Estrangement is widespread, complicated, and harms all involved. Perhaps you have chosen to cut off from a family member out of necessity. Your experience may include abuse, poor parenting, parental alienation, divorce, poor communication, disrespect, disappointments, and unmet expectations.
The worst of estrangement is abuse and its damaging long-term effects. For those who endured abusive and toxic family members, the decision to cut off is one of self-preservation.
The information in this article can be distressing. I wish we occupied a world free of the destructive behaviors humans impose on each other. However, my intention here is to both inform and ultimately provide hope.
Having witnessed the benefit of therapy and walking alongside others, I know we can be resilient. Indeed, the journey is not in taking a magic pill or wishing it so; it is a daily arduous process paved with resistance and determination.
Humans need not remain stuck but can, albeit inch by inch, recover from misfortune and learn and adapt because of the compression to live purposeful lives. Sadly, not everyone is able or willing to take the journey. They may be your relatives.
Recently, I have received comments and emails from individuals who are uncomfortable with the notion of reconciling. They should be. When an abusive family member has harmed one, there is tremendous pain, and reentering a toxic environment is unsafe. The notion of reconciling is out of the question.
One woman told me her mentally ill daughter is too erratic and unpredictable and seeing her is simply unsafe. Others are willing to reenter the relationship with boundaries, to gather with other family members on occasions or holidays.
In most cases, what precipitates an estrangement is the psychological impact. Relative to how long one is estranged is the degree of desired resolution, ranging from permanently distancing or desperate for reconciliation. Mainly if grandchildren are involved, the loss is so significant that in the absence of their focused objective occurring, some people are inconsolable.
For victims, those harmed by no fault, the abuse falls squarely on the perpetrator. Unfortunately, abuse generates psychological harm that diminishes one’s self-esteem. Abusers’ controlling and blaming behaviors cause feelings of shame and inadequacy. In addition, victims can also suffer from dysregulation or the inability to control their behaviors and reactions.
When there is a history of abuse, the notion of reconciling requires the professional guidance of a therapist and insight into the abuser’s recognition of their behaviors. More to the point, therapeutic work is essential for both parties and ensures future emotional and physical safety.
Researcher and educator Kylie Agllias, in her book Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, explains that commitment, insight, and integrity are needed to reestablish trust.
Toxic behaviors and estrangement can alter one’s mental state. Specifically, children raised in a toxic home will suffer psychological harm. Harmful behaviors include repeated encounters with a family member who is overly reactive and self-centered, consistently disapproving, and discouraging.
They can be exploitative, unable to assume responsibility for their actions, dismissive of the other’s thoughts and feelings, disrespectful of others’ boundaries, disregarding others by humiliation, and psychologically manipulating to create doubt in the other’s sanity.
Abused family members carry an enormous burden. Cutting off is acting out of self-preservation and self-defense. Toxic behaviors include the abuser standing too close in an attempt to frighten their victim and even to deny them the right to sleep.
In addition, the abuser oftentimes blames the victim for the abuse, invading personal privacy by reading mail or texts, monitoring calls, and telling others private information about the abused. The lengthy list of potential abusive behaviors family members impose parallels the harmful impact their behaviors unleash on the victim.
Survivors of abuse are more likely to suffer depression and anxiety and commit suicide. They are at greater risk for mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, complex trauma, and attachment and social difficulties. The long-term consequences can be staggering. Thirty percent of abused individuals become abusers.
Viewers of my videos on estrangement have alerted me to their experience of elder abuse – including statistics on the frequency of elder abuse for those over 60. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 5.2% report financial exploitation by family members, 60% suffer verbal abuse, and 5 to 10% suffer physical abuse.
Like abused adults and children, elder abuse occurs in relationships with an expectation of trust and safety. Individuals at greater risk of elder abuse are functionally dependent, have a mental illness, poor physical health, cognitive impairment, and low income. Long-term effects of elder abuse are early death, cognitive decline, depression, and fearfulness.
The brain’s stress response normalizes a high level of hypervigilance and distractibility. Two people in the same home with similar experiences can have very different psychological outcomes.
Dr. Bruce Perry, researcher, psychiatrist, and neuroscientist studied the effect of traumatic experiences on the brain. Trauma, according to Perry, is an “experience or pattern of experiences that impairs the proper functioning of the stress response, making it more reactive or sensitive.
Fortunately, mental health professionals better understand the relationship between trauma and the nervous system’s response. In the book What Happened to You? Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey eloquently explore how brains process past traumas, memories, and associations.
More importantly, intentional practices can retrain our brains to find new responses that lead to post-traumatic growth. In other words, one can become resilient, less reactive, and permanently walk away from the notion that something is wrong with them.
More to the point, brains are malleable. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to be influenced or trained. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk discusses innovative advancements that offer recovery from trauma by activating the brain’s neuroplasticity.
Dr. Van Der Kolk’s interventions include journal writing, practicing yoga, and dancing. He suggests artistic endeavors, EMDR-eye movement desensitization, reprocessing neurofeedback, and therapy.
Psychotherapy for trauma treatment varies according to the clinician and modality used.
Essentially, one explores their current emotional state and, through safe conversation, finds patterns associated with their past. The work occurs in the capacity and willingness to enter the uncomfortable emotions and then process towards understanding and healing.
Many individuals desire reconciliation. They want the benefits of family involvement, real or imagined. In their best form, families are supportive, welcoming, and accepting. When families are at their worst, they can be toxic and abusive.
Therapy can provide a safe, trusting environment to move away from the negative impact of abuse. Therapy is one way, not the only way. Being informed, discovering more self-compassion, journaling, meditating, practicing yoga Nidra, forgiveness, empathy, and creating boundaries, are all doors you can open. Trust yourself to know what you are ready and willing to do to heal.
