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The Pain of Estrangement

Mar 27, 2023

 This time of year can be especially painful for people with complicated family dynamics. It's really important to be sensitive to this as well as validate the pain that many people experience as they hear everyone's family filled holiday plans.

I want to start by offering my sympathies to anyone experiencing estrangement. You can only be estranged from someone you have cared about, and you can still care deeply for someone you are estranged from, which makes this pain complicated and sensitive.

Estrangement is a distancing and loss of affection that occurs over years or decades within a family. Sexual abuse and trauma are the more obvious and better understood causes for estrangement, but it is also caused by things like mismatched values (family members not seeing eye to eye on life choices like religious observance, character, partner choice, lifestyle choice), divorce, financial disputes, emotional abuse or neglect and parenting practices that the adult child experienced hurt.

The most frequently occurring estrangements are between parents and children and sibling estrangement. A mentionable fact is that that there is very little research and literature on this and that is partly due to the secretive nature of this experience. Contrary to popular belief, the decision to end relationships doesn’t happen overnight. It is something that happens gradually after years and years of heartache. Typically, families cycle in and out of estrangement cycles until one side ultimately decides they have had enough. Some may eventually reconcile but that is not the rule.

There is not one big blow out that causes this but there are always the family members or friends who have their opinions on what they think went wrong and what needs to be done to “fix” it. Estrangement always involves a large circle of spectators. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings will offer their opinions and advice (“Your mother means well, she has just been through a lot,” “I don’t want you to regret this decision when she’s gone and then it’s too late,” “That’s your sister, you only have each other,” “Family is forever.”) or their silent judgment (“Does she see what she’s doing to her mother? How can she be so cruel?”). None of those behaviors are helpful and can cause even greater pain and resentment.

If you are close to someone who is estranged, offer your support and understanding rather than your opinion. This can sound like “I’m so sorry you are going through this,” “Family can be so complicated,” or “You have to do what is best for you and only you can know what that is. I love you.” The shame of estrangement has many roots but one of them is society’s obsessions with the perfect, happy family. The dogmatic belief in the sanctity of families needlessly keeps people in relationships that are painful and unhealthy. We do not choose our family; we are born into it and sometimes that family is made up of unhealthy and even dangerous people. You may be related forever but your relationship is not eternal. You do not have to be close with people who hurt you, no matter who they are.

Family has different meaning in different cultures, so it is really up to you to define what it means to you. I like to think that family is made up of individuals who have special meaning. They are our foundation of support, personal cheerleaders, teachers, and anything else we might need. They comfort us and even, lovingly, put us in our place sometimes. We may even feel hurt by them sometimes but there is a solid foundation of safety, security, trust, love, and respect that allows for loving repairs. Sometimes these people are not blood relatives, rather they are your friends who become your “family.” Blood family is not the only source of your relationships.

Estrangement generally starts with distancing and limiting and then, in some cases, ends with zero contact. Sometimes people who are estranged end up reconciling. Estrangement is not necessarily forever. It is important that if you are considering reconciliation you consider what will be different going forward. Maybe the family member(s) hasn’t necessarily changed but you will change the way you interact so that you can’t be hurt anymore (aka: boundaries). Other times though this is just not possible because if you change your way of interacting the family member gets angry and the toxicity just explodes.

People who have estranged relationships can have wonderful relationships and can have their own healthy families. Sometimes you can have healthier relationships simply because you removed the toxicity from your life. Estrangement is not always bad for everyone involved. I always find it interesting that we harshly judge people who stay in unhealthy romantic relationships and then we also harshly judge those who leave unhealthy family dynamics. There is so much judgement, fear, and projection that comes from people that it makes sense that people tend to keep it to themselves when they go through this. If you can’t wrap your head around someone who has made a choice to be estranged from a family member then you will likely not be able to understand their history that led them to make that choice. Consider yourself fortunate to not understand this. It may also be a good idea for you to reflect on your own relationship with boundaries.

If you are estranged from your family or they have decided to distance or disown you, it is important to be aware of your needs. It is likely that you will feel many different emotions about the distance between you and your family. On bad days, you may feel painfully lonely but on good days you may feel overwhelming peace and freedom. Make efforts to become a part of a wider community so that you are not isolated. Friends who have out-of-town family or have families that do not emphasize holidays together will be great for you because you can create new traditions with them.

