Understanding Family Estrangement

Families can be complicated or wonderful (but usually both). There are times when a person may feel it necessary to end contact with a family member. These reasons can vary significantly: there may be a history of abuse or neglect, really challenging communication, high levels of conflict, or strong differences in opinion about important issues. Estrangement can also occur after a big life transition, like getting married or having children. Sometimes estrangement can look like complete disconnection, or very calculated communication, only discussing specific topics and avoiding sensitive ones altogether.

Family estrangement is common. The number of folks experiencing some kind of separation or drop in contact from their family falls between 20% and 30%. What I find interesting about this is how little we talk about these separations and how little support we offer if this number of families is affected. Family separation and estrangement continue to be taboo in our culture, even when the separation occurs due to abuse or neglect. Creating a separation may not even be possible for people who live on the same property as their family members, as is often the case in southern Appalachia, where I live and work. However, as many families grow apart geographically, people have more space to set boundaries and make choices that could not have made before.

Perhaps you choose not to have contact with your family member, or they choose not to have contact with you. Even if you’re making the choice, it can be incredibly painful to realize that a person you grew up with, who knows your family dynamics, and who had potential to be one of your closest people, is not in your life. Or, you are grateful every damn day that you don’t have to see their face and you feel a deep sense of relief. Maybe it’s both.

No matter the reason, lots of emotions can come up if we are no longer in touch with a family member. Holidays can be a tough reminder of the relationship. Family members or friends may question your choice or encourage you to reach out to someone you have no interest in contacting. Even if we make the choice to not communicate, it can feel like an enormous loss. It’s really sad to know you don’t have the relationship with your family member you hoped for (this can be sad no matter the situation).

The dynamic may feel similar if you are on the other side of the estrangement. You may feel confused or deeply hurt by your family member’s choice to end contact with you. You may even feel angry that your family member is not explaining what’s happening and won’t give you good reasons for the lack of communication. Maybe it’s not so formal and they choose not to come to family gatherings, or they rarely (if ever) reach out to connect to you.

Estrangement can feel vulnerable. If you are in a situation where you need to cut ties with your family, it can feel lonely (especially because the value our society holds is that family is supposed to love us the most and provide unconditional love and acceptance). Having to explain the situation to people who don’t understand is exhausting; feeling the immediate judgement people can have is hurtful.

The hard truth of estrangement is this: each person has the right to make decisions that keep them safe and comfortable. What is safe and comfortable for them may not feel the same for us. It’s painful to know a family member doesn’t want connection or finds it stressful or unsafe to be near us or other members of our family. The anxiety or fear that accompanies visits with family may lead someone to cut ties. People don’t do that for fun; they do it because they feel there is no other way.

For folks creating distance between themselves and family members, here is what I will tell you: setting a healthy boundary to keep yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically safe is an okay thing to do. I am giving you permission to do that if you didn’t give it to yourself. No one knows your situation better than you do. Safety is extremely important. Although it may be distressing to other family members, having to be in a situation that feels dangerous to you or your family (especially your children) is not okay.

For those on the other side of estrangement, feeling confused, angry, saddened, or guilty, know this: the person you miss or wish was around more is doing their best. If you have something to apologize for, it’s okay to want to do that. The person may or may not be open to hearing it. It’s not something we can force. Allowing the space your family member is asking for could be a critical component of healing your relationship in the future. I encourage you to seek support and share your feelings with those close to you. It’s okay to grieve the loss of the person who is not in your life.

This blog was originally posted for Porch Light Counseling.