The complicated experience of estrangement

For us estranged ones, Mother’s and Father’s Day can bring up a slew of feelings from rage to guilt to shame to despair to loneliness. Wading through aisles of flowers and gifts can move us to ruminate on what we don’t have. Where is the part of the store that’s dedicated to those who don’t have close familial bonds? What to do for those of us who do not feel grateful for our parents? Estrangement undermines our belief of “family is for life”. And far from being marginal, it is more common than we think—and if you are here, likely you are estranged or know somebody who is.  

Estranged or not, many of us know the elastic nature of relationships. People come and go from our lives. We get closer. We grow distant. Sometimes distance persists. We let old ties fade; texts go unanswered. We minimize communication to perennial “happy birthday!” messages on Facebook and nostalgic reminisces at chance reunions. These changes are normal. Our social networks naturally shift when we go through life transitions. We grow apart from people we were once close to.

We tend to be more accepting of these rifts with romantic partners or friends. But family is different. Families are supposed to be together: blood thicker than water and all that. There is a grain of truth in this sentiment. One of the functions of a family is to provide us with a sense of our “place”, our support and belonging. From the point of view of evolution, that is supposed to happen. We need our villages to survive. Our attachment instincts crave this kind of security.

While some families offer us safety, some families become the very thing we seek safety from. Legal battles, feuds, and trauma all contribute to relationship breakdowns over time. Dysfunctional dynamics can be intergenerational, repeating over and over again until it is taken for granted that “this is just who we are.” These families tend to be insular, which means problems stay private and individualized, with members left alone to grapple with issues that often started way before they were born. Those considering estrangement face a difficult choice: either I leave and lose you or I stay and lose myself. The choice is often not one of self-fulfilment so much as one made in self-preservation.

Despite what we might believe is like “cancelling”, a clean cutting off, estranging is a complex process. People accomplish distance in various degrees and in various ways. Some don’t talk with their parents but remain Facebook friends. Some move to different cities and change their phone numbers. Some endure years of back and forth, on-again/off-again. Some limit their interactions to strained small talk at obligatory family gatherings. Contact is decreased and if contact does happen, it feels stiff.

Estrangement can be tricky to navigate not just because there is little research about it, but also because there is so much baggage to unpack. There is a lifetime of pain, betrayal, grief, and failed attempts of making the relationship work. There are stories untold and stories unheard. There is a loss of identity, of a role, associated with being part of the relationship for those on both sides of the estrangement. There are gatherings that never happen, laughs and joys never shared. There is a complicated grief of a “chosen” loss. Without a cultural script for how to navigate this emotional terrain, estrangement comes with a lot of uncertainty: How will I move on? How do I talk about it with other people? Am I even sure I’m doing the right thing? Should I have done more? Why couldn’t they just do better if they say they loved me? How do I trust again when I can’t even trust my own family to have my back?

All of this is to say that estrangement is complicated and the people within it, on both sides of the rift, grapple with difficult feelings, difficult choices and difficult questions. Like what does “family”, “love”, and “forgiveness” really mean if we cannot take them for granted? Maybe in this way estrangement has something in common with the universal experience of loss—it’s painful, it destabilizes, and it complicates our reality. It teaches us that relationships aren’t forever, they change, and along the way, we are changed too.

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