8 Things to Know if You Are Thinking About Estrangement

6 min read
Photograph by Harant Khachatry. Copyright free. Unsplash

Source: Photograph by Harant Khachatry. Copyright free. Unsplash

Adult child-parent estrangement has suddenly emerged from the shadows and become, if not the talk of the town, a subject that is being discussed on social media. Not surprisingly, when a taboo subject gets dragged into the light, there’s a fair amount of disinformation and hand-wringing. While the culture remains pretty much on the estranged parents’ side, there is suddenly a lot of pushback, especially on social media, where “narcissist” has become, wrongly, a synonym for “bad person” and “toxic” can be used to describe a parent who refused to buy you a convertible or buy your first house. There’s a lot of alarmism with people declaring an “epidemic of estrangement,” but honestly, since the emotional toll estrangement usually takes is huge, I find it difficult to believe.

That said, there are, indeed, families in which the dynamics are sufficiently stubborn and damaging to the adult child (and his/her partner, spouse, or perhaps offspring), that estrangement ends up being seriously considered.

I estranged from my sole surviving parent just short of my 39th birthday, over 35 years ago. It was a decision I’d been wrestling with for just short of 20 years. Since then, I have continued to read the newest research on patterns of estrangement and have heard from hundreds of people, if not thousands, who have wrestled with the decision.

Following are some observations you should keep in mind if you are thinking about, or seriously considering, estrangement from a parent or parents.

8 Things You Need to Know (and Understand) When Considering Estrangement

Despite the cultural tropes about the ungrateful/neurotic/entitled adult child estranging in a fit of pique, the chances are good that you have tried setting boundaries with your parents, tried initiating discussions, and done what you can to minimize contact and opportunities for discord and continued abuse. You have tried various options, but nothing has really delivered. The chances are good that even if you’ve discussed strategies with a therapist, nothing much has worked since. Alas, it is a truism that the only person you can change is you.

So, in no particular order, I offer up what I have learned from my own experiences, psychological research, and the experiences of readers to help you navigate what is, indeed, a painful and bumpy road.

1. Estrangement does not heal you.

Healing is a completely separate process. This is unfortunate but true. Estrangement gives you room to breathe and think and assess, especially if you have been actively under fire (scapegoated), ignored (so that your neediness and reactivity are crazy high), or you have been effectively shut out. While some people report great initial relief at estrangement, they are surprised by the waves of loss that may engulf them later; others feel the loss immediately and feel no relief. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all here; each of us is on his-or-her own.

2. You never estrange just from your parents.

There are many dynamics that follow estrangement, but the dynamics are energized by spin and enlisting people to the parental team. The chances are good that unless one parent is a convicted axe-murderer, you will be on the losing side of the smear campaign. Do keep in mind that some parents have called employers, the schools their grandchildren attended, given speeches in churches, and more. If you have siblings, get ready for the choosing of sides. People guard their family narratives fiercely, and sometimes, it is also true that your siblings did not experience what you did. They may have been favorites, for example, and treated differently, if not well.

People also tend to duck unpleasantness. Your aunts, uncles, cousins, and others may not want to play.

3. Healing is a separate process.

Recognizing the maladaptive coping mechanisms you learned in childhood is hard work, as is unlearning them. Then, too, there is the inevitable inventory of what you didn’t learn in childhood. All of this is best accomplished with the help of a gifted therapist.

4. Dealing with anger is a significant issue for many.

While some feel relieved, many others struggle with anger. Angrer is a yin-yang thing in that being angry at how you were treated (and feeling the sting of the unfairness of it all) is crucial to combatting normalization and denial (and hopefulness), staying angry is another matter. And, of course, anger at your parent ties you to him or her at the very moment that you are seeking to be free.

5. It’s normal to want “validation,” but you shouldn’t depend on it.

Family members, even siblings, don’t just have different recollections but, often, different experiences. The adult child who’s considering estrangement understandably sometimes canvasses for support among relatives. This is usually not just counterproductive but tends to promote even more taking sides. The only person you need to validate your experience is you.

6. It’s likely that you will cycle in and out of estrangement over time.

A number of studies confirm robust anecdotal findings about periods of re-connection followed by another estrangement. Sometimes, this has to do with readiness or the continuation of what I call the “core conflict” in my work—the recognition of mistreatment pitted against the hopefulness that it can somehow be fixed. Other times, a change in an aging parent’s health or some other life change may spark an end to no contact. These cycles tend not to end in true reconciliation unless both parties are committed and, more importantly, have availed themselves of therapy.

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7. Estrangement is both personal and individual, and there are many variations.

There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all generalization that adds to our understanding except that, for most people, the move toward full and permanent estrangement is usually decades in the making.

8. Mourning the parent you deserved is an important step to take.

It’s counterintuitive, but even when an adult child chooses estrangement, the feelings of loss may be overwhelming, including the loss of what you needed in childhood and never got. These aren’t the kinds of losses you can just soldier through. As I detail in my book Daughter Detox, actively mourning the mother you deserved, in ways more literal than not, even if your mother is still living, will help you heal. As always, seek the support of a therapist as needed.

The ideas and research in this post are drawn from my books Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

Copyright © Peg Streep

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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