Estrangement describes a situation when someone makes deliberate efforts to distance themselves from or cut ties with a family member. Sometimes, people choose to be estranged from their entire family of origin, and other times, the estrangement is limited to a certain person or group of persons. If you are currently estranged from family members (or considering it), you’re not alone. Research suggests that over a quarter of adults experience estrangement, whether initiated by them or by other family members. That’s over 70 million Americans.
This is not the same as losing touch with family. Estrangement is a voluntary and deliberate decision. Sometimes, a sudden major event may trigger a decision to cut ties. More often, it is a process of gradually distancing yourself more and more over time as the relationship becomes increasingly strained. Many report that “the last straw” often happened after years of back and forth, or following several attempts at salvaging the relationship.
With the holiday season in full swing (and with the world opening back up), many people are looking forward to spending time with family, creating memories, and continuing traditions. But for those with difficult or strained familial relationships, this time of year can be extremely triggering and a great source of anxiety and pain. Depending on the circumstances of the estrangement, the holidays can bring about feelings of guilt, shame, loneliness, anger, or sadness. Estrangement is an incredibly difficult and complicated life experience. Be sure to practice self-care all year long and especially during triggering holidays or events.
Common Causes of Estrangement
Estrangement is an intentional and voluntary decision There are countless factors that may lead someone to decide to cut ties with family members. For some people who were mistreated by family members in childhood, there is an immediate decision to cut ties upon reaching adulthood or a state of independence. Parental maltreatment is one of the most common reasons for estrangement. This can include physical, emotional, financial, or sexual abuse, or a failure to respect boundaries. In other instances, people may slowly come to a realization that their parent or family member is detrimental to their wellbeing and decide to distance themselves. It’s also common to come to a realization that the family member will never be able to meet your needs or to fulfill the role that you need them to play in your life.
Many members of the LGBTQ community have cut ties with their families of origin in favor of chosen families. Others have been estranged due to disownment by homophobic or transphobic relatives. People may choose to cut ties due to a difference in value systems, or a family member’s refusal to accept aspects of a person’s identity or their lifestyle choices. Regardless of the factors influencing your decision to reduce contact with family members, your feelings are valid and it’s incredibly brave of you to make such a difficult decision for your wellbeing.
Impact of Estrangement on Mental Health
Estrangement is often a painful and difficult experience that can affect your mental health in many ways. You may feel a lot of anxiety surrounding your decision and this anxiety may be triggered by certain events, such as holidays. You may feel guilty or regretful about your decision, which can cause chronic stress over time. Many people carry the heavy emotional weight that comes with estrangement without realizing the impact it may be having on them.
Estrangement activates the grief response in many people, even if they were the ones to sever ties. Though you may believe that you made the right decision, you may still be mourning the loss of the relationship. This loss can be just as psychologically devastating as losing a romantic partner or experiencing the death of a loved one. For those on the receiving end of estrangement, there may be strong feelings of guilt, rejection, and loneliness.
Coping with Family Estrangement During the Holidays
If you’re dealing with this issue, the holiday season can be an especially difficult or traumatizing time. This time of year can bring back emotions that may previously have been dormant, or bring up feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s especially important to practice self-care and self-compassion if you’re feeling triggered. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel your feelings. You are entitled to your anger and sadness. If you’re feeling regret, guilt, or loneliness, remind yourself that these are normal and expected emotions to have at a time like this. Try not to judge yourself (such as saying “I should be over this by now” or “It’s so pathetic that I’m crying about this) or to avoid your emotions. Feel them. Sit with them. Remember that they won’t stick around forever. Now is a good time to try journaling about what you’re feeling, or verbalizing your feelings aloud to yourself. If it helps, you can even try writing (but not sending) a letter to your estranged family member. By not bottling up your emotions, you’re better able to manage them and even learn from them.
Ahead of time, identify healthy and reliable coping mechanisms that you can use when you’re feeling triggered. Examples include going for a quick walk to clear your head or calling a trusted friend to talk. Make a playlist of songs that will provide comfort or improve your mood. Taking a shower is a relaxing distraction for many people during times of intense emotions. You can also try engaging in a creative hobby such as coloring, doodling to creating digital art. Other healthy coping mechanisms include taking care of tasks such as cleaning or gardening. Consider purposeful, relaxing, or entertaining activities that you can engage in during difficult moments.
How can you seek out connection and companionship this holiday season? Can you create new memories with friends, partners, or your chosen family? When your familial relationships are strained, it’s important to develop fulfilling and meaningful relationships outside of your family. Many members of the queer community have embraced a chosen family, as seen in media like Paris is Burning and Pose. Non-LGBTQ people may also develop chosen families due to difficult relationships with members of their families of origin. Consider the people in your life who can provide you with support and solidarity.
Estrangement can be incredibly traumatic and difficult to deal with on your own. Working with a therapist is an empowering and effective way to process the difficult emotions that arise due to estrangement. If there is a desire for reconciliation, a relationship therapist can be an invaluable third party helping to bridge the gap. If there is no desire for reconciliation, working alone with a therapist can help you to find the closure you seek.
The therapists at Flourish Psychology are qualified and trained in a variety of treatment modalities that can help you process this difficult situation. Schedule your first session to begin your journey towards healing.