Though some may be reluctant to talk about it, emerging research about family estrangement suggests this dynamic is more common than many people think. Broadly defined as “one or more relatives intentionally choosing to end contact because of an ongoing negative relationship,” family estrangement is so common that a 2014 survey commissioned by Stand Alone revealed that 27 percent of the people in the United Kingdom “are familiar with the concept of cutting contact with a family member, or know someone that has experienced it.”
Although family estrangement isn’t always permanent, emotional baggage can accompany attempts to rebuild a relationship.
What Leads to Family Estrangement?
There are many dynamics within families that can lead to estrangement. According to Leah Samler, an adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine University’s online Master of Psychology program, understanding the reasons for the conflict and the seriousness of the matter are both important if an individual is considering reconciliation. Her advice to counselors: “Figure out exactly what’s going on and go from there to come up with a treatment plan and potential conversations and [if] there are ways to reunify the family.”
Samler, who also teaches on campus courses for the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, references the Bowenian family systems theory, which views every family as an “emotional unit,” in which the members are “intensely connected emotionally.” The related complexity of family dynamics may be so stressful that one member of the family cuts off emotionally or physically from everyone else in order to protect their own mental, emotional or physical well-being. Such estrangement may happen suddenly or over a long period of time.
Serious conflicts that can lead to estrangement include:
- Behavioral addiction, defined as “the compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy and functional in the home and community.” Common examples include gambling, sex, shopping, gaming, food, and exercise addictions.
- Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, either current or historical.
- Substance use disorder, including drugs and/or alcohol. Dynamics that may be influential are the severity of the disorder, family structure, and whether this is a current or historical issue.
- Domestic violence, which adds considerations for safety if reconciliation is being considered.
- Infliction of trauma, which can take various forms, including emotional and physical.
- Differing political or social values, in which family members are so entrenched that seeing another’s viewpoint isn’t considered to be an option.
- Financial disputes, which cause a rift in personal relationships.
- Personal arguments that may be reflections of ongoing and perhaps deeper issues.
How to Reconcile
If an individual is considering reconciliation, it’s important to determine their motivation and whether such a move is a good idea. According to Susan Finley, also a faculty member at OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, it’s also important to know whether the other party has done any work on themselves.
“If that other family member indicates that they want to make a change, and that they want to connect, and that they have done some work on themselves … only then would a counselor recommend the client takes steps forward to reconnect,” Finley said.
Both Finley and Samler highlight key considerations for individuals who are considering reconciliation, which may require discussion with a professional first:
- Prioritize safety. If any party’s physical safety is at risk, confrontation isn’t a healthy option.
- Consider a mediator. A non-biased, third party can help facilitate a healthy discussion in a therapeutic setting.
- Prepare mentally and emotionally for rejection. Confrontations are unpredictable, so it’s important to remember that not every person involved will be ready to reconcile.
- Work through your own issues. Before expecting another party to make amends, consider where you need to heal from the events that occurred.
- Reflect on the source of conflict. Recount the events that led to the estrangement — it’s rarely only one party’s fault.
- Ask for help. Look for a support group or seek counsel from a professional or group of people whom you trust.
- Make use of the tools available to you. Use social media or other means of private communication to reach out. However, lurking on social media is unhealthy and can quickly become unproductive and dangerous.
- Avoid showing up unannounced. Because surprises and unwanted presence can be stressful for all parties involved, consider sending a letter, email, or voicemail first.
Forgiveness may be part of the reconciliation, and may also impact the forgiver’s mental and emotional peace. Approaching forgiveness in a healthy way involves extensive self-reflection and inner work. Finley clarifies the definition of forgiveness in the context of what it is, and what it is not for those involved:
- Forgiving yourself first.
- Acknowledging an apology if one has been made.
- Accepting that the other person has made their own choices.
- Setting boundaries for how you’d like to interact in the future.
- Spending all your time around a person who has hurt you.
- Obligating yourself to help them heal from their mistakes.
- Acting as if the conflict never happened.
- Keeping score of each other’s faults.
When Reconciliation Isn’t an Option
Though reconciliation works for some, it may not be an option for others. When that’s the case, Finley and Samler say it’s still possible to move on in a healthy way by:
- Exercising compassion. When examining attitudes and behaviors, show empathy and compassion toward yourself and others.
- Finding support. Make use of self-help and support groups, including formal or informal therapy.
- Reassessing goals for moving forward. Consider motivations for a second confrontation or delaying future interaction.
- Asking for help. Being estranged from family doesn’t mean you can’t create your own tribe or community.
Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for 2U’s school counseling, education, mental health, and occupational therapy programs. Find her on Twitter @HeyLexHey.
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