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Relationships

When Family Estrangement Can Be the Healthiest Choice

... and research on the best way to communicate it.

Key points

  • Family estrangement may be temporary or long-term.
  • For some people, family estrangement is healthy and functional.
  • Communicating about family estrangement can be challenging, even when it's the best option for someone's particular situation.

You may have friends or family members who share they are estranged from part or all of their own family. When this happens, it is typical to mumble some reply of regret and hope for the future such as, “I am so sorry to hear that. I bet you’ll be able to work this out over time.” If you are estranged from your family, you’ve likely received messages like this one. When you are estranged or trying to help a friend or family member who is, you might be unsure what you should say (and not) and perhaps whom you should tell (or not).

Estrangement is often temporary and family members work things out and come back together, but not always. While some people who are estranged actively work toward communicating and reestablishing family ties, coming back together might not be possible, advisable, or desirable. When this happens, it may be tempting to see estrangement as a personal or family failure.

From this perspective, a healthy family is characterized by ongoing, open, and positive family communication, which, in contrast, means that family estrangement is unhealthy. The thinking here is that people should only choose distance from family as a last resort and after all other efforts to repair family relationships have been attempted.

Understanding Family Estrangement

Communication researcher Jordan Allen, a faculty member in Applied Communication at Utah Valley University, and I are writing this blog featuring her research on communication and estranged family relationships. As Jordan began reading about family estrangement, she learned that researchers and professionals working with families often think about estrangement in terms of individual or family dysfunction; something to be addressed and fixed.

In several studies, Jordan interviewed people who are estranged from some or all family members. One of her interviewees helped her understand that not all estranged family relationships are experienced negatively:

"We are not all yearning or longing for the Hallmark Christmas card or time with Dad around the Christmas tree. I don't long for that, nor do I want it, and that is perfectly fine. And there are other people like me. There are people… who feel self-conscious and ashamed for it, and there is no reason for that."

Jordan came to better understand the cultural value of close family relationships. Thus, failing to have close, intimate family communication and relationships feels like a failure.

In another study, communication researcher Christine Rittenour and her colleagues (2018) found that U.S. American adult children and parents who were estranged were often viewed negatively by others, adding to any distress and discomfort they might already be experiencing.

Can Family Estrangement Be Healthy?

Jordan Allen and Julia Moore (2016) interviewed people who were estranged from family members and found that, in some cases, people thought about their estranged family relationship as healthy or what the researchers described as “functionally estranged” as you can see in this example:

"I feel very guilty, but at the same time, I have a lot of relief… In order for me to survive psychologically and to get stronger, and be the person I really am, I can't have them [mother and father] in my life anymore… It makes me feel guilty, but they are who they are, and I can't do anything to change it. And, I can't let them wreck my life."

In a follow-up study, Jordan (2018) talked with people who said they had at least one estranged family relationship and regarded their estrangement as functional or healthy. Different views of estrangement included:

  • Estrangement as last resort: First, people in this category viewed estrangement as something that should be avoided if possible. They reported more negative feelings of guilt and sadness and were more likely to regard their estrangement, while necessary and functional, as regrettable.
  • Estrangement as ideal: Second, people in this category resisted the idea that estrangement was bad or should be avoided. They saw their estranged relationships as not only functional but ideal for them presently, and perhaps, permanently. These people reported more positive emotions like gratitude. Some described estrangement as a “gift” they would recommend to others who are struggling.
  • Estrangement as normal: Third, people in this category felt more ambivalent about being estranged, finding it neither positive nor negative. These people saw estrangement as one form family relationships can take, as we can see in this example: "I think I would encourage others to see that to be estranged is not a bad thing, if there is nothing wrong with it. Look at this particular relationship, and see if there is something you are wanting out of it, and if not being estranged is a realistic ideal, or not."

Communicating When Experiencing Family Estrangement

Of course, some people will reunite with an estranged family member (or members). There may certainly be reasons to make the effort to do so if the relationship can be revived and move forward in positive ways. Some of these relationships may even come back stronger in the end. In other cases, family relationships may achieve an uneasy peace, but one that allows family members to function with one another as well as possible, even if they are not close.

However, in other cases, family estrangement will be the most functional and healthy choice for people in the long term. From her research, Jordan Allen helps us to better understand and accept family estrangement. Jordan offers advice for people who are experiencing family estrangement and believe this is the most functional and healthy option for them:

  • Estrangement is normal and more common than we think. Historically, estranged relationships have always been present. Many people will find examples of estranged relationships in their family’s past or present. Statistically, estranged relationships are becoming more common as people recognize that not every family relationship can or should be maintained.
  • Estrangement can be healthy and ideal. Not every family relationship is possible or positive in our lives. This may include estrangement we initiate or is initiated by other family members. A person who was experiencing functional estrangement explained: "I would just say, you know, family is great, and you’re not always going to get along with everyone in your family. But if they are causing more grief than happiness then estrangement is not a bad thing. You are not being a selfish person to consider cutting off communication with that person, if you believe it will make you happier.
  • Estrangement does not always have to be the last option. Family members do not have to wait to experience even more hurt or harm to consider that estrangement might be the right choice. Creating healthy boundaries with family members may take the form of partial or complete estrangement. In some cases, estrangement can help families facilitate growth and flourishing.
  • It is OK to feel positive about family estrangement. Sometimes estrangement is the best option for one or more family members. People who found estrangement healthy consistently pointed out they often experienced grief stemming from their estranged relationship and a separate grief that came from the stigma associated with estrangement. It is important we make room for positive implications of estrangement. In addition, from Dawn’s research on chosen families, we know that people may find rewarding family relationships outside of biological and legal family ties.

We understand that communicating about family estrangement can be challenging, as it flies in the face of cultural expectations for close family relationships. It is important to realize that not everyone is seeking close relationships with their family members. It is helpful to understand that we may not know, or need to know, all the details about why people are estranged to be able to be supportive. While people who chose estrangement received messages such as “You only get one mom,” one interviewee created witty responses to messages like this including “Yep, and she probably shouldn't steal all of your stuff.”

Researcher Kristina Scharp (2020) stresses that you can be an understanding and supportive friend or family member without taking sides when people are estranged. You may need to be clear with others about what you will and will do or say to keep from being caught in the middle of family conflict and to be a supportive ally to the people in your life.

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

References

Allen, J. (2018). Distant yet existent: Networked-dependence theory and the communicative constitution of functionally estranged family relationships (Doctoral dissertation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

Allen, J., & Moore, J. (2016). “Just because they are family doesn't mean you should have relationships with them”: Troubling the functional/dysfunctional family binary in estrangement discourse. Western Journal of Communication.

Rittenour, C. R., et al., Communication surrounding estrangement: Stereotypes, attitudes, and (non)accommodation strategies. Behavioral Sciences.

Scharp, K. M. (2020). Taking sides and feeling caught: Communicative complications for immediate family members of estranged parent-child dyads. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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