Family Estrangement: How Healing Begins


let people go

Family estrangement is an extremely painful, difficult and shocking situation to cope with.

It is especially traumatic to be the one who is left behind.

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 Short

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.”






This entry was posted on Friday, August 8th, 2014 at 12:27 pm and is filed under Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.



While I don't publish all comments, I welcome and appreciate your feedback and participation. If you'd prefer to keep your comment 'private,' please use my contact form (located on my website menu) and indicate this. I will happily respond to all comments and questions.

  1. January 4th, 2015 | jackie says:

    Finally, I read something on this issue which helps the victims of family estrangement!

  2. January 6th, 2015 | abby says:

    Glad it was helpful to you Jackie. It’s – sadly – a much more common issue than people realize.

  3. January 4th, 2015 | jackie says:

    Good article on difficult but common subject.

  4. January 9th, 2015 | M. Burgueno says:

    I have found your article with interest and greatly appreciate it.

  5. August 8th, 2015 | Shelley says:

    I write this through tearful eyes. Thank you thank you thank you! For helping me and shedding light on this type of situation within families. I personally had one that “adopted” me when I was a young girl. They were my boyfriend(husband now) family. His mom and sister. They led me to believe that no matter what I would’ve always be a part of them. A part of their family. Situations arose that I was not directly related to but was one that knew the”truth” to what was really going on. I have been told such hateful things and told such hurtful words and told I am no longer a part of their lives. I apologized so many times for what I really am not sure of completely only to fall on deaf ears and cold hearts.
    Never a response. Not even one. Until I needed help. A quick place to stay with my children. I was told my children could stay but that I could not and am no longer a part of their life.
    I am unbelievably devastated still. It’s been more than a year or two and I don’t know how to move on because I love them so much. And always will. 💔

    Your supportive words and incredible explanations have meant more to me than you will ever realize. Thank you for taking the time to have written this for the benefit of others.

    Many Blessings To You😇and yours🙏🏼

  6. August 11th, 2015 | abby says:

    Hi Shelley:

    I sympathize with you entirely. I know first hand what you are going through. It appears that when something sinister is revealed in a family, it’s only a matter of time (unless the family decides to be proactive and face the music together lovingly) that the whole family will end up in tatters. It’s a tragic situation, sad and unbelievably painful to experience, as you have suggested. But, in the end, you have to reach a point of acceptance. People who are capable of hurting you so badly, when you are not to blame, know full well that they have abandoned and rejected you. They have proven that they are willing… to let you go. That’s not love. It’s not “family.” You will (and hopefully have found) love and acceptance elsewhere – from your children, from dear friends. I sincerely hope that is the case. It is only with love and acceptance to yourself, and from others, that you can develop strength. But the shock of how you have been treated never quite goes away. And others will never understand how a ‘family’ could treat another family so badly, so recklessly, so cruelly. It is the ultimate betrayal. I hope you were able to read my scapegoating post, too. Sounds like you are indeed the scapegoat. Wishing you much strength, xo

  7. August 18th, 2015 | Beccalynn says:

    SO GOOD!!! It took me years to recognize the Emotional Cut off. Once I did and accepted it, communication naturally grew less and less. Of course this caused them to accuse me of the cut off and validated their premise.

    It was the most painful thing I’ve walked through. It still aches, but in the acceptance a “new normal” is becoming possible with them.

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one in this place of ambiguity.

  8. August 18th, 2015 | abby says:

    Hi Beccalynn:

    Thanks so much for your comment. So sorry you have been through this. But in the end, if a family history, circumstance or situation is so dire that estrangement has to result, it’s very serious. No one ‘wants’ estrangement from family. It happens because all other avenues have been attempted, right? I’m sure you’ve done all you can. I hope you can find peace in this ambiguity; that’s exactly the right word. Keep me posted.

  9. August 19th, 2015 | Beccalynn says:

    The whole process began 20 years ago when I gave birth to my oldest. My Mother wasn’t “ready to be a Grandmother.” I spent 15 years trying to make it work. With each attempt I was told by my parents and two of my sisters-what I was doing wrong. How I was inappropriate. OR…

    I came to a point, as the kids grew more aware of the situation that I either needed to accept the distance they asked of me or continue attempting to mend the relationship. As I created healthy boundaries for myself they became more reticent and difficult. Slowly I accepted the silence and stopped fighting for the relationship. In a way, to let the sleeping dog alone.

    After five years they became angry that I “cut them off.” Only when my youngest sister began having kids was my Mom interested in being a grandmother to my now teens. This year my Mother asked me to explain the “recent” disconnect in our relationship. When I told her it has been 20 years, she was shocked. We agreed to work on a new normal. It is tense and awkward because of the years and the kids’ pain about the whole thing. The relationship with two of my sisters is non-existent, even at times comical.

    ALL of that to say, God has been faithful over the years to provide me with “family” when I needed it. God has provided beautiful Aunties, Nuncles and Friendcousins to fill in the places. It’s been a long, hard road but I’ve found a peace, grace and joy in the midst.

  10. July 25th, 2016 | Carol says:

    I realize this is an older article. Ive only just stumbled upon it. I haven’t seen or heard from my 25 year old daughter in over two years now. Long story short, after consulting with a family therapist and after being approached by her college friends who where worried about her, we had to go to our daughter with the concerns we had. We found out about her drug addiction of she and her boyfriend and were told by her friends and later confirmed by finding journals she left behind that her boyfriend was physically abusing her. Our intervention was angrily rebuked (as the therapist warned us wAs possible) and she told us to never contact her again. The only communication we have had was a text from her abusive boyfriend right after that promising us that we will never see her again. We haven’t. No one has. Not even her friends. Im told in therapy to let it go. I don’t know how to let go. I don’t know that I can survive this. I’m trying so hard.

  11. September 6th, 2016 | abby says:

    Hi Carol:

    I am so sorry that you are dealing with this. This is really tough stuff. All I can say is that you need help, support and guidance, and being told to “Let it Go” is not help, support or guidance. It is a cop-out; it’s the easy quick answer. It isn’t an answer. I have written about “how to find a good therapist” in one of my blog posts. It’s not easy to find a therapist who fits a specific need. You need to do lots of research to find the right one. And sometimes you need hand holding from a therapist, sometimes you need tough love. I’d say you need some major hand holding. You can’t “let this go” without compassion and guidance from a professional. You also have to try – very hard – not to blame yourself. I would urge you to try guided meditations to calm your nerves. They are amazing. (I have a blog post detailing some excellent ones.) Or try the “cutting cords” technique, which is not about ending the relationship, but changing your perception of it (a visualization technique.) You have to work hard to find what calms YOU. You can’t change the other person, only yourself, and provided that your relationship had a reasonably healthy foundation, this situation is unlikely to last forever. Things in life change. Often for the better. Constantly. I hope you can remember that.

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