn you had them.
Any kind of abuse violates personal boundaries, including teasing. For example, my brother ignored my pleas for him to stop tickling me until I could barely breathe. This made me feel powerless and that I didn’t have a right to say “stop” when I was uncomfortable. In some cases, boundary violations affect a child’s ability to mature into an independent, responsible adult.
You Have Rights
You may not believe you have any rights if yours weren’t respected growing up. For example, you have a right to privacy, to say “no,” to be addressed with courtesy and respect, to change your mind or cancel commitments, to ask people you hire to work the way you want, to ask for help, to be left alone, to conserve your energy, and not to answer a question, the phone, or an email.
Make a list your personal bill of rights.
Examples include: What prevents you from asserting them? Write statements expressing your bottom line. Be kind. For example, “Please don’t criticize (or call) me (or borrow my . . .),” and “Thank you for thinking of me, but I regret I won’t be joining (or able to help) you . . .”
Internal boundaries involve regulating your relationship with yourself. Think of them as self-discipline and healthy management of time, thoughts, emotions, behavior, and impulses. If you’re procrastinating, doing things you neither have to nor want to do, or overdoing and not getting enough rest, recreation, or balanced meals, you may be neglecting internal physical boundaries. Learning to manage negative thoughts and feelings empowers you, as does the ability to follow through on goals and commitments to yourself.
Healthy emotional and mental internal boundaries help you not to assume responsibility for or obsess about, other people’s feelings and problems – something codependents commonly do. Strong internal boundaries curb suggestibility. You think about yourself, rather than automatically agreeing with others’ criticism or advice. You’re then empowered to set external emotional boundaries if you choose.
Similarly, since you’re accountable for your feelings and actions, you don’t blame others.
When you’re blamed, if you don’t feel responsible, instead of defending yourself or apologizing, you can say, “I don’t take responsibility for that.”
Guilt and Resentment
Anger often is a signal that action is required.
If you feel resentful or victimized and are blaming someone or something, it might mean that you haven’t been setting boundaries. If you feel anxious or guilty about setting boundaries, remember, your relationship suffers when you’re unhappy.
Once you get practice setting boundaries, you feel empowered and suffer less anxiety, resentment, and guilt. Generally, you receive more respect from others and your relationships improve.
Setting Effective Boundaries
People often say they set a boundary, but it didn’t help. There’s an art to setting boundaries; if it’s done in anger or by nagging, you won’t be heard. Boundaries are not meant to punish but are for your well-being and protection. They’re more effective when you’re assertive, calm, firm, and courteous. If that doesn’t work, you may need to communicate consequences to encourage compliance. It’s essential, however, that you never threaten a consequence you’re not fully prepared to carry out.
It takes time, support, and relearning to be able to set effective boundaries.
Self-awareness and learning to be assertive are the first steps. Setting boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s self-love – you say “yes” to yourself each time you say “no.” It builds self-esteem.
Coping With The Guilt of Estrangement:
Do you have family members you choose not to see or speak with? If so, you probably feel very sad about that, especially at a time of year when most families gather together. But if you’re also feeling guilty over it, it’s time to stop. Recent research has shed new light on the phenomenon of family estrangement. Here are some of the most surprising findings:
You Are Not Alone
In a British survey from 2014, 19 percent of respondents reported that either they themselves or one of their relatives had no contact with the family. That fits with my own experience. I have several friends who either don’t talk to at least one of their family members or didn’t for many years. And I myself have gone through long periods when I was not on speaking terms with one relation or another. I’d bet you also know several people who are or have been estranged from their families. It’s not fun, but it happens a lot.
There’s A Reason You Decided To Stay Estranged
Most estranged people who stay away from their families or individual family members to save themselves from dysfunctional situations or behavior. In one study, adults who reported being estranged from their parents usually cited (physical or emotional) abuse, being betrayed or sabotaged by a parent, or very poor parenting in which they were endlessly criticized or shamed by their parents. If you’re estranged from your family, it probably isn’t something you did lightly.
It May Seem Stupid But It’s Valid
We’ve all heard about family members who stop speaking to each other over strikingly minor matters. And in a 2015 study, a woman told researchers she hadn’t spoken to her son or daughter-in-law for seven years because of a dessert they brought to a family gathering.
But these things are never as simple as they appear. In some cases, there were resentments and disagreements going back to childhood, and the fact that as adults, the two joined opposing political camps didn’t help.