Self-compassion is your key to better living. Being human, the experience of hurt is real. Practice positive self-talk that is encouraging and uplifting. Learn to treat yourself as you would a dear friend. Be compassionate in all things. Judging and criticizing are pieces of the patterns you intentionally resist. Extend kindness to yourself and view each day as an opportunity to find gratitude.
Setting clear boundaries that define what is best for you is essential when dealing with a brutal and abusive family. Determine what levels of communication, time, place, and supportive person you will have present to protect your safety.
You may need to attend a funeral or other occasion that will go better if you create a boundary. Only you know what is best for you.
Boundaries can be anxiety-provoking. You have the right to set them without guilt. Trust yourself.
Being mindful is paying attention to what you are thinking and feeling. Observe your thoughts without judgment. Remind yourself that you have done the best and are doing the best you can. Gift yourself with patience, kindness, and compassion, learn to trust yourself more, and be open to accepting what is happening to you.
Processing emotions takes acceptance of the feelings as they present themselves. Rather than moving away, permit yourself to feel. To move forward, you will want to acknowledge the feeling without self-judgment.
You can remind yourself that you will get through this as you have other challenging times. That same strength is still there. Yes, estrangement hurts badly, but it takes using your inner strength to move forward. When we move through the stages of grief, we lean towards finding our way to acceptance.
This is a tough topic to discuss. Too many have scars they never deserved. Then there are those that plodded into the journey towards resilience at their own pace. They are in our company here in this community. They are learning to speaking their voice. They discarded their shame cape. Moving forward into uncertain paths, embracing their genuine self.
Have you suffered abuse in your family? How did it affect you and your relationships? What books have helped you in your healing journey? Which practices are you enjoying?
I’m on the journey of healing, setting boundaries and giving myself self love. For a long time I lost myself in pain, disbelief after my eldest daughter turned my world upside down. She talked me into selling my home which I loved. She encouraged me to buy another place which was isolated from my amenities. In the process she took many valuable things of mine with the statement she was the eldest and entitled to these things. Her personality is very overpowering so I allowed this for the sake of peace. After I moved she came to me crying and I gave her substantial funds to help her. At the time I had cancer under going radiation. During that stage which was the last time I seen her. I never argued with her as was frightened so I was shocked when she cut all ties not allowing me to see my grandchildren. I was devastated and asked my Doctor to see a counsellor.
I had 1 year of counselling which helped me to take care of myself, set boundaries as I was still sending presents, cards etc. I wasn’t invited to any of her family functions. She even uninvited my sister and nieces on Facebook and sent emails to inform them she didn’t want me to see photos. I now realise she bullied me and unfortunately she’s now bullying my youngest daughter to punish her for having me in her life. As well as counselling I’ve also read self help books and recommend ” Codependent no More ” and attended a Codependent Group as I’ve always been a people pleaser. Now I cope much better living my best life for myself. I still feel pain lying awake at night but I’ve learnt to pray and surrender to God. I find when things go over and over in my mind I write my feelings down which helps release the hurt. It’s still a journey I’m on as there’s family who are affected when I’m not invited but I’ve requested to not get involved as I know she will make their life hard. I’m always seeking ways to cope so thanks for this site enabling us to share our journey and hopefully learn new coping strategies 🙏
My nephews have always been considered our family. My husband and I have no children. Their mom, my sister suffered a TBI in 2011. I have overstepped my bounds thinking I knew better. The estrangement is destroying me when I thought I could not take anymore. My sister has and will spend New Year with us because her sons are working and do have significant others. One of Pat’s sons has hated her prior to her injury, the other plays peacemaker. Family estrangement is a new concept to us. It’s very real and devastating. Happy New Year!
I have encountered abuse, acting like ‘caregiving’, and decided the only course of action for me was estrangement. My sister-in-law decided, after my husband’s death, that I was incapable of making decisions and needed to be “taken care” of. Within a 2-month period, she had contacted adult services, wrote a letter to the planning department saying I didn’t trust a contractor that was working on improvements, and reported me to the DMV saying I was an unsafe driver who could not control my car. All of these were investigated, with great humiliation and time, and proved false. There was no question that she was behind them.
I was hurt and furious. My contractor wanted me to sue her since she had cost him about $4,000. I thought about it for a long time and decided that I did not want a family upheaval. The family that needed to know was told why I abruptly cut off contact with her, and I did not speak to her again except at family gatherings where we are polite. I do not speak to her because the hurt and betrayal are still fresh after a year and I really don’t want to tell her what I think of her. I just have put into all legal records with my attorney, and with family, that, in NO event, is she ever to be in charge of my person or finances.
When it comes down to it, the cost of her help is not something I am willing to pay.
I’m sorry to hear that you were subjected to such abuse and having to prove yourself.
My story is not the same however we were both abused. Unfortunately family members are having no choice in what is happening to us. I do my best to not involve family or friends as it’s not their fault. My Ex and his wife are enjoying this happening as now they are the favoured parents. I sacrificed my well being to appease family so they didn’t have to choose. Now I put myself first and set boundaries. I now celebrate Xmas/ birthdays etc at separate times.
I also have put my will and organised my funeral etc with a lawyer as I know my eldest daughter will continue to cause trouble. I don’t want my youngest daughter to be exposed to that. I would be lying if I said I’m okay as I still have bad days. I’m still learning different coping strategies and doing my best to live my best life. This platform Maria provides is helping me that I’m not alone. I live hoping nothing stays the same forever 🙏