Family dynamics are complex and constantly changing. Unfortunately, family relationships sometimes turn toxic and do more harm than good. Family estrangement occurs when an individual decides to sever contact with one or more of their family members.
A Cornell University survey found that 22 percent of respondents had cut off contact with at least one family member. If you have a strained relationship with your family, know that many people have gone through similar experiences and that coping with family estrangement is possible.
What Is Family Estrangement?
Family estrangement is the intentional loss of a relationship between family members. It can happen in a number of different ways, so the definition is vague.
Sometimes, family estrangement happens between a parent and child. It can also affect a grandparent and grandchild, siblings, or any other members of a family unit. In some cases, family estrangement happens when one person cuts the rest of their family off. In other cases, a conflict splits the family into multiple groups.
Family estrangement exists on a spectrum. It may result in a strained relationship with occasional contact. For example, two siblings may be in the same room at a family reunion but refuse to speak to each other. It can also be a complete cessation of contact. In this case, the individual may refuse to go to a family function if they know their sibling will be there. Some cases of family estrangement involve legal or formal boundaries like no-contact orders.
Family estrangement can be temporary or permanent. While many people have no desire to resume contact with their family member, some do restore the relationship eventually. Although each case of family estrangement looks different, it is always a difficult experience for families. The conflict and tension that leads to someone cutting off a family member can be tough for everyone involved.
What Causes Family Estrangement?
Family estrangement can affect any family. There is no particular culture, socioeconomic group, or religion that is more likely to experience family estrangement.
Family estrangement can happen at any time, too. It’s sometimes triggered by a major life event or change in the family structure, and it sometimes occurs after a long history of conflict. Although there is often a single event that acts as the catalyst for family estrangement, this event is rarely the only reason. In many cases, problems build up for years until an individual reaches their breaking point.
A 2015 report titled “Hidden Voices” offers some important insights into the causes and effects of family estrangement. This survey was a combined effort from the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and the charity Stand Alone. They surveyed over 800 adults from the ages of 18 to 60 who had experienced family estrangement.
According to “Hidden Voices,” here are the most common causes of family estrangement:
- Emotional abuse
- Differing opinions about family roles
- Clashes in personalities or values
- Traumatic event
- Mental health problem
The survey also found that in more than half of the cases of parent-child estrangement, the child was the one to cut off contact. Adult children were also much more likely than their parents to respond that they will never have a functional parent-child relationship again.
Family Estrangement and Depression
Family estrangement is sometimes necessary for an individual’s mental health and well-being. However, regardless of how justified the family estrangement is, it can cause feelings of shame, loneliness, and low self-esteem. For some people, the negative effects lead to depression or other mental health disorders.
Cutting off contact with someone in your family may lead to isolation from other family members as well. Even if you’re on good terms with the rest of your family, you may not be able to seek support and advice from them if they don’t want to get involved in the conflict. If family is usually your main support network, estrangement can be very isolating.
In many cultures, religions, and communities, people view family as the most important structure in anyone’s life. Many people believe that family should stick together no matter what and that family members must always forgive each other.
These values lead to family estrangement being highly stigmatized. Even if you know that severing contact was the right choice, it’s common to feel guilt or shame about your decision. Fear of being judged or misunderstood can make you hesitate to open up to friends about your experience with family estrangement.
The events that led up to estrangement can take a toll on your mental health, too. If you had to cut off a family member because of abuse, neglect, trauma, or a mental illness, those experiences could lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other difficulties.
How Do You Deal With Family Estrangement?
Being estranged from family can lead to mental health problems and other challenges. There are ways to cope and thrive after family conflict, though. Many people have successfully navigated the experience of family estrangement and are living complete, fulfilling lives despite the tension in their families.
Some people want to resolve a conflict after a period of estrangement. Others don’t see any hope of reconciliation. You do not have to reconcile with your family unless you want to.
If you feel ready to try to restore the relationship with your family member, it’s important to wait until everyone is calm and able to talk without fighting. Change has to come from everyone, and a one-sided attempt at reconciliation probably won’t be successful.
Consider inviting your family to talk in a neutral space with a family counselor or mediator. This can help everyone feel safe and supported while you talk through the conflicts.
Other Support Networks
When you end contact with your family, it’s essential that you find another source of support. You don’t have to tell everyone about your family problems, but spending quality time with people who accept you can help you cope with the situation.
Spending time with friends is a great way to feel supported. You can also find social support through church, community organizations, or meetup groups.
Processing the Experience
Accepting and validating your experience is an important step toward healing from a toxic family dynamic. You may never get answers or an apology from a family member who did something hurtful, and you may have to accept this and move on.
Any feelings that you have toward your family or the situation are valid. You cannot help how you feel, but you can learn to process and cope with the emotions so that they don’t cause you to make poor decisions.
Therapy can be an incredibly valuable way to process the pain, grief, and trauma involved with family estrangement. Working through your experiences with a therapist may help you better understand why the conflict happened, and it can help you develop strategies for coping with family estrangement.
If you’re dealing with family estrangement, you’re not alone. Family estrangement is a common experience, and it is possible to cope after cutting off contact with a family member. The feelings involved can be complicated, so consider reaching out to Dr. Howard Samuels to work through your experiences and discover ways to cope.