Family members can be very supportive in estrangement, but they can also make it more difficult to feel at peace with your situation. It is inevitable that an estrangement will impact the whole family and different relationships within it, which can cause tensions to rise. If you feel awkward or stressed, you need to be open about that with your family members. Do not walk on eggshells.

It can be helpful to remember there is this idea of separate family realities where your experience with your family may be completely different from your siblings’ experience. Understand that your brother or sister may not feel like there was ever a problem in your family, but you did. You are entitled to your version of events as much as they are to theirs. Nobody is more right or wrong and it may be helpful to the relationship if you simply agree to disagree.

The pain of estrangement is largely due to having to grieve the loss of someone who is still around and the lack of closure that comes with this. This is known as ambiguous loss, a loss that lacks finality or closure. Ordinary loss and grief contain some elements of ambiguity too. The difference with a death is that because the person is no longer with you there is a finality that you gradually learn to live with. Also, there isn’t any chance of being with that person again. In family estrangement it can feel more confusing because the person you are grieving is still alive and may even have a peripheral presence in your life through other family members. You may see them at family gatherings and so there is no sense of resolution. There can be this lingering chance or “hope” or potential of things changing, which can make things feel really confusing and hard. Also, when your friends share about the relationship they had with their (now dead) parent that can bring up its own unique grief.

People can grieve openly about losses from death but not the losses of people who are still living. This is in part because there is a lot of stigma, self judgement, and even comparing: “My mother is alive, I shouldn’t feel like this,” but as grief counselor Rabbi Earl Grollman often reminded people, for you, the worst loss is always your loss. Comparing losses invalidates our own and makes healing even harder. Let’s stop doing this.

The pain of estrangement could be easier to handle if there was less judgement from us and others and more compassion, support, and understanding. Estrangement doesn’t need to be fixed but the shame and stigma around it certainly does. People often like to cite the Torah obligation of kibud av v’eim (biblical commandment to honor your parents) as a source to support why estrangement between a child and parents is “wrong.” Also, parents will often use this to guilt their child who has decided to take space from them. Obviously, I am not a rabbi, I am a mental health provider, but it bears mentioning that the halachic authorities I have consulted on this topic have agreed that a person’s mental health is always paramount.If you are struggling with estrangement, please reach out to a licensed mental health professional and if needed, your LOIR (local Orthodox informed rabbi) for more guidance.

Before I close, I want to focus a bit more on how boundaries can help prevent estrangement. Many times, I see people are quick to label family members or friends as “toxic” and cut them off completely. More likely what is happening is people are not taking responsibility for their part in the unhealthy dynamics and with some boundaries the relationship can be saved and could even be somewhat pleasant. Relationships need boundaries to thrive. They help you preserve your connection, feel safe, happy, and fulfilled. They allow you to give from a place of authenticity and love instead of resentment and bitterness. Boundaries are not walls; they are fences. Boundaries are not confrontations, cutting people off and silent treatments. Proper boundaries can help minimize the chances of this happening. They can allow conversation about difficult subjects and help foster mutual respect and ongoing communication. If you are having a hard time with a family member, please consider examining your boundaries with them (this does not apply to cases of abuse).

For people who are not estranged I need to emphasize nobody wants estrangement. It’s a b’dieved. This is not something to be taken lightly but it is also not something to be judged. It can hurt to be estranged but sometimes that hurt is less than having a relationship with that person. Healthy boundaries can be really helpful in preventing estrangements, but this is not a guarantee because while we can set boundaries, we cannot control whether or not people will honor them. Two things can be true: You can love your family and have deep wounds because of your family experiences. You are not a bad person. Take care of yourself and consider doing the work of breaking the cycles you undoubtably learned from your family of origin.

For more on boundaries, I highly recommend the book Set Boundaries Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Tawwab. For more on estrangement, read Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement by Harriet Brown where she shares her own story of estrangement from her mother as well as research and anecdotes.

Wishing you healing and inner peace. 

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