Estrangement describes the condition where a person experiences physical and/or emotional distance from one or more family members. If you’ve been estranged, someone decided that leaving the relationship was a necessary act of self-preservation.
Perhaps you have cut ties with a family member because being in their presence was harmful for you. The many estrangement stories are as individual as the people who tell them. The common theme is the mental health impact family rifts cause. This article explores the long and short-term psychological effects of cutting family ties.
Estranged family members, parents of adult children, adult children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles bear the weight of dismantled families.
The emotional toll can include depression, anxiety, hopelessness, ruminating thoughts, chronic stress, and feelings of grief, and loss. Persistent grief or complicated grief describes the state of extended grieving that impairs normal functioning. Many describe these strong feelings and states as unbearable.
As a therapist, I hear the cries of family members who are missing the connection they once enjoyed. They think about what went wrong, they struggle with grief and a lot of anger. We work together to make sense of what has happened to them and pick up the pieces one tear at a time.
The word unbearable describes intolerable, insufferable, and unsupportable pain. Estrangement is all these states that tear at the very fabric of the human need to be in close connection with our family of origin.
For individuals who choose to estrange, the breaking of ties can come with a sense of relief. However, research suggests that although cutting ties was to self-preserve, the loss of family support leaves a gap in one’s emotional need for family belonging.
At first, estrangement causes feelings of grief and loss. The estrangement condition often begins with signs of grief, including, shock, anger, denial, guilt, bargaining, and acceptance. The stages are not linear but usually one begins to find some relief from the bolt of being cut off around six months.
We feel shocked and want or need to avoid the feelings associated with the person and the cut-off.
Feelings of denial include avoidance, procrastination, forgetfulness, confusion, numbness, distractibility, and excessive busyness. Denial is a coping mechanism used to avoid the pain of the cut-off.
Irritability, resentment, frustration, rage, embarrassment, emotional dysregulation, and negative outlook are versions of feeling angry. When we cope with anger, we are expressing a reaction to the extreme hurt we are struggling to make sense of and understand.
When we process the grief of being estranged, we cope by overthinking and perhaps feeling shame. We may be stuck in a loop of self-incriminating thoughts and land in heaps of guilt. We can take on a posture of blame while comparing ourselves to others.
Insecurity, fear, and anxiety can be overwhelming, so many cope with ruminating thoughts of “If only I did this…” or “I should have done that.”
The short-term effect of estrangement commonly presents with feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and overwhelm. The experience of depression can present as isolation, crying, sleeping too much or not enough, lack of motivation, low energy, and increased drug and alcohol use.
Anxiety is a common companion of depression with worry of the future relationship and uncertainty of the outcome. The ambiguous nature of family rifts naturally creates uneasiness and fear. The mental distress involves feeling ill equipped to cope with the magnitude of the threat of the damaged relationship.
Hopefully, the bombardment of flooding negative emotions diminishes, and we find ourselves wanting to live again. As part of a continued attempt to make sense or process the cut-off, and despite the loss of our loved one, we choose instead to succumb. Perhaps one day we wake up and decide it is time to paint again. We begin paining a scene where we move forward without our loved one.
We find self-compassion, practice mindfulness, create new relationships, we seek our dreams. We laugh again. Within us springs up the courage to trust again.
It is normal to experience the strong emotions of grief when we lose someone to estrangement. Feelings can come in waves and surprise you. You may feel like you have made great strides and then a movie stirs up something. You may cry again or feel angry. But you have learned to notice this familiar companion as a temporary visitor and bid it goodbye and continue to move forward.
The dissolving of a family can cause chronic stress, feelings of rejection, and ambiguous loss. The uncertainty of what will happen in the future complicates the condition. If unresolved grief lingers and is left untreated, forward movement is stalled. Persistent grief or complex grief is when the loss process is extended, and suffering is prolonged.
Perhaps ruminating thoughts of conditions outside of one’s control hinder our forward movement. Chronic stress is the result of strong emotional upheaval that impacts one’s physical health. Prolonged overwhelm can cause body aches, confusion, social isolation, and insomnia.
Estrangement can be traumatizing. We can be stunned with the emotional rejection and be stuck in overwhelming feelings. Trauma describes the emotional distress we feel when we are unable to cope. We may cope with unhealthy means such as substance use, overworking, avoidance, and retracting from social engagements.
If you’ve been struggling with short-term or long-term effects of estrangement, getting support is a healthy move forward. Humans have biases and blindsides. When we seek out professional help, we are giving ourselves a huge gift of self-care.
Therapists are trained to come alongside their clients in a non-judgmental supportive manner. A skilled professional will gently guide you to gain insight, so you process and find joy again.
Find support and stay connected to friends and those who love and value you. Treat yourself as a dear friend and be generous with self-compassion.
Recommit to those activities you enjoy. Practice self-care that includes honoring your mind, body, emotions, and spirit. Be active by walking or exercising regularly.
Mental health is how we cope with adversity and challenges. We can find the courage to move forward one small step each day. It is normal to be upset and overwhelmed over the loss of a close family relationship. The great gift we give ourselves is to honor where we are and remind ourselves to do the best we can every day.
Estrangement is possibly one of the most challenging conditions. The short-term and long-term effects can be devastating and widespread.
Twenty-seven percent of the United States population report being cut off from a family member. Researchers believe the actual number is much higher since individuals are reluctant to share that their family is not intact.
Processing emotions is hard work. You have been courageous before, resurrect that same courage. Healing can hurt, the results may not be what you wanted, but you will survive it.
What have you done to move forward in your estrangement? What has helped you get unstuck from your estrangement? Please share how therapy has helped you to move forward.