Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

How to Conduct a Family Estrangement (and Why They're Awful)

Family estrangement is among the most counter-intuitive human behaviors.

Sometimes families become so dysfunctional that a family member decides that he can’t stay connected any longer to a specific person in the family or, in some cases, the entire family. Typically people who estrange themselves from family tend to be over the age of 18 years, because that is the point when they begin to reach adulthood and have more independence. I have counseled clients through the estrangement process, and have also seen clients who have come to see me after the estrangement has already been established.

The psychology of splitting from your family of origin

Estrangements from family are one of the most psychologically painful experiences anyone could experience. It almost goes without saying that estranging yourself from family is absolutely counter-intuitive: Who, after all, would think to terminate a relationship with someone who raised you? Sadly, the answer is that it’s typically only people who have been neglected, abused or exploited in some way who would pursue such a tumultuous split within the family dynamic.

Adding more stress to the already-stressful mix, society tends to project harsh judgment on people who reject their family – even as disturbed as some families can be. As a therapist who, by profession, must work to find the empathy for anyone who comes for treatment, it is hard to swallow the fact that some men and women can be so judgmental about others’ experience – especially when they have no real idea about how bad things may have been in the estranger’s family!

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Overall, Agllias (2013) explains that family estrangement is often experienced as a considerable loss; its ambiguous nature and social disenfranchisement can contribute to significant grief responses, perceived stigma, and social isolation in some cases. In researching to write this article, I found how little research actually exists on this topic, and that lack is due largely to the stigma associated with estrangement: Most people don’t want to talk openly about why they estranged themselves from family for fear of judgment.

How to conduct a family estrangement most effectively – and least painfully for you

If you’re considering estranging yourself from family, never initiate a full-blown estrangement without first trying an approach of measured contact.

To try measured contact, decide the exact frequency of contact you would like to try with the family (e.g., once every two weeks, once per month). Next, decide the type of communication are comfortable with (e.g., in-person visit, telephone call, email, text). After that, decide the length of time you are willing to try out the new plan of measured contact before determining if another more extreme approach is necessary (e.g., 3 months, 6 months). Once you have set the amount of time, put the date on your calendar so that you can have some mental organization when dealing with this emotional struggle. Write down the specific reasons why you need to try measured contact and keep those reasons in an organized place where you can refer to them regularly (e.g., in your purse or shoulder bad, in your journal, or inside your nightstand). During this process, you may start to feel anxious or guilty, so you will need to refer back to your reasons on a regular basis to stay focused and avoid emotional reasoning (which could pull you back into your dysfunctional family).

If you determine after your period of measured contact that you need to stop talking to your family altogether, explain to your family that you need to take a break from talking – but still do not pursue full-blown estrangement. Try writing a letter or calling your family members to say that you want to take a break, and tell them clearly the amount of time you are taking (e.g., another 3 months, 6 months). Explain that you feel that taking some time apart could be helpful for you and them to take some time to figure out how to navigate the relationship better, and state, “Because I do want to get along with you and I do hope we can have a better relationship in the future.

Estrangements are messy and emotional for all parties involved. If you can avoid an estrangement and find a way to improve the relationship dynamics with measured contact, that may cause you less stress in the long run. If your family lives nearby, it is worth asking your family members if they would consider going for a couple of sessions to talk to a therapist. Another option, if your family lives far away, is that you contact a therapist where you or your family lives and someone travels to see the other and have a long therapy session to discuss the issues.

Finally, taking good care of your physical and mental health is never more important than during a period of estrangement. Cortisol levels go through the roof when people get stressed, and nothing adds stress like the anxiety and guilt that so frequently come with major family conflicts. Make sure you cultivate a good support group that can be available to you when you feel lonely.

Reference

Agllias, Kylie. (Sep 2013). Family Estrangement. Encyclopedia of Social Work. Subject: Couples and Families, Aging and Older Adults, Children and Adolescents. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.919

 

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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