To Estrange or Not to Estrange: Toxic Family Dynamics

Part 2: Consider these 5 factors when dealing with difficult family members.

Posted Jun 22, 2020

Despite the lack of research, family estrangement is a common problem in private practice. In fact, it has been referred to as the “silent epidemic” (Coleman, 2013).

Estrangement is generally understood as discontinuing a relationship. For example, parent-child estrangement happens when one or more family members voluntarily and purposely distance themselves from one another due to an ongoing detrimental relationship (Scharp, 2018). While family conflicts are inevitable, there is a difference between functional conflict resolution and dysfunctional resolution patterns.

Unfortunately, the presence of one or more toxic family members may make it impossible to have a functional conflict resolution due to the display of harmful, dysfunctional, and chaotic behaviors—for example, excessive family emotional violence, such as verbally abusive behavior, lying, pitting, and splitting members against each other in order to gain control. As a result, some clients choose to distance themselves permanently. However, this is not an easy decision—it's complicated.

Whether to estrange or not to estrange is a difficult and highly personal decision. At times, relationships can become so dysfunctional they become toxic—detrimental to mental health, emotional health, and even physical health. As discussed in my previous article "Dangerous Family Members," members of the family may suffer from their own undiagnosed severe mental health problems (i.e., narcissism, psychopathy) that preclude them from engaging in healthy or equitable relationships. Engaging over the long term with individuals with personality issues may take a serious toll.

There are severe consequences of consistent interaction with toxic family members. For example, research finds that emotionally abusive relationships with narcissists can have long-term detrimental effects such as depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress. Further, there are physical consequences that may result in these chronic adverse experiences such as heart disease, auto-immune disorders, and fibromyalgia.

To complicate matters, family estrangement can be viewed as a taboo by society and can hold a stigma. Oft-repeated platitudes like “blood is thicker than water” and cultural ideas about what family “should be” can cause family members to feel guilt and confusion about whether to estrange or not.

Why People Estrange

Conflicts in relationships are opportunities to grow, learn, and become closer and stronger as a unit. Functional families are able to eventually manage conflict productively. They understand the goal is to understand each other, display openness and empathy, take other perspectives, and arrive at a common goal.

Unfortunately, this is often not possible in dysfunctional families. This may be because of social modeling (generational patterns) and/or individuals have their own pathological personalities (see Part I) such as psychopathy, narcissism, or sociopathy. The results may include emotional immaturity, impulsivity, refusal to take responsibility, and an inability to apologize.

Further, family emotional violence may be excessive. When harmful tactics are combined with conflict avoidance behaviors—like gossiping, pathological lying, criticizing excessively, or pitting members against each other—a toxic family dynamic may emerge. Estrangement may then happen with a parent, sibling, or family.

Research supports that parent-child estrangement may be the result of a myriad of causes such as intimate partner emotional or physical violence; it may also stem from dynamics that are less dramatic but quite significant, such as inadequate parenting or chronic parental insensitivity (Alan & Moore, 2016). Family members may behave in demanding and belittling ways, perpetrate verbal assaults or abuse, or cut off communication when they do not get their way.

According to Agllias (2013) key indicators of family estrangement include a perceived lack of emotional intimacy, conflict/avoidance, physical distancing, and perceived lack of resolution. Parental misbehavior such as intense negative outbursts, as well as consistent conflict, are also reasons for parent-child estrangement (Kelly & Johnson, 2001).

To cut ties with family members is a complicated decision, and there are several factors to consider along with degrees of estrangement and possible physical and emotional distancing.

Things to Consider

  1. Understand you have rights in a relationship. Healthy relationships include communication—including being heard and understood and having your emotional experience validated, not dismissed. Compromise, perspective-taking, and boundaries are essential. If relationships are chronically lacking such characteristics, considering some level of distancing may be a possibility. 
  2. Levels of distancing strategies. "Social distancing" has become a term that is ingrained due to COVID-19, but other forms of distancing in family relationships may be helpful to consider before estrangement. For example, according to Scharp and Hall (2017), distancing may be a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment. This means considering or limiting communication only to phone, e-mail, or text and also limiting frequency (once a week, once a month, once a year, etc). Maintaining distance is different for each person and depends on the relationship, your responsibility within the relationship, and managing guilt.
  3. Distancing vs. guilt. While guilt can be a healthy response, toxic guilt is not. Ruminating that you are a “bad son” because you are not complying with the family's demands that are not comfortable for you is an example of toxic guilt. Would you rather not have dinner with a sister because an argument will ensue, and instead wish for some peaceful time by yourself? Would it be better to drop your kids off at your parents' house rather than spending the time with them yourself? In essence, it is important to monitor your level of guilt vs. distancing strategies because excessive guilt can also be harmful.
  4. Estrangement consequences. Research supports that those who estrange do it as a “protective” measure to their overall well-being and describe it as a relief. However, it also comes with significant loss and hurt. Holidays, birthdays, and disasters or emergencies may be difficult.
  5. Consider seeing a therapist. This is always a good option for a number of reasons. Obtaining a professional opinion regarding family dynamics, specific issues related to your own unique circumstances, and processing feelings can help tailor an approach that may be right for you.

This is Part 2 of a series. You can read Part 1 here. 

References

Agllias, K. (2013). The gendered experience of family estrangement in later life. Journal of Women and Social Work, 28, 309–321. doi:10.1177/0886109913495727.

Carr, K. et al. (2015). Giving Voice to the Silence of Family Estrangement: Comparing Reasons of Estranged Parents and Adult Children in a Nonmatched Sample. The Journal of Family Communication . https://doi.org/10.1080/15267431.2015.1013106

Conti, R. P., & Ryan, W. J. (2013). Defining and measuring estrangement. International Journal of Research in Social Sciences, 3(4), 57-67.

Friedlander, S., & Walters, M. G. (2010). When a child rejects a parent: Tailoring the intervention to fit the problem. Family Court Review, 48, 98–111. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617.

Ryan, W. J., & Conti, R. P. (2013). Family cutoff prevalence and distress predictors. Poster session presented at the 84th annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association, New York, NY.

Scharp, K. M. (2019). “You’re Not Welcome Here”: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing. Communication Research, 46(4), 427–455. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217715542

Scharp, K. M., & Curran Timothy. (2018). Caregiving When There Is Family Conflict and Estrangement. Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging, 42(3), 51.

Scharp, K. M & Hall, E. (2019). Reconsidering Family Closeness: A Review and Call for Research on Family Distancing. The Journal of Family Communication. https://doi.org/10.1080/15267431.2018.1544563

Scharp, K.M.& Thomas, L. (2015) “It Was the Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back”: Exploring the Distancing Processes Communicatively Constructed in Parent-Child Estrangement Backstories, Journal of Family Communication, 15:4, 330348, DOI: 10.1080/15267431.2015.1076422