Family Estrangement: How Healing Begins
It is especially traumatic to be the one who is left behind, left alone.
It may be impossible to accept that the people you thought loved you may not ‘love you’ at all.
“The ones who love you will never leave you. Even if there are a hundred reasons to give up, they will find one reason to hold on.”
Not so with estrangement.
“Emotional cutoff,” (a label developed by American psychiatrist Murray Bowen) is what estrangement is: dealing with unsolved emotional family problems by reducing or eliminating contact.
Why Does Family Estrangement Happen?
Family members sometimes stop speaking to each other for trivial, petty or childish reasons.
Says Jinny Ditzler: “Sometimes the source is an argument that goes too long without an apology. Others ‘stick their nose in another family member’s business’. Often it seems to be about money.”
This post is not about petty estrangements. Minor ones are nothing to scoff at. But they offer a shot at reconciliation, because the issues involved may not run too deep.
This is Different
With serious estrangement, family members cease communication and may even scapegoat individual members to hide and mask longstanding issues in the family, such as sexual abuse, physical violence, betrayal, or cruelty.
They know no other way.
“When people cannot use words, they resort to actions that symbolize the intensity of their emotions about a particular issue: severing ties with one another,” says Mark Sichel.
And It Doesn’t Happen Overnight
It’s a process. It happens over time.
“For many,” says Sichel, “going off speaking terms is the final scene – a way to exit stage left and put an end to the anguish.”
Estrangement is not a healthy, productive way to address family dysfunction.
In worst cases, it also may be the only way the estrangement victim can be liberated from toxic treatment, hurt and pain.
Why Would Anyone Willingly Leave Their Family?
No one does willingly. We all need and desire family love.
Estrangement happens because something in the family is seriously wrong.
Learning to accept and cope with estrangement, as a victim, is where the healing process and hardest work begins – especially if you are the one betrayed or scapegoated.
The Realities – Straight Up
1. If you are the one left behind, estrangement from ‘family’ is traumatic. You may need professional help to cope.
2. Unless you are a criminal, have stolen, lied, cheated, or worse, the reasons you’ve been abandoned by your family (when you’re the victim of mistreatment) may not make sense.
3. Reconciliation is rarely sought in worst case scenarios, because family members “in the wrong” want to silence the victim, often because of shameful family secrets the victim may share.
4. Families who reject and abandon a family member may also scapegoat and vilify him or her as part of the estrangement. This is to silence the victim further, and protect the family’s reputation; to pretend to outsiders that nothing is amiss.
(This strategy doesn’t work, of course; others will notice that “one” family member seems to be missing, or left out, and many others many know the truth of ‘why.’ But scapegoating is nonetheless a powerful mode of control.)
5. Unless an already existing culture of family dysfunction can be radically improved through more respectful communication, apologies, or therapy, options are often limited for reconciling with people with whom longstanding unresolved issues exist.
6. In a healthy respectful family, where communication and honesty is encouraged, and where important issues are addressed lovingly, selected members are not arbitrarily shamed and discarded.
In families where toxic problems thrive and grow, unresolved, you, the victim, may have no choice but to let these people go.
And they may let you go. Quite willingly.
Unthinkable. But true.
If there’s a healthy way to reconcile, you will pursue it. So might they.
If not, you have to turn away.
Enduring toxic behaviour to ensure that ‘family’ will love, accept, or even talk to you is not how love works.
And those who have rejected you because they’re hiding the truth have to live with what they’ve done.
In time, you will understand that silent treatment, abandonment and betrayal is just that.
And Remember This
“Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile, and who love you no matter what.”
“Keep people in our life that truly love you, motivate you, encourage you, inspire you, enhance you, and make you happy.
If you have people in your life who do none of the above, let them go.”