The case of the wrong dessert was similar. That woman said her daughter-in-law regularly disrespected her and also prevented her from seeing her grandchildren. She’d been asked to bring a specific dessert but instead made something else–something she knew her mother-in-law was also making. That final bit of rudeness was too much to bear.
You Gave Them Chances
Estrangement doesn’t usually happen as a result of one big argument. It takes years for someone to break contact with a family member or family members. It happens gradually, with the family member reducing contact over time before cutting it off altogether.
During that lengthy process, you likely gave your relations lots of opportunities to start a dialogue. You might even have talked to them about the behavior that was driving you away and asked them to change it.
If you didn’t do that, and you think there’s a chance that things could change, it might be worth reaching out one time and making a final attempt to fix your relationship. Or maybe not–only you can know for sure. Either way, if you’re estranged from some or all of your family, there’s one thing to remember: You’re not alone.
Divorce and Estrangement:
Similarly, divorce is another area where estrangement occurs. During a bitter divorce that is full of contention and fighting, it is not uncommon for one parent to become estranged from the children involved. This is known as Parental Alienation Syndrome, and occurs often after a divorce, although it can also be caused by any of the other factors outlined above.
Divorce greatly increases the risk of estrangement. It often creates a fundamental reshaping of alliances and can place parents at risk for greater distance from their children. Whether it’s a grey divorce or a breakup when the child is young, it often causes a child to see parents as winners and losers. Second, it can create the opportunity for parental alienation where one parent consciously or unconsciously (covertly or overtly) poisons the child against the other parent. Children, especially when they are young, are very vulnerable after divorce. Divorce can also bring new people into a child’s life (new sibling, half-sibling, step-parent) and they may feel they have to compete for love, attention, or resources
Finally, in our culture, divorce can cause a child to see their parent as an individual with their own attributes and liabilities—and less of a family unit that they’re part of the concept of one parent attempting to separate their child from the other parent as punishment or part of a divorce have been described since at least the 1940s, Gardner was the first to define a specific syndrome. In his 1985 paper, he defined PAS as “…a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against the parent, a campaign that has no justification. The disorder results from the combination of indoctrinations by the alienating parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the alienated parent,”
>He also stated that the indoctrination may be deliberate or unconscious on the part of the alienating parent.
Gardner initially believed that parents (usually mothers) made false accusations of child abuse and sexual abuse against the other parent (usually fathers) in order to prevent further contact between them While Gardner initially described the mother as the alienator in 90% of PAS cases, he later stated both parents were equally likely to alienate.
The Grief Of Estrangement:
You may be estranged from your loved ones because of a fight or disagreement you’ve had. Attachment is often a part of estrangement. Issues with attachment can be expressed in many ways, which may result in an individual feeling the need or desire to fix or resolve conflicts or in individuals feeling that they are misunderstood or looked upon with disapproval.
You may also be grieving what you never got from the relationship—love, approval, attention.
Often those who have been cut off by a loved one react with anger, telling themselves, “I’m better off without her!” But, “underneath the anger, there’s usually sadness. You need to acknowledge, ‘I’m sad because this is a genuine loss.’ Otherwise, your feelings will remain stuck.” Permanent estrangements can be cloaked in shame and stigma.
Estrangement causes a unique form of grief, in that hope is often held out for reparation in the relationship, keeping the pain and grief current and raw. Further, repeated interactions that follow the same pattern of expectations and ultimate disappointment when those expectations are unmet, keep the grief close at hand.
When a person is estranged by a family member, they generally experience a range of immediate grief, loss, and trauma responses. Bodily responses such as shaking, crying and feeling faint are common, alongside emotional responses such as disbelief, denial, and anger. People often ruminate over the estrangement event or the events that led up to the estrangement. Over time, most acute emotions and bodily responses seem to decrease in intensity, and generalized feelings of hurt, betrayal, and disappointment might emerge.
Even when the estrangement has continued for years or decades, many people suggest the pain persists or re-occurs at particular times. Triggers such as birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day and funerals are difficult. So are sightings of the estranged person, or hearing about them from others. Triggers can sometimes cause a person to re-live and re-experience the initial grief, loss and trauma responses, while other times they can be managed.
Most of the people I have spoken to suggest that being estranged by a family member is one of the most painful events across the lifespan. It is intensified by:
- It’s unexpectedness,
- its ambiguous nature,
- The powerlessness it creates
- Social disapproval.
First, when a person is estranged by another, they generally do not expect it to happen. Studies suggest that trauma is increased when it is enacted by humans rather than an act of nature, and this is even more so when that human is a family member.
