Living with Estrangement

What to do when there's nothing to be done.

Posted Feb 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Key Points:

  • Following an estrangement from an adult child, parents may find that all their attempts at reconciliation have been rebuffed.
  • Allowing yourself to grieve, to forgive yourself and your loved one, and not to let the pain define you can help you move forward.
  • Accepting the reality of the moment, without giving up hope for the future, can be transformative.

You’ve reached out in so many ways: phone calls, notes, emails, texts. You’ve written a letter apologizing and asking to talk, to compromise, to reconcile. You’ve waited, heartbroken, for the answer that never comes. 

If this sounds painfully familiar, you have much in common with a client of mine I’ll call Emily.

She was once so close to the son who has now disappeared into a marriage with a wife who has cut ties with her family and has pressured him to do the same with his. Emily is deeply hurt and bewildered by this turn of events.

“I’ve devoted my life to my son,” she told me recently. “I was a single parent who worked so hard to give him a good life, every opportunity. For so many years, it was just the two of us and we were so close. Now he tells me to go away, to stop bothering him, and is so uncaring. I’ve tried everything. I’ve sent letters, texts, gifts on special occasions. No answer. I sat outside his house in my car for several hours once. They threatened to file a restraining order. Like I was some sort of criminal! I’m just a mother who loves her son and wants to be part of his life. I have health problems and am beginning to wonder what I have to live for.”

Emily’s son, responding angrily to a concerned doctor’s inquiry, said that his mother “is a master manipulator and I don’t want her in my life.”

All efforts at reconciliation have failed.

What now?

If you find yourself in a situation similar to Emily’s – having made loving overtures to an estranged adult child or other beloved relative and meeting only silence or angry rejection — what can you do?

As impossible as it may seem, it’s time to start rebuilding a happy life that may (or may not) include this estranged loved one sometime in the future.

Emily scoffs at the suggestion. “Seriously?” she asks. “My son is my life.”

Photo by Solarisys/Shutterstock
Source: Photo by Solarisys/Shutterstock

Yes. Our children occupy a central place in our lives and our hearts – whatever their ages or behavior. But in order to survive the stress of the present, to gain perspective on the current situation, and to live with more joy and optimism, we need to move past the pleading and waiting to get on with our lives. That doesn’t mean losing hope. It doesn’t mean closing the door on a beloved son or daughter. It means keeping the door open, keeping hope alive, and focusing on building a life for ourselves distinct from our parental role.

So what can you do when there’s nothing to be done?

  • Allow yourself to grieve without rumination. Grieving what was – the closeness you once shared – can be a growth process, a way of moving forward. Rumination means thinking and obsessing about your pain endlessly – expecting your child or relative, other family members, or health care professionals to bring about the change you want. Getting stuck in an endless loop of sadness and depression can keep you mired for months or years in helpless victimhood. Going through the grief process and moving on doesn’t mean you leave the pain behind. It means making peace with what is, living with your pain, but beginning to see new possibilities for yourself.
  • Reimagine life on your own. This doesn’t mean giving up hope of reconciliation, but embracing life as is and feeling gratitude for the love you still have: the love of other children or family members or friends, the love of a pet, the warm community of your church or synagogue. Let love, however It happens, back into your life.
  • Forgive yourself and your estranged loved one. It’s easy to say, hard to do. But it’s possible to forgive the person who has hurt you so much and, even more important, to forgive yourself for whatever role you’ve played in the estrangement. Be gentle with yourself. Tell yourself, “I did the best I could. And I’ll try to do better in the future.” Lack of forgiveness – nursing grievances and pain – can keep you stuck in bitterness that makes reconciliation unlikely and any joy in life elusive.
  • Don’t let pain define your life. This is an important step toward reclaiming your life. If you allow negative feelings to overshadow every aspect of your daily life, this will only deepen your pain and isolation, driving friends and other loved ones away. Give yourself and important others in your life a break. Enjoy time with them, remembering that there is much more to you than your pain. Focus on being a good friend, a good mother to your other children, and a loving daughter or sister. Share their joys and sorrows, too. And, for the most part, save the continuing discussions of your devastation over the estrangement for sessions with a therapist.
  • Take good care of yourself. This is a critical part of building a happier life – and also ensuring that you may live long enough to experience a reconciliation. Make an effort to eat healthy foods in moderation. Exercise every day, even if it’s just a short walk in the neighborhood. Pursue interests you may have put aside for months or years – things you love doing, things that bring you joy.
  • Accept the reality of what is at the moment. Instead of fighting the estrangement and desperately begging for reconciliation, let it be, at least for now. “I have this saying I repeat day after day: ‘It is what it is,’” says Juanita, who has been intermittently estranged from her daughter for some years. “This acceptance, which has been hard-won, is freeing. It gives me a resting place to reflect and go on with my life. Of course, nothing would thrill me more than a reconciliation with my daughter. My door and my heart are always open to her. But in the meantime, accepting what is and enjoying other aspects and other people in my life has been comforting and transformative.”

Coming to this point of acceptance isn’t easy. But finding peace with your pain and calm acceptance of what is may take some of the desperation out of your attempts to reconnect or to keep a distance. Acceptance of what is right now may give you the rest and the comfort you need to keep going – and to keep hope alive.

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