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After Family Estrangement, How to Deal With People's Judgments

"I knew that if I said anything, they’d pick me to shreds."

Key points

  • The cultural taboos against parental estrangement initiated by an adult child remain strong, and people often feel compelled to sit in judgment.
  • While one may not wish to go public with their estrangement, it's often difficult to keep under wraps.
  • Dealing with the judgments and reactions of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers comes with its own set of emotional stresses.
Photograph by Mohamed_Hassan. Copyright free. Pixabay
Source: Photograph by Mohamed_Hassan. Copyright free. Pixabay

As I’ve written before, when an adult child breaks off connection to a parent or parents, the culture puts that adult child on trial, reminding him or her that "you only have one family,” that a mother "did her best,” and other judgments brined in mythology. Chief among these are the myths pertaining to mothers, namely that all women are nurturing, that every mother loves unconditionally, and that maternal love is instinctual. Adult child estrangement is often framed as an impetuous, emotional, or immature act, although research shows that most come to the decision to estrange after years of deliberation, trying different strategies, and, often, cycling in and out of low contact and no contact. In contrast, when a parent estranges from a child, the cultural assumption is that there must be a very good and valid reason for a mother or father to take such a draconian step.

No One Really Goes “Public,” but It Happens Anyway

It’s not as though anyone buys a billboard or hires one of those message-trailing planes with a banner reading, “I divorced my family of origin!” but it happens anyway, with all the accompanying discomfort. I remember being in doctors’ offices years ago and when I answered that I had no idea of the status of my mother’s health because I wasn’t in touch, I often saw an instant reassessment of the person I was.

Charlene, 45, described a moment in a book club meeting, discussing Tara Westover’s book Educated:

“I was new to the group which I’d joined because of an office mate. Well, these two women started talking about how disloyal Westover was, hanging out the dirty laundry for everyone to see, just so she could make money and be famous. No one knew that I finally went no-contact three years ago after years of back and forth and the experience was still raw at time of the meeting. I knew that if I said anything, they’d pick me to shreds. Then, two other women started talking about how parenting was hard and parents were held to impossible standards and I was stunned since the book includes verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. I never went back to the book club.I think I would have handled it differently now but who knows?”

Cultural judgment and shaming are effective silencers that rob us of our voices.

Holidays and Other Pressure Points

It won’t surprise anyone that holidays traditionally associated with extended family gatherings may be the most difficult to negotiate since, even if estrangement has had a positive effect on the adult child’s life, there are always multiple levels of loss and the longing for a normal familial relationship. The motivations of those who probe your holiday plans are sundry and various: There are the well-meaning, the gossipers, and those worried that your holiday plans might outshine theirs. (Truth. Go to the suburbs and witness competitive Christmas by looking at the light displays.) I remember some woman I barely knew—the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates—telling me loudly that “I would reap what I sowed” by not seeing my mother at Christmas, and that my daughter would repay my cruelty to my mother by doing the same thing to me. (She hasn’t. We are close.) Estrangement is not a punitive act, but an effort to spare yourself more pain.

Still, these moments when private decisions become public can cause people real pain and it’s neither strange nor weird to feel momentarily conflicted even when you know you made the right decision. Here’s the thing: Familial estrangement is the last choice; love, support, and unity were the first. But sometimes, you just have to accept that you won’t get what you want and need and settle for the absence of malice or verbal abuse instead.

How to Deal: Reveal or Stay...Mum?

There’s no right answer; there’s only the answer you feel comfortable with. After years of enduring both her mother and sister’s verbal abuse and scapegoating, Eliza, 50, finally had enough; she went no contact with her mother seven years ago and chose estrangement from her sister two years later. This is how she handles it:

“I’m pretty vague. If someone asks what they’re up to, I’ll share the latest that I’ve heard and then casually move on. A few of my close girlfriends know and are accepting and even supportive. A cousin I met for lunch brought it up on her own, saying she didn’t know what was going on but she loved my mom and she loved me and wanted to have both of us in her life. I did tear up and I thanked her (it's a cousin on my mom’s side, and my mom had always controlled the extended family visits, so often I was left out) and told her I was glad we were meeting up and hoped to see her more when I visited my home state. I didn’t give her my side or talk about my mom. I’ve tried to respect that others have a different relationship with her than I do.”

Delia, 55, takes the opposite tack:

“When people ask me about my family, I simply say that I’d prefer not to talk about them. If they press me—even after I’ve been clear that I do not want to talk about it—I ask them whether they really want to hear a story about abusive parents. That usually stops people dead in their tracks. And it works for me since I actually don’t want to talk about my family.”

Things to Keep in Mind

As unpleasant as these moments can be, it will be easier if you take the following to heart.

  • You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Yes, that’s true; you may want to explain your decision to those close to you but that’s entirely up to you. I’ve had friends who supported me without really fully understanding my choices; it took my ex-husband a long time to understand why I estranged from my mother when I did. (I was pregnant with my daughter and I didn’t want the poison to be a part of another generation.) Her nastiness to me on the one occasion our paths crossed with my daughter in tow didn’t go unnoticed by him.
  • Don’t feel ashamed, because the shame isn’t yours to own. Even well-meaning people often say things like, "But you only have one mother/father” or, “You will feel terrible when he/she dies,” and you may feel shamed in the moment but you shouldn’t; you know you tried hard to make the outcome different. I have a totally unproven theory about why people react so negatively (and even aggressively) to those who are estranged from their parents, especially their mothers, and here it is: They are threatened because they want to believe in one kind of love that is rock-solid and inviolable, and the best candidate is maternal love. Your story challenges that belief. It’s not about you; it’s about them.
  • It’s normal to feel rattled or even to doubt your decision. It sounds odd, but hope does spring eternal and all the adult child wants is for his or her parent to behave as parents are supposed to. Being questioned, no matter how long the period of estrangement has been, may bring complicated feelings to the surface. You may wonder, once again, whether you made the right decision or if your perceptions were on the mark. Note that I write “may;” if you have been in therapy, this is far less likely to happen. Keep in mind that it is much easier emotionally to deny parental mistreatment than it is to recognize it and act on it.

Stand Tall (Really)

The culture lags behind in understanding the nature of abuse (which is the subject of my forthcoming book). If it’s not physical, abuse is culturally open to question everywhere, including in a court of law. But if you know where you’ve been, and your parent or parents wouldn’t own their words and actions, you can and should own yours. It is a step toward conscious awareness for you in every role you undertake in the world.

Many thanks to my readers who came forward and answered questionnaires.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2022.

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