We are biologically attached to family and socially acculturated into the idea of family togetherness. We do not expect an estrangement.
Second, estrangement is ambiguous. It lacks transparency, and it cannot be readily understood. The loss is ambiguous because the estranged person is physically absent, but psychologically present (in the memories of the estranged person, and the triggers). It is not certain if the family member will ever return, so there is no finality or closure to the event.
Third, people who have been estranged by a loved one often describe feelings of incredible powerlessness. When someone has been cut off, they cannot tell their side of the story, ask questions or apologize. Without interaction, the estranged person is often left wondering and ruminating about the truth, with no means of discovering it.
Estrangement of Mothers And Daughters:
The decision to go no-contact with a family member is a deeply personal one. For some of us, it’s impossible to heal ourselves and remain in connection with our mothers.
It’s still considered taboo to be estranged from one’s family; especially to be estranged from one’s mother. Sometimes the distance can be brief and short-term while for others, the estrangement can be permanent. It takes enormous strength and fortitude to follow through with this.
What can lead to estrangement?
There are so many reasons why people make this choice. But a core theme leading to estrangement is realizing that your mother’s dysfunctional behavior has demanded an enormous cost to your mental/emotional well-being and you’re simply no longer willing to pay that cost.
Estrangement isn’t something chosen in a flippant, cavalier way, but rather it is often a choice made after years of trying every other possible avenue to preserve the connection and see it evolve.
At a certain point, you may reach a crossroads where the cost is too much, and you have to make a choice. It may be the hardest thing you ever do in your entire life. And it may be the single most empowering thing as well.
Families are complicated systems. When one person stops playing their usual role in the family, this family will often experience some degree of disequilibrium or chaos. Conflict can serve to transform the system to a higher level if the family members are willing and open to grow and learn. Unfortunately, sometimes, in an attempt to resist change, the family attacks the person trying to grow. That person has the choice to stay and suffer the toxicity or to heal and leave the unhealthy system.
The choice to terminate contact is often made when it’s clear that it’s impossible to heal while still involved in that family.
Daughters often play the roles of family mediator, scapegoat, keeper of secrets, or emotional caretaker. If a daughter on a path of growth and wishes to evolve beyond her typical role in the family, (perhaps by being more empowered, having firmer boundaries, being less tolerant of poor treatment) the degree of chaos that ensues is indicative of how dysfunctional the family is as a whole.
If the family members are each relatively healthy, stable, and open, the family may be able to find a new equilibrium without much chaos. However, if the family members are deeply wounded or traumatized themselves, a daughter’s evolution can be perceived as deeply threatening. This chaos can be deeply unsettling and extremely hard to navigate. Support is essential.
In an unconscious attempt to maintain equilibrium and resist change, family members may launch attacks against the daughter.
A common and virulent form of backlash is “Pathologizing” the daughter: Seeing the conflict as a result of some form of pathology in the daughter.
The message is “Your unwillingness to continue in the family system in your established role shows us that there is something deeply wrong with you.”
This shame-based narrative abdicates the mother and other family members from honestly examining their own behavior and taking responsibility. The daughter’s level of mental stability, her past mistakes, everything about her may be openly questioned, that is, except the role of her mother in the conflict.
It’s amazing how vehemently people resist looking at their stuff and the lengths they will go to remain in denial of it, including ostracizing their own child. This is actually an unconscious attempt to resist change by projecting all the conflict or “badness” onto the person initiating the transformation of the family system.
Ultimately, this is not personal, it’s simply what happens when people who haven’t been dealing with their inner selves are confronted with their disowned pain through a catalyzing event, like a woman in the family growing beyond the predominant dynamics that have kept the family in a stable state for generations.
We can’t save our mothers. We can’t save our families. We can only save ourselves.
You don’t need your mother (or other family members) to understand you in order to fully heal.
It’s heartbreaking to realize that your mother/family are simply unable or unwilling to understand you. No matter how much you explain or how many attempts to convince them of where you’re coming from, it goes nowhere; like you’re speaking two different languages. Learning to understand you may cause a major shift in the very foundation upon which they’ve built their identities and worldview.
It’s painful to realize yet helps to create a singularity of spirit within you. It becomes clear that your own understanding of yourself must be enough. Your validation of yourself becomes primary. You realize you can be okay even if others do not understand you.
