Estrangement: When Family Bonds Break

5 min read

I trained as a therapist nearly 40 years ago, and family systems theory was the primary tool for “cracking the code” of each client’s behavior patterns and emotional struggles—a kind of attachment theory before attachment theory took hold.

As part of our coursework, classmates and I took turns describing our families, our upbringing, and the unsolved mysteries of inter-family dynamics. Family systems theory offered an endless stream of clues and cues to follow to help clients resolve family difficulties on the way to becoming their truest selves. All of this was underpinned by the relentlessly optimistic view that if one just reckoned deeply enough with the inherent binds and the blocks to healthy differentiation, there was true family bonding to be had.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized not a single one of us talked about family estrangement. Estrangement was only talked about theoretically—as if no one would opt out of the heavy lifting of resolving inherent complexities with family members by stepping away from family. Estrangement was called an “emotional cut-off” and talked about as if the person had given up on the true goal of an ongoing relationship with family, no matter how dysfunctional that relationship might seem. I never heard any validation that opting out of a family relationship might be a smart move or a healthy choice.

Since then, I’ve worked with clients on every side of the estrangement process and I’ve never encountered anyone who worked through that choice lightly. Gabor Mate talks about the fact that the very real cost of authenticity sometimes means losing deeply important attachments; the choice can truly come down to choosing “me or them.” That’s the exact tension I see playing out in cases of family estrangement.

I see three misconceptions about estrangement that I think are important to note:

Misconception 1: Individuals who choose estrangement are “avoiding” the hard work of intimacy and relationship.

Melissa tried for the first 40 years of her life to find a way to connect with her relentlessly unhappy and critical mom. Through most of her twenties, she felt responsible and tried to do whatever she could to please her mom and make her happy.

Then, she began therapy and started the hard work of dis-entangling from her mom’s unhappiness—but she still flinched every time she got critiqued. Eventually, Melissa learned to hold her ground, her sense of self and the criticisms had very little effect on her.

But as she faced deeper truths, she questioned the “obligation” to stay involved with someone who truly wasn’t capable of valuing her in very basic ways. She began to have less and less contact and eventually decided to disconnect completely.

Anyone who thought she didn’t do the hard work of intimacy didn’t know her journey. “I didn’t hate my mom. I didn’t even dislike her. I just didn’t want to be on the receiving end of her cruelty anymore, and I realized my mom wasn’t able to stop herself. At that point, I was done.”

Misconception 2: Estrangement is always an unhealthy option for family relationships.

Johnathan and Meredith were in their late seventies when they made an appointment. They came in because their 40-year-old son consistently told them they needed therapy—he felt they needed to learn how to support him better. Johnathan and Meredith presented as sincere, concerned, and very open to looking at their failures, but confused as to why their son was so very unhappy with them.

Over the course of several months in therapy (and many intense interactions with their son), it became clear that his stance that they “never” met his needs was more about his self-centeredness and less about their failures. (They mentioned their daughter, 45, had disconnected from the son years before, stating that she was tired of him needing all the focus on himself.) The son was in therapy, but rather than wrestling with his contributions to the difficulties, he seemed to use the therapy to gain validation that “everyone” was failing his needs.

Eventually, Johnathan and Meredith decided to step back. If they had contact with their son, they held stronger boundaries about the conversations they were not willing to have. They reported feeling much freer in their emotional lives without the “static” (as they called it) of his constant pressure to accommodate his wishes.

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Misconception 3: Estrangement is an endpoint in the family relationship process.

Some have the impression that estrangement is a total resolution—they see it as an easy way out and believe that severing the tie offers a tidy ending to a complex dynamic. But in talking with folks about their process of estrangement, I hear that they live with an endlessly shifting swirl of regrets, relief, and heartbreak.

Constance told me that estrangement felt like the only realistic way to hold onto herself. But she also stated, “Listen, it will always be a tragic part of my life. I would have loved to have a family that was caring and engaged. I didn’t get that. I had a dad who was abusive and violent. And I’ll forever be making peace with the loss of what so many others got.”

Raksha Vasudevan wrote about this directly when she wrote, “Estrangement is the only way to keep from being a stranger to myself.” That’s the cost brutal family dynamics can exact: making one choose between family connections that are so very damaging, or becoming estranged in a sincere bid to hold onto oneself.

It’s a choice I’ve come to respect and honor.

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