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.
I had had enough of the way my body, mind and spirit was heading so I called my Dr. I’m starting talk therapy, exercise therapy, journaling therapy and all the things that bring me help, support and clarity. 🗣🚶♀️📔🕯🧘🏼♀️🍦💐🌅🌄 ☮️❤️🙏
That’s wonderful. I’m progressing a little slower.
Sounds like you’re making positive choices in your life. I think the therapies you are starting would be helpful to everyone and applaud you for taking the bull by the horns and dealing with your issues in a positive way. Good for you!
I AM a retired therapist. Estranged from my adult daughter, up and down for atleast20 year. Yes I went to Therapy, she went to therapy…. It helps, then it doesn’t unless you are committed to doing what is best FOR YOU. And my friends called me a Victim… 🤣that quickly got me moving , and a horribly painful visit to see 17 yr old twins. She never listed to jut words, she would move away if I sat close, or even leave the room. At a HS FOOTBALL, game a friend of hers woul walk up she would not say this is Bella’s granmother. Many other moments happened, it washer 23 anniversary “you again have caused chaos during what should be enjoyable” words of disrespect,hateful thoughts verbalized , . This time too much. I knew it would be my last visit at her home. I have been physically and mentally abused, but this time, I will not be the victim . She always throws a few crumbs to me,” are you still there!” Have nottexed her back,sent me pics of the things, her usual hook.it’s Thanksgiving, I NEVER GO THEIR, always hopingnop .so for last 2 years I go out with dear friends to livelydinner. Then it’s CHRISTMAS, did not go last because I really was sick. So, did not see them till my bday dec29. Just opened presents Christmas and bday at their hotel room. “ oh, I thought your friends would take you out.fun time, lots of misery? NOT HIS YEAR! So excited will be 80, having fun decorating my little cottage, love Christmas lights! Fly to my special place SantaFe, a room diwntown. Fly out Christmas Day. Come home, have a New Years party seafood time, a giant fire pit where I will burn 50 years of Journaling…… TURN LEFT GUYS, as you do floor the gas!! Welcome back to life
I have not had a relationship with my 3 older siblings since our older sister died 9 years ago. It’s complicated but they were never “here” for her or me. Their actions and words always made my dear sister and I feel not good enough. They never made us feel loved. They were always critical and highly judgmental and thought they were so much better than either of us. I miss my sister every day, but not the other 3. I tell myself it’s hard to miss something that was never there. They brought nothing happy to my life. My sister gave me something they never did, unconditional love. I have beautiful memories of my sister that will live with me forever. She was never a part of their lives so they have no memories. I consider them toxic and while I will always love them, I do not like them.
Hugs to you rhoda💕 you are a warrior
I have moved forward, after reaching out to my estranged son by letter and a direct message on his ring doorbell, to say that we love him and wish him well in where he goes or what he does and that our door remains open. I had no reply but my conscience is clear. I know he is moving away to another county, a 2 hour drive taking our grandchildren, that we have been prevented from seeing for over 1 year.
Both my husband and myself are getting used to retirement, pleasing ourselves with what we do and with whom. Our lives are no longer dictated by our estranged son and we are finding ourselves as individuals – not parents, not colleagues, not child minders or bank of Mum and Dad.
Therapy taught me that we cannot control our adult children and the decisions they make. Their behaviours are their business, not ours and one day, maybe, with maturity, they may wish to return to being part of our family, but if not, we can’t force it, but should not burden ourselves with guilt that is not ours to own. We have done a good job bringing our children up, and now they can go out into the world, managing whatever comes their way, in the knowledge that we haven’t accused them of anything, or blamed them for their estrangement or narcistic coldness, only loved and supported them.
Thank you for sharing. One of my sons has been estranged for years and my other two children bounce in and out depending on their needs. I’ve been single for years, so their actions have been devastating to my mental and physical well being especially since it’s severed my ties to my grandchildren. I keep trying to move pass the hurt but it’s been a slow process. I’m glad that you shared and hopefully one day, I’ll find peace with it all as well.
I am in the throes of intense cPTSD that I didn’t even know I had until my son cut me off on my bday 16.5 months ago. I’ve searched in vain for a trauma therapist that accepts Medicare – I am alone, broke, etc. etc.
No matter. I need to find my way back to life.
I truly just plain don’t care about anything. The house is a filthy disaster, no clean undies, broken electrical, bathroom sinks don’t work.
Last night I finally slept 2 nights in a row for the first time in 5 years. I have lost 30 lbs. (now 100#) and need to find my way back to wanting and enjoying food.
I don’t know what I have done to be cut off. I literally have amnesia for the 4 months following being cut off. He bought a house (mansion and acreage) but refused to tell me where they were moving in 2 weeks. I do know that is the last conversation we had. I know I sobbed through it but said all those things one should like, “Congratulations!” and “Wow! That’s a big house!”.
I feel broken and so very lost but I keep trying to be “me” every day. I am afraid to go out. Waiting rooms have brought on panic attacks/crying meltdowns that I can’t stop once they begin.
Stock tip: buy stock in kleenex! It’s going up based just on my own increased use!.
Beware of physical health consequences. After several years of an estrangement I developed a cardiac condition called takotsubo syndrome, also known as broken heart syndrome. It’s quite serious and typically strikes women after a traumatizing event.
I think I also have broken heart syndrome after the last argument I had because at 68 years old and an accident with a fractured ankle and tendon and ligament damage couldn’t babysit my daughters small children 14 months, 3 and 5 year old.
Both my daughters turned against me and I was verbally abused by one and both failed to even wish me Happy Mothers Day.
I ended up with high blood pressure and chest pains and now on blood pressure medication.
Yet still estranged…booked to see a cardiologist next week
I have been separated from my son for 5 years since he got married. I know his wife made him choose between me and her. I miss them both and have forgiven her.
This dynamic happens so often. It’s agonizing, but the estranger has been convinced by the popular media that it’s an OK thing to do to someone. In fact, it’s a horrible thing to do, and ruins lives. There is a middle way.