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Family Estrangement

Adele Wilde

Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

Estrangement refers to the process of treating someone known as if they were a stranger. It means to turn off feelings of affection, to keep at a distance, to alienate. In families it refers to the termination of connection with someone who is too difficult or hurtful. Generally, someone is cut off because they are recognised as offering nothing of relational value. Estrangement comes out of unmet expectations or other disruptions in a relationship.

Factors that can lead to family estrangement, or act as a catalyst, include disputes in the areas of trust, safety, chronic conflict, various forms of abuse, betrayal, divorce, remarriage, addictions, mental illness, criminal behaviour, and disapproval/intolerance of the way another lives. Estrangement within the family can be between any of the members, partner from partner, parent from child, sibling from sibling, grandparent from child, aunt/uncle from niece/nephew etc.

Relationships should be both easy and difficult. It is easy if there is mutual respect, good-will, trust (reality-based), feelings of attraction such as liking or loving. That is, an appreciation of self and other. These are prerequisites for a relationship. The difficult part of a relationship involves the movement towards increasing intimacy and honesty and caring. Central to this is a willingness to allow one's vulnerability and recognise and respect the other's vulnerability. When basics are missing rifts can easily develop, especially where the relationships are not chosen, such as between family members. Even in the best circumstances being in a family can be demanding and challenging.

Estranged from 'loved ones' can occur following a fight or important disagreement, or, more likely, a series of ongoing fights or disagreements. Personal difficulties with attachment to others can be expressed in many ways. For example, a family member finding conflict or differences intolerable, feels the need to fix or resolve conflicts in order not to fell overwhelming anxiety. Other people are sensitive to feeling misunderstood, or disapproved of, or kept at a distance they don't feel ok with (too close or too far).

Estrangement causes a particular form of grief, in that hope is often held out for a reparation in the relationship, thus keeping the pain and grief active and ongoing. A repeating pattern of interaction in which expectations followed by disappointment and frustration when those expectations are unmet, maintain a running sore of grief.

Family estrangement is usually painful for everyone involved, including people involved from outside the family. The reasons for estrangement are, at one level, understandable. Understandable if the view of only one party is listened too. One side can usually present a coherent picture as to why then have cut off the other party. But when the views of both sides are considered, irreconcilible differences emerge. Very different versions of what is happening are presented. Both sides are, of course, self-evidently right to the one holding a position or view, and the other is self-evidently wrong or bad. The views of the other seem incomprehensible to those on the other side of the estrangement divide.

In a situation where a group of family members cut off another family member, such as when children refuse to have contact with a parent, these family members have been, or feel they have been, emotionally mistreated by the member they are rejecting. Often the manifest causes of people going off speaking terms are not even discussed, or if they are, they are usually still inexplicable to the person who is dismissed from the relationship.

Most people want to have a family to which they feel close attachment and feel supported and nourished by. The person initiating estrangement within a family feels the lose in this breakup, even as they experience the relief of not having to deal with one causing them pain.

Once hurtful things are said (no matter how truthfully, sensitively, or sincerely put) and positions harden, repairing of breaches can be difficult. Usually the ostrasized family member, will want desparately to repair the family as the pain of family isolation is painful. Guilt, shame, sadness, and loneliness drive the need for reconciliation.

If you are considering trying to reconcile with a family member you are estranged from , it is prudent to consider why you are doing so. Remember why you withdrew from the relationship in the first place. Has anything changed that leads you to think that relations can be better in the future? Did you really 'just make a mistake'? Is forgiveness relevant if the one you separated from is likely to commit the same offences that drove you away in the first place? It may be that you need to carefully weigh up if it is worth re-starting the relationship. Ask yourself, why it is that you want reconnect now, and what it is that you might be hoping for should you reconnect.

If you are the apparently rejected one, do you trust the reasons why the rejector wishes to repair the relationship? Did that person have good reasons for rejecting you in the first place? Are you even interested in reconnecting? Is there anything in it for you? Sometimes people who cut us off aren't the best people to continue to have in our lives, in other words, they may have done you a favour.

It can be overwhelming and scary to consider repairing an estranged relationship, and is usually more difficult than the cutting of ties was. Fear is a major hurdle for estranged people; fear presents as reluctance, anger, shame, avoidance, confused and uncertain boundaries, reactivity, defensiveness, running away. It is difficult to move forward with estrangement until we can stay present with fear. When we are able to sit with fear (and other feelings) and ride it safely to the other side, we learn that we can survive our worst fears; we learn we can change. Often estranged people have an uneasy relationship with change, change is usually difficult, and therefore resolving estrangement feels out of their control.

It is a platitude that we don't get to choose our family, but as adults we can decide who is in our lives. Therefore family relationships occupy a unique position in everyone's lives. On the one hand there is a challenge in coping with who I have been allocated in the same way that there is a challenge in dealing with the genes that I have been born with. On the other I can take the view that I can chose who is in my life. However, family membership is more complex than that, and is less chosen than we might like to think. Estrangement does not automatically end the connection and produce happiness. It leaves a vacancy, a space, a shadow, which can be ignored, but is not forgotten.

If you would like more information or explore your concerns Adele can be contacted by phone or email.

Phone: 0439 324 703


Adele Wilde
Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Mt Lawley Counselling Centre
13 Alvan Street
Mt Lawley Western Australia 6050

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