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The Collateral Damage of Estrangement

Those caught in the middle of a cutoff can experience significant stress.

Key points

  • Estrangements cause tension and stress for friends and family members not directly involved.
  • There are effective ways to handle the dilemmas that these situations cause.
  • If at all possible, do not get in the middle of a cutoff and remember that many will resolve over time.

Almost all of us have likely experienced a cutoff. Perhaps you have two good friends who are now no longer speaking to each other. This does not appear to be a simple conflict. Instead, one has decided to cut the other out of her life indefinitely. Where does this leave you, who used to go to lunch with them on a weekly basis?

Or maybe your brother has had it with your younger sister and tells you that she is too toxic and he can no longer be around her. You used to invite them both to your home for Christmas. How do you deal with that tricky set of circumstances?

Or how about this not-so-infrequent conundrum?: Your sibling refuses to speak to your mother ever again. She has explained that she is depleted from years of your mother's critical comments. She does not want her kids to be exposed to this sort of behavior. She gets mad at you whenever you mention your mother and requests that you tell your mother absolutely nothing about her life. You are left with a sad and distressed mother whom you do not personally experience as critical. Your mother tries to pump you for information about your sister on a regular basis and you are just not sure how to handle it. You are painfully aware that your mother has always been kinder and less critical with you than with her other children. You have always been her favorite child even though you never really wanted this role.

These sets of circumstances leave those in relationships with both members of the estrangement holding a bag full of problems. See if you can relate:

  1. You are full of anxiety and stress, as you are in the middle of a set of circumstances fraught with anger and frustration. In a sense, you feel all of the emotions that the two who are cut off from each other are also feeling. This is both confusing and difficult.
  2. You experience fear that if you misstep, you too may be cut off. Maybe you feel one mistake away from also being rejected. This makes connections fraught with a lack of confidence about what to say and do.
  3. On a more practical level, holidays and get-togethers that were formerly sources of joy now become an exercise in logistics that belongs in a war room, not in your living room.
  4. You will likely find yourself in the unenviable position of keeping secrets in an effort to keep the peace. You will have lots of information about the life of at least one person in the dyad that is being requested by the other. You never asked to be in this position, and you are afraid of inadvertently divulging privileged information. This is giving you an awful headache, isn't it?
  5. You are dealing with where your allegiances should be. Should you pick a side? Should you be loyal to one friend/sibling/family member over the other? These are questions you never expected to have to contend with.

If you find yourself in the midst of a cutoff and can relate to the above sets of feelings and dilemmas, I have some suggestions:

  1. Try as hard as you can not to take sides. These people were both in your life before their estrangement and should remain there. If you take a side, you too are at high risk to be cut off and you don't want that. Also, consider that, at some point, these two individuals may reconcile.
  2. Continue your relationship with each individual, but with clear boundaries in place. Let them know that you will not be sharing information about one with the other. It's not appropriate, nor is it the role you wish to play.
  3. Regarding get-togethers and/or holidays, you have options. You can choose to alternate spending time with each separately. You may want to spend some holidays with one member of the dyad and others with the other person. Or you can spend holidays without either of them. This list of realistic options may become clearer over time.

In my practice over the course of three decades, I have had the opportunity to observe the way that cutoffs tend to progress over time. Family estrangements often end following crises or other major life events such as weddings. Friends often forget why they were angry at each other in the first place and tend to resume their connections, albeit in a less connected way. Unfortunately, some other cut-offs last for decades and in many cases serve to protect the mental health of one or both individuals. Of course, in other cases, there is much hurt sustained over decades.

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