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Family Estrangements: 5 Core Experiences

New research explores how adults experience having no relationship with a parent

Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock
Source: Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock

Family bonds are considered to be sacred. When they fray or break permanently, it can cause profound and grievous pain for those involved. Although family estrangements are on the rise, they remain poorly understood. Technically speaking, they occur when at least one family member begins distancing themselves from another, because of longstanding negativity in the relationship. They reflect a lack of trust and emotional intimacy, divergent values, and a belief that the nature of the conflicts can't be resolved. Subsequently, social interactions and interdependence between family members are reduced or eliminated.

What is like for an adult to be estranged from a parent or parents? A recent study conducted by Kylie Agllias of the University of Newcastle sheds new light on how adult children define, explain, and experience estrangement from a parent. She conducted in-depth interviews with 25 participants (20 women and 5 men), who reported 39 estrangements from parents (22 mothers and 17 fathers). Over half of the participants were estranged from both parents, and the majority initiated the estrangement from their parent(s). Roughly a third were initiated by the parent, and approximately another third were mutual. Through the narratives of these study participants, five core themes about the experience of estrangement surfaced, providing greater insight into an often misunderstood process.

1. Estrangement as relief, healing, and growth

Participants never viewed estrangement as an easy course of action to take — but they did see it as the only way to attain personal growth, healing, and happiness. They also characterized it as a “protective” measure. One participant stated, “[I didn’t] break off all contact to hurt her, I did it to protect myself and to become a person.” For many, healing meant accepting the situation, having more realistic expectations, and creating new rituals. Participants also sought greater personal and interpersonal understanding and competence through health and well-being activities, formal education in psychology, psychotherapy, and reading self-help literature.

2. Living with a significant loss: Estrangement hurts

Participants experienced grief, loss, and trauma in response to the estrangement — and it didn’t matter who initiated it or the relief it bestowed. Many of those who initiated the estrangement felt shocked by their decision to break off from a family member and the gravity of such an action. And while many felt relief at the outset of the estrangement, it quickly gave way to intense and unanticipated grief. In the beginning stages of the estrangement, shock and disbelief were most pronounced, and included physiological symptoms such as shaking, anxiety, and crying. These feelings and symptoms dimmed with time. By contrast, however, anger, disappointment, and rumination persisted for longer periods. Anger was salient in participants’ narratives, and particularly for those who initiated the estrangement. They described feeling angry at the estrangee, not only for the conflicts that led to the estrangement, but also because these conflicts put them in an impossible and stigmatized position. Some participants also reported ruminating about the estrangement, what led to it, and why the parent rejected and/or betrayed them. As one interviewee put it: ’What did I do wrong? Why couldn’t you pick me? Why couldn’t you just love me?’

3. Missing a family: Estrangement creates vulnerability

Most participants reported that they missed having "a family," but at the same time were insistent that they did not miss "their family" — and especially the dynamics that caused the estrangement. Yet they longed for the emotional, educational, financial, and physical support that a family can provide. Participants also missed the sociable aspects that can come with having a family, including just being together and activities. Losing historical information about family, and the familiarity of people who have known you your entire life, was a wellspring of pain. Moreover, while participants developed independence, resourcefulness, and know-how as a result of being estranged, they were envious of those who enjoyed help from their families. One person stated: “It’s like being born again. It’s also scary, because as a newborn, you can’t make all the decisions, because you’re not used to it. So lots of my peers already could do things and know things and have a place to fall back on. I never had that, and I think that is the hardest.”

4. Estrangement affects trust: Relational consequences

Being estranged had a wide impact on participants’ relationships with others. One area concerned privacy and comfort with disclosure. Participants preferred not to reveal that they were estranged from family except when asked directly or when engaging with someone they trusted. They appeared open and straightforward about being estranged, if necessary, but filtered the information they chose to share with others. They were especially private about the factors that led to estrangement, including poor parenting, betrayal, and abuse. Having to keep secrets, they felt, did make it hard to fully engage with others. Estrangement also had far- and long-reaching effects for the quality of the participants’ relationships. Some women in the study averred that their romantic relationships were shaped by the emotional disconnection from their parents, which usually preceded the physical estrangement. More specifically, they felt it strongly influenced making a premature decision in a partner or partners. Participants also reported that they remained in toxic relationships, because their need for love or a family was unmet. They felt that the poor and subsequently nonexistent relationship with their family primed them to tolerate abusive treatment from friends and acquaintances. They traced this back to their family dynamics, including the lack of boundary setting, a desire to be needed and liked, low self-esteem, and difficulty being assertive. One person remarked: "I get on really well with everybody who’s an ancillary friend or on the outside, but close relationships [are] never going to work . . . I don’t think I could trust anybody."

5. Protecting gains: The hidden cost of estrangement

Participants also affirmed having to protect the gains that they made — but that it came at a price. The initial stages of estrangement were profoundly hurtful, in a way that was immobilizing. But over time, participants became more resolute in their need to remain estranged. Reconciliation of any kind threatened to undo the gains they had made through separating, and estrangement was the only way they could protect themselves. To this end, participants engaged in a number of maneuvers to avoid or minimize contact. This included measures like not answering the phone, or not sending or receiving cards and gifts. Others limited information they shared on social media, so they couldn’t be located. An added casualty of estrangement was having to cut off other relatives in order to maintain estrangement from a parent. This was due to relatives’ over-involvement in the conflict or freely offering unhelpful advice. However, it was in large part due to their siding with the parent or divulging information about the participant. All of these efforts, while successful in cutting off contact, were profoundly painful and emotionally taxing for the participants. It wasn’t easy for them to maintain estrangement, especially at the prospect of losing the estranged parent through death. But they felt permanently separating was a firm and final decision they made, and that it was ultimately in the benefit of their long-term health and happiness.