- After an estrangement, many suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, such as emotional flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and low self-esteem.
- Some say that a cutoff hurts their ability to trust anyone. They think: "If I can't trust my family, who can I trust?"
- Longing to replace the family they’ve lost, the estranged often resort to trauma responses, such as people-pleasing, fawning, or self-denial.
Estrangement is never just an isolated incident. Its trauma spreads both deep and wide, potentially creating a psychological landmine that fundamentally affects every other emotional connection.
Even when it’s essential to end an abusive relationship, estrangers (those who chose to break the bond), as well as estrangees (who were cut off), may suffer a variety of long-term post-traumatic symptoms, according to a 2014 study by Kylie Agllias, a foremost expert on estrangement and author of Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective. These symptoms include:
- High levels of shame and embarrassment
- A form of survivor’s guilt, questioning whether they should have done more to maintain the relationship
- Avoidance of anything related to or echoing the estrangement
- Poor self-esteem
Many estrangers view a cutoff as a matter of survival: the only avenue to health, happiness, and personal growth. Nonetheless, they may experience an intense need to recreate a sense of belonging, identity, and safety through non-family associations.
Yet the estranged may sabotage their own efforts by replicating the traumatizing relationship’s psychological and/or behavioral prototypes. A sibling who can’t individuate may become mired in dysfunctional childhood models, risking the repetition of destructive patterns in adult relationships.
Here’s how one woman who was bullied by her two brothers described a disastrous attempt at a relationship:
“My last attempt at opposite-sex friendship played out like a giant karmic gong show. Mr. Sort-of-Right had on-again-off-again estrangement with his two siblings. He was the same age as and had a similar character to my volatile eldest bro and the same birth order position as my self-centered little bro. I unwittingly stepped into his big sister’s shoes (read: 'golden child') when I befriended his ailing elderly father. Sort-of-Right and I began to argue RE: 'defining our relationship' ('undefined' was fine with me). My literal last words after he took a deliberately hurtful 'negativity and pity parties' cheap shot RE: my sibling estrangements: 'You’re exactly like my two idiot brothers—you act and speak without thinking, fling hurtful sh-t at me, and never apologize!'”
The long reach of early sibling relationships
Siblings set the model for future relationships, so a cutoff from a brother or sister, even when necessary, can be uniquely damaging. As our earliest companions, siblings ideally reinforce in one another many crucial social qualities—tolerance, generosity, loyalty—that eventually shape our liaisons with friends, colleagues, and lovers. As children, siblings typically spend more time together than with anyone else; when they’re lucky, their loving bond outlasts friendships, marriages, and even parents.
“Our brothers and sisters were our ‘first’ marriage partners,” explains Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, psychologist and author of Siblings: The Ghosts of Childhood That Haunt Your Love and Work and other books about sibling relationships. “We have a lot of emotional stock invested in them.”
Inability to trust
A failed sibling relationship can compromise the ability to trust and, consequently, to truly connect with others, whether romantically or merely as friends. Even those who choose to walk away from a destructive sibling wonder: “If I couldn’t trust my own brother or sister, who can I trust?”
Many estranged siblings experience a “generalized reduction in trust,” Agllias says, “which may affect their capacity to engage fully or openly in new relationships.”
These comments from the survey I conducted for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, reveal how estrangement shatters the capacity for trust:
I am afraid to make friends because I don’t trust people. It is hard to trust anyone.
I find it difficult to make friends. I have always been afraid of making long-term committed relationships with men because of my estrangement from my two older brothers. I don’t want to repeat the horror of my early life.
When a friend distances themselves from me for good reason (a crisis where they need to be alone), I get triggered and panicked. I feel like I am being taken for granted like my family did.
Those who are cut off from family, Agllias explains, may impose on themselves a heavy pressure not to repeat the past. The uncertainty, self-doubt, and self-repression of this constant effort hardly constitute a winning relationship strategy.
People-pleasing as a trauma response
In their yearning to replace the family they’ve lost, some of the estranged seek reassurance and comfort in relationships that backfire. Their efforts to “get along” may create an enmeshed dependence that compromises their self-agency. Always yielding to a partner’s wishes or needs, they become “people pleasers.”
Far from “just being nice,” fawning or people-pleasing—extreme efforts to appease others—are a trauma response. People-pleasers avoid conflict by changing their behavior, often to an unhealthy, self-denying degree.
Here are ways this trauma response shows itself:
- Struggling to be “seen” by others
- Feeling anger and guilt toward oneself
Difficulty saying “no” to others
Compromising one’s own values
Being taken advantage of by others
Feeling responsible for others’ reactions
Inability to identify and/or enforce clear personal boundaries
Feelings of stress or discomfort when called upon for an opinion
Codependence in relationships
Consequently, some estranged family members rush into unsuccessful marriages with the first person who declares love for them. Ultimately, they discover that their partners are manipulative and exploitative, just like a toxic family member.
Clearly, sibling estrangement isn’t just a broken family bond. It profoundly stamps the estranged family member, who brings the devastating experience and its resulting harm—poor self-esteem, inability to trust, suppression of emotion, etc.—into other relationships.
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Agllias, K. (2014) Report on the adult child's experience of estrangement from at least one parent. Unpublished report. University of Newcastle.