After you go no contact, your life may begin to improve in many areas; chronic illnesses clear up, neurotic fears vanish and life-long patterns dissolve. It’s worth noting that sometimes the challenge for you becomes enduring the pleasure of your own life.
See, with each new level of increased prosperity, increased intimacy, joy, freedom, you are reminded that your family is not there to share it with you. It’s particularly at these horizons where we may experience the turbulence of grief. There’s nothing to do but feel the grief that comes with that and allow yourself to move forward.
The grief doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong choice. It’s actually a sign of health and healing.
Keep yourself grounded in your new life, the one that gave you the strength to leave the toxic connection. If you don’t, you could get pulled back through guilt or shame. It’s so important to get lots of support and give yourself time and space to process all the emotions that come with this choice. Ground yourself in exactly why you’re doing this and use it as an opportunity to birth you into a new paradigm in your life.
Estrangement Leads To Empowerment
You may discover something deeply profound: you realize that you can survive your family’s rejection of you. This can birth a level of freedom and determination within you that may initiate quantum leaps in your life. It can spur a fierce commitment to truth and carve out radical integrity that extends to other areas of your life. It stokes a fire of truth within you that now can blaze fully.
You feel your own source within.
Grief, grief, and more grief gives way to… FREEDOM
Grief may arise every time you go to a new, higher level that your family has never been. It may feel like bone-deep grief, almost tribal or ancestral, the grief of having to go forward without them. And it gets easier and easier with time; the more we lovingly allow ourselves to grieve, the more space is created for magic, beauty, and joy in our lives. There is something deeply sacred about the grief that comes from making this choice. It can serve as an opportunity to deeply connect to your truth and to embodying it at the deepest level.
We must make meaning from this loss and use it to enhance our lives in new ways. That’s the key to long-term healing.
Your integrity becomes a solid foundation for the rest of your life.
It’s okay to walk away from toxic people in your life, including toxic people in your family.
Healing inter-generational wounds can be a lonely path. But within the space you created, soulful connections will come into your life. Our attachment needs are the most powerful need we have as humans.
To face this level of estrangement is to confront the depth of your pain, of your humanity, and to claim the full the value of your own life. Our greatest fear is that we will be alone. But the aloneness that we fear has already happened in the trauma of our families. You’re not alone and you will find your soul family in time, people who are capable of seeing and valuing you for who you are.
In a world where women are predominantly expected to stay silent, to cater to the needs of others and where the darker side of mothers is not acknowledged, the experience of estrangement can be an initiation into a new level of awareness that many people never experience. Space is cleared to allow your light to shine at full radiance.
What will you do with this light blazing within you?
Estranged daughters are finding each other, creating a new mother line; a connection of authenticity, realness, and truth in each other that supports the arising consciousness in all. There is often instant camaraderie between women who have walked this path. There’s more of us out there than many people realize. You’re not alone!
You have to do what is right for you. Trust yourself.
Estrangement doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t love your family.
It doesn’t mean you’re not grateful for the good things they gave you. It just means you need space to live your own life the way you want to live it.
Women who feel no choice but to go no-contact with their dysfunctional mothers create the break because it’s the only way to send the powerful message that:
“Mother, your life is your own responsibility as my life is mine. I refuse to be sacrificed on the altar of your pain. I refuse to be a casualty of your war. Even if you are incapable of understanding me, I must go my own way. I must choose to truly live.”
The first step to healing an estranged relationship is forgiveness. This is a very difficult first step, but holding on to resentment, anger, and hatred does not foster healthy and positive relationships.
After deciding that a relationship is beyond repair, it can be overwhelming and scary to consider reconciling an estranged relationship. The following tips are important when beginning the reconciliation process:
Has emotional growth occurred since the last contact?
Can I set and maintain appropriate boundaries?
Do I need to “change” the other person or his or her beliefs about a situation?
Do I have my own identity, or am I overwhelmed by another’s opinion?
Am I still angry?
Validating your feelings about the situation is important during the reconciliation process, as a lot of feelings are likely to occur. Recognize that it may be a slow process of building trust and re-learning the other person, and establishing a new relationship.
Focus on the positive and find new ways to establish common ground. Meet in a neutral location, and do not discuss difficult issues.
Repairing an estranged relationship is often very similar to building a new relationship. Do not expect that everything will be perfect right away. There are often setbacks, hiccups, and issues that may need to be navigated throughout the process.
And finally, keep in mind that you are not responsible for the entire relationship, nor can you control the entire relationship.
If you never, ever feel like reconciliation, that too, is okay.