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Why the Estranged Feel More Abandoned During the Pandemic

The pandemic lays bare the true feelings of estranged siblings.

Key points

  • Estranged siblings wonder if the pandemic, with its loneliness and acute awareness of mortality, offers a unique opportunity for reconciliation.
  • For those experiencing a sibling cutoff, the pain can cut deeper and last longer than a physical injury.
  • A survey shows that, in general, those who are estranged have not changed their relationship during the pandemic.
 cottonbro/pexels
Source: cottonbro/pexels

Carla Gregory (not her real name) had endured decades of a tumultuous sibling relationship when, about a year into the pandemic, things got worse.

In a text message, her only brother cut her off completely. The text told her to stay away, warning that any contact would be treated as harassment. Given his violent temper, she knew he meant it.

Three times during the pandemic, Carla had asked her brother to meet with her and discuss their issues. Each attempt brought her nothing but vitriol.

“It speaks volumes that he refuses to even discuss reconciliation during this time of pandemic, uncertainty, sickness, and death,” Carla says.

She has struggled to accept the cutoff, but each surge of the coronavirus seems to intensify her pain, exacerbating deep feelings of abandonment. These periodic, sudden surges present a kind of test for estranged siblings, measuring a brother’s or sister’s commitment to the cutoff. For some estranged siblings, the pandemic has finally driven home a devastating realization: Their brother or sister doesn’t care if they live or die.

The Deep, Devastating Pain of Estrangement

Estrangement defies the very nature of family. It’s an aggressively hostile rejection of the most basic structure among living creatures. Siblings are the building blocks of the family, and sibling relationships generally are assumed to be enduring—the closest thing to unbreakable.

Yet many siblings choose to distance themselves from family, voluntarily and intentionally, because of some perceived, ongoing negative relationship. For those who are excluded and rejected, the pain can cut deeper and last longer than a physical injury.

Research by Dr. Kipling D. Williams, a distinguished professor of psychology at Purdue University, has shown that when someone is shunned—even by a stranger, even only briefly—the slight activates the same areas of the brain that register physical pain.

And these social injuries don’t just disappear. Working with a computer game, Williams showed how only two or three minutes of ostracism can produce ongoing negative feelings. These lingering feelings of ostracism, Williams explains, provoke actions intended to serve the need to belong, as well as attempts to bolster self-esteem, a sense of control, and the feeling of a meaningful existence.

It’s easy to see how this complex tangle of distress can dominate an estranged sibling’s thoughts.

“In its most fundamental form,” writes Dr. Kylie Agllias, author of the internationally acclaimed, groundbreaking book, Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, “estrangement might also be viewed as a threat to the human socialization and survival process. It is a breakdown of the attachment bond protecting children in early life, older people in later life, and the weak and ill throughout their lives.”

Estrangement's Effects on the Extended Family

Carla is living the reality of Agllias’s comment. The pandemic, she says, has brought on all kinds of losses—jobs, career opportunities, lifestyle adjustments, illness—that have deeply challenged many families. Estrangers—those who initiate the cutoff—simply don’t consider the family’s role in responding to these situations.

“Estrangers don't think about what happens if Uncle Don, who's in his 80s, gets sick,” Carla says. “He has no kids of his own, no wife, and now his only niece and nephew aren't talking. How can they come together to help him if he needs it? Estrangers don't think about the larger family unit.”

Or—worse—what happens when parents of estranged siblings get COVID-19, but the adult children can’t even discuss how to care for them?

For all these reasons, the pandemic has created a time in which many of the estranged wonder whether now, at last, a family member might be more receptive to reconciliation. With a sense of mortality more acute than ever, many of the estranged fear that if they can’t reach a family member now, they may never have the chance.

Research on How the Pandemic Affects Family Estrangement

While many may wonder if this is the time to reconcile, it seems few are succeeding in making changes in troubled relationships. Stand Alone, a British organization that supports people in challenging familial relationships, conducted a survey of some 800 people between the ages of 18 and 85 years during the pandemic. The hope was to determine whether the pandemic has altered strained family relationships. Their findings include these:

  • Very little has changed for estranged family relationships.
  • Those who are estranged felt even more social and personal isolation, especially when they’re among others discussing their supportive families.
  • Many said that the pandemic had given them more time to reflect on their estrangement. Some spoke of a greater pressure to reconcile because life is short.
  • Some respondents reported greater feelings of shame and embarrassment about their estrangements during the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, the media has reported countless stories emphasizing the importance of family relationships, especially when a loved one becomes ill and requires care. Some people may have even fantasized about a jubilant, Hollywood-style end to their longstanding strained relationships.

The reality, however, is that the pandemic has laid bare the cold, disheartening truths of entrenched dysfunctional relationship patterns.

“My brother’s response reveals that he truly doesn’t care about the relationship during this time of global strife and loss,” Carla says. “It’s logical, then: If not now—when?

“Clearly, the answer is never.”

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