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Effects of Trauma: Estrangement From Family

Traumatic relationships with family members can lead to estrangement.

In my practice, I've seen how traumatic relationships and serious mental disorders can lead to emotional cutoff or estrangement.

Emotional cutoff, a term coined by American psychiatrist Murray Bowen,1 is described as "people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them" in order to reduce their anxiety.2 This type of distancing can happen on a physical level — literally moving far away from an abusive member of one's past or simply refusing to see them — or on a more interactive level, by avoiding sensitive topics of conversation or otherwise closely "managing" the relationship through one's behavior and communication style.

According to Bowen Theory, those who use emotional cutoff as a coping mechanism often ironically end up trying to replicate their prior relationships in their new ones in order to fill an emotional hole or to make things "different this time." This can result in a lot of stress on family, friends, or colleagues, and can also, in some cases, lead to the repetition of abusive patterns.

Estrangement from one's family is a common phenomenon. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Kim Basinger, Roseanne, Halle Barre, Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster, and Demi Moore have all claimed to be estranged from close family members. And it's not uncommon for other people, either.

Is estrangement for me?

When someone has an estranged relationship with their family, the question is often whether the distance they place between themselves and their family members is due to healthy boundaries — it is certainly true that some relationships are toxic and that one is better served to end them — or instead due to an unprocessed emotional detachment.

When a relationship with a family member is not healthy — meaning it is emotionally, physically, or financially abusive and causing suffering — the victim has every right to stop interacting with that person. You should not have to tolerate unacceptable behavior just because someone is related to you. It is more important to stay safe than to be in contact with a family member. Jolie, who was estranged for many years from her father Jon Voight, said, "I don't believe that somebody's family becomes their blood. . . families are earned."

Some people choose to cut off a family member not because of abuse but because of religious belief, conflict, betrayal, addiction, mental illness, or criminal or unhealthy behaviors. Unless the unhealthy-acting person is willing to be treated and there are visible changes occurring, there often seems to be nothing one can do except disconnect, or risk drowning along with this person. Sometimes willful estrangement is a necessary step a person must take to protect themselves. However, it's important to note that estrangement can also happen because of a lack of skills to resolve common conflicts.

If there are common conflicts in the relationship that caused the disconnect, the first step to healing might be for the person who initiated the estrangement to work on their triggers and try to excavate what is behind their reactions. Taking the time to heal is also a valuable step. For someone who has been estranged from a family member, taking the space to work out issues before reuniting can be a healthy and crucial tactic.


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