Family estrangement can be incredibly difficult to navigate. Whether this has been initiated by yourself or your family, cutting ties with your family of origin is never a decision taken lightly. Feelings of guilt, grief and sorrow can often accompany this experience. These emotions can be exacerbated by cultural or national celebration times, such as Christmas, where families are expected to join together in festive unity.
Outside responses, from friends, other family members or even strangers, to what is viewed in society as a drastic option can add to these feelings of insecurity. But, whilst modern culture and the media can convey close family ties as the ‘norm’ or the number one priority, sometimes the best and safest thing to do is to end communication. Around five million people in the UK have ended contact with a family member, and one in five families will be affected by estrangement.
Causes and impacts of family estrangement
Family estrangement is the term used when members of the same family of origin (biological family) deliberately discontinue communication. Estrangement can be caused by a number of things including harmful behaviours such as betrayal, neglect or abuse, differing values or beliefs, or objections to things like a family member’s partner or sexuality.
Regardless of the reasons, the decision to break family ties often results in feelings of loss and sadness on both sides. These feelings may be accompanied by a sense of righteousness or legitimacy, which could lead to the refusal to acknowledge the feelings of sadness. This can often make it more difficult to healthily process and come to terms with grief. Alternatively, you may experience feelings of doubt and insecurity about the decision, adding confusion to an already emotionally turbulent experience. Or it may lead to feelings of relief, particularly if the relationship was unhealthy or damaging.
Whatever emotions you experience, it is important to acknowledge that a variety of feelings will accompany this process and that these may reoccur over time. Grief is deeply personal and doesn’t follow any sort of timeline, and this remains the case whatever the cause.
Honouring and understanding your emotional experiences
The experiences which led to the rupture must be validated. Initially, working to foster empathy towards yourself and validate your experiences can help lessen the emotional pain surrounding the experience. Paradoxically, acknowledgement of negative experiences is the first step towards healing. This may also include sharing your feelings and experiences with empathetic loved ones, who can support you and help ensure that you don’t feel isolated and alone.
Once the initial heightened emotions have become manageable, a potentially more difficult method of healing your emotional pain can be to adopt an empathetic view of the perspective of the family member you are no longer in contact with. Although you do not have to sympathise with them or work to repair the relationship, understanding their perspective and the external factors which may have led to their behaviour may help you not to take the rupture as a personal indictment of your character, role within the family or ability to build and nurture relationships.
The desire, the need to belong, to be part of a family and a community is an innate calling to connect. Just because the family who should have loved and accepted you for who you are weren’t able to does not mean that you won’t find your family of choice, your community of interest.
Nurturing and communicating with yourself and others
By working to foster a reserve of love and self-acceptance, you can work to build relationships with others. While the estrangement may never be totally pain-free, the positive experiences and relationships which exist elsewhere can bolster you and keep you from feeling isolated.
Enforce a commitment to yourself and your relationship with yourself – this is your other lifelong relationship, and by building up the strength of your relationship with yourself, you can work to ensure a sense of continuity and strength from within.
You are going to recover. You have survived living with a family who did not have your best interests at heart. You will do this. And you don’t have to do this alone. Working through your experiences with an empathic, integrative counsellor will support you in your growing awareness and understanding of ‘family’ life and relationships. Through understanding and awareness, there is a commitment to action not to be drawn to similar relational dynamics simply because they are familiar to you but are not good for you.
Although the experience of being estranged from your family can be painful, meaning can be found in painful experiences. This is sometimes referred to as ‘post-traumatic growth’ and, whilst your pain is never a necessary factor for growth, gaining positives from a negative experience can help to heal from it. By creating positive change within the space created by removing an unhealthy or unhelpful relationship, you could increase your ability to assert your right to healthy, fulfilling relationships. If you are finding it difficult to move beyond the pain and grief of your experience, you may find it easier to process your experiences by sharing them with trusted loved ones or a trained mental health professional.
Finding strength and community moving forward
Although your relationship with your family is no longer accessible, your ability and right to form lasting, healthy relationships is tantamount to your healing. Regardless of who instigated the break in the relationship between you and your family, your intrinsically human need for relationships and connections must be honoured moving forward. Whether you nurture your existing relationships or form new ones, by creating positive experiences when relating with other people, you can build trust in your ability to maintain healthy relationships and create positive experiences, which will help offset the emotional pain of familial estrangement.
How therapy can help you to navigate family estrangement
Processing the loss of a family member who has not passed away can be difficult, and a trained counsellor or therapist can support you in working through the different stages of your grief. Counselling is specifically intended to support you primarily, and, as family separation can often include attempts to navigate the opinions and influence of others, focusing on yourself can help you understand and learn to regulate your emotions.
A qualified, empathetic integrative therapist can use the most appropriate approach to help you heal. They can help you learn to navigate your emotions and reflect on the relationship in ways that encourage building healthy attachments moving forward. They can also support you in seeing the situation from a perspective that centres on and values your well-being and enables you to build the self-trust and confidence to maintain future relationships.
It can be a big step to reach out and ask for support. Growing up in a family environment where your needs were diminished or dismissed can lead to a pattern of extreme independence. When no one was ever there to meet your emotional or physical needs it is something completely alien to ask for help, never mind receive it. The Leone Centre is here to support you in finding out what your needs are and how to best support yourself in meeting them.
Your sense of worth never depended on others who couldn’t see you or hear you.
Family estrangement can be an emotionally tumultuous and painful experience, and acknowledging and honouring this is the first step towards healing. By prioritising your own mental well-being and working to centre healthy, honest and fulfilling relationships elsewhere in your life, you can build reserves of love and acceptance to draw upon when the difficult emotions feel particularly strong. And, by working to internalise this sense of love and acceptance, you can foster strength and emotional resilience in your true lifelong relationship – the relationship with yourself.