Family Estrangement: The Silent Epidemic

In my own family there has been estrangement in every generation. It seems to be a familial response to conflict; we don’t appear to have the communication skills to navigate through complex life situations successfully. Or perhaps, there is a strong stubborn streak; or we realise that life is too short to have to deal with baloney– there is no one answer as to why the same responses are repeated, but the effects are traumatising.

I’m always struck with how often posters on forums such as Mumsnet advise people to go no contact without fully understanding how severe the impact can be – low contact is one thing; no contact is another level and not a decision to be taken lightly. The consequences do not just affect you, but all of your relationships: your partner, your children and possibly your friendships too.

In my situation there had been a gradual distancing – phone calls not returned, uninvited to family gatherings, and occasions when our paths had crossed, a very cold reception – before the drawbridge was well and truly shut. It was a period of great confusion. After all, growing up without the care and love from adults you would not have physically survived childhood; once you mature, the early dependence is replaced by strong emotional attachments and connections. When these relationships breakdown it is highly distressing; the frames of reference of your past are erased, and become meaningless, false and worthless. Your very existence is based on nothing. You are forced to address conflicting emotions as you are airbrushed from your family, and you become the elephant in the room.

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  • Alone

  • Silenced

  • Misunderstood

  • Angry

  • Vulnerable

  • Wronged

  • Embarrassed

  • Guilty

There is an unspoken social stigma about being estranged from your family. The assumption is that you must be a particularly awful person to have found yourself ‘persona non grata’ with the very people who are meant to love you and who know you best. I felt like a boat without a rudder, drifting on a sea without direction. However, in 2012 I read this article ‘I am estranged from my family’ by Becca Bland, the founder of the charity Stand Alone. I couldn’t believe it. The penny dropped, and the article had a profound effect on me. Realising I was estranged was devastating at the time but also strangely liberating. I could finally articulate the situation concisely without the need for further explanation.

Family estrangement is the loss of a previously existing relationship between family members, and according to a survey commissioned by Stand Alone from 2014, one in five families are affected by estrangement. For something that is so prevalent in society there is very little written about it in the media, which makes it a silent epidemic that has far reaching consequences for the families affected. The reasons for estrangement are varied – emotional, physical or sexual abuse are typical, rarely are they from a one-off argument.

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Estrangement from your family is perhaps one of the most painful experiences that you can go through. Mourning the loss of those you love(d) while they are still alive is traumatic as most people have an innate sense of ‘hope’, and you hold onto that. However, with hindsight, having the familial ties forcibly cut gave me new and independent ways to maintain mental health and a sense of wellbeing without the pain of remaining in an unhealthy relationship. It’s taken many years to reach this conclusion, and it certainly hasn’t been plain sailing.

How to cope with being estranged

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How did I cope with being estranged from my family? I drank too much booze, smoked cigarettes and wallowed, mourning the loss of my family and anger at the injustice of the situation. However, you can only do this for so long, and you don’t want the negativity to dominate the rest of your life. After several months of this self-abuse, I hit a wall, and I was very stressed.

I realised I had two choices: to sink or to swim, or in my case, I ran. I’d never done any exercise and certainly not running, but it turned out to be my saviour – I could exhaust my brain and body without damaging my self-esteem, and finally sleep like a baby. Running gave me the ability to let go a little and refresh my perspective – motivating and inspiring me to change my thought processes.

Whether the estrangement was your choice or not, you have got to learn to manage your emotional response to minimise the impact. Survival requires self-care, and you are the only person that can administer it.

1.    Review the relationship

Just as you may undertake an audit at work, review the relationship; identify the toxic aspects of it. You’ll be able to see a pattern of behaviours that have developed over time. This isn’t about finger pointing and placing blame, it’s about seeing and developing a deeper understanding about who YOU are and recognising how their behaviours have influenced you and your reactions.

In every dysfunctional family dynamic, members unwittingly take-on roles to survive and once you can recognise the role that you play, you can work towards healing. The roles are often not static, but interchangeable. I discovered that I have predominantly been the scapegoat. By understanding your principal role, you can take steps to address why you adopted it so that you can reprogram your inner dialogue.

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2.    Accept the situation

I have always loathed the phrase ‘it is what it is’, it has always made me feel like there is a sense of hopelessness and passivity; however, the estrangement from my family has forced me to come to terms with it. Yes, you can keep picking at the wound and try to make people understand your viewpoint and feelings, but you are wasting your energy and adding fuel to the fire – it’s like holding a hot coal: it is only you who gets burnt. Their response to you is based on their perceptions and beliefs which shape their reality of the situation. Their reality is different to yours, and essentially you are looking at different and incompatible scenarios. By accepting the situation, you will not be bound by resentment, anger, guilt or shame. You will be liberated.

3.    Reboot your self-esteem

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Free from the constraints of toxic relationships, you will find that you have the space to be your true self. Consider it a re-birth. This is a challenging stage – you are no longer propped up by a backdrop of insecurity and self-doubt. You are no longer destined to play a predetermined role or live up to others’ expectations. This is uncharted territory so liken it to how some people struggle when they retire – they have spent years defining themselves by their occupation, and suddenly that identity has been removed.

You need to spend time getting to know your strengths, to build on your confidence and recognise your self-worth. I had a light-bulb moment when I realised that I couldn’t possibly be as awful as I was made to feel because my husband is a great man who chooses to be with me and I’m blessed with an eclectic mix of supportive and wonderful friends – they can’t all be wrong! It’s not going to happen overnight, but slowly and steadily your esteem will be rebooted and your emotional health restored.

Estrangement is something that my younger self would not have considered as something to happen to me, despite it being commonplace across the generations. I don’t know why I thought I would be exempt from it – the folly of youth. There is so much societal emphasis on blood being thicker than water, and family being the centre of life, that when it goes wrong and relationships breakdown you feel emotionally and physically shattered and incomplete.

Now, over a decade later, in some respects I am stronger and happier than I was before – I don’t look to others to provide me with a scale to value myself by and I don’t feel the need to compromise my values or who I am. The downside to this is that I have a low tolerance for being slighted, and my first instinct is to withdraw and put up a protective barrier and – you can see where this is going can’t you - I am susceptible to repeating this behaviour and have done. However, I have found the voice to articulate my opinions, feelings and thoughts which in the main prevents unspoken resentments from escalating, nipping disagreements in the bud.

How have you handled being estranged from family? How have you coped with the emotional fall out? What have you found to be the unexpected effects of going no contact?