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Mental Health Impact of Estrangement

By Marie Morin October 13, 2022 Family

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.

The Emotional Toll Is Unbearable

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.

Short-Term Psychological Effects of Estrangement

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.

Long-Term Psychological Effects of Estrangement

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.

What to Do If You Need Support

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.

How To Move Forward

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.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

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.

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carrie barrett

Im currently stuck in this in between. I used to have a close relationship with my dad but now its in shambles and everything I thought I knew about him is different and he views me as a failure instead of a daughter that he’s proud of. This happened in conjunction with another traumatizing event of having the profit from my house, which was my entire life savings, swindled by my realtor. The realtor achieved this by telling lies and convincing my parents that I was some sort of criminal/or drug addict…Im not really sure, because noone approaches me directly with it, just snide comments and put downs. the biggest problem of all, is that I had to move in with my parents to sell the house, along with my fiance and 1 year old son (i’m 38) instead of temporary, its now indefinite because I have no money, my credit is destroyed, my fiance and I are suffering untold amounts of stress, depression and anxiety that its hard to function. OUr poor son….we are doing the best we can, but I wanted so much more for him. 3 people crammed in a single room because its to stressful to be around my parents, yet we have no means of really leaving yet…Its so aweful!


Well all family crisis’ are complicated to unravel, and horrible to live within. There are always a lot of rip tides and cross currents under the surface. You obviously have been to the law, and also to the real estate licensing board, to report a fraud. However, I question why your father would take the word of a stranger over his daughter? What’s behind all that? Also, are you and your fiancé employed, and able to move to your own home? Being economically dependent puts you in a weak position. I think that you need to get to the bottom of all of this, maybe with the help of a family counselor. It’s too complicated to solve by yourself.


I believe there was an August, 2022 article in Atlantic Magazine that discussed the terrible toll of family estrangement. I seem to remember that 27% of respondents in a poll reported being estranged from a family member. That figure was considered to be an underestimation because so many people are ashamed to admit to being estranged. There is a stigma attached to it. It’s hellish, no doubt about that. The estrangement of close relatives is much, much harder than for distant ones. It’s perplexing that we, as a society, can’t be taught a middle way through problematic relationships. Total estrangement seems primitive and cruel.


If my son cut me off because I was toxic, I could accept that, because I deal with those same issues with my own mother at age 60. I’ve chosen not to estrange myself from my parents. I would change my behaviors with my son if he felt that i was acting in problematic ways, but he has never explained why he felt it necessary to cut me off. While it breaks my heart, what bothers me more is that he finds it appropriate to be so rude to anyone to completely ignore texts and checks. He is a grown man who knows better.


I empathize with you Sandi. We all do the best we can. It is different when we are well as opposed to when we are broken, in pain or ill. Your son may have found it necessary to do what he did to survive and free himself in the only way it might have been possible for him given the circumstances and what only he knew he was experiencing in his mind, heart, body and soul.
Whatever anybody says or does has nothing really to do with us, it is their own narrative in their own mind that causes them to be overreactive or rude or cruel.
That is where learning to not take things personally which is a process, especially with our children can help reduce the suffering this causes us.
That intergenerational history of family traumas is painful stuff to go through, let alone learning new effective habits and ways to behaviorally be in our interpersonal relationships, especially with our loved ones. Working with an excellent certified DBT clinican over a few years and her teaching and coaching me with DBT which is the best solution focused effective therapy I have ever experienced in my 65 years of being alive. Fundamentally life changing!


He does not owe you an explanation. You admit to being abusive.He’s not “being rude” he’s cut you off. He’s a grown man, capable of making the best decisions for himself. You’re cut off. If you persist in contacting him when he’s made it clear with silence he doesn’t want to communicate with you, that is abusive behavior and harrassment. Being his mother gives you no right to disrespect his boundaries. Obviously you do, and that’s why now you find yourself cut off.


I do agree with the discussion as I am going through the same phase . Lost my dearest brother. The other family members have completely cut themselves off,reason unknown ,which is even more disturbing.ive been through a lot these past 3 years . Trouble is ,I breakdown off n on. Want to control myself, but just can’t avoid . Terribly lonely.adivise please


Sending you so much love and hugs Rafia! I was in a similar situation. The loneliness comes and goes, but I try to remind myself every day that “this too shall pass” xo


My life would have been sooo completely different and much healthier I believe if I had known how to literally separate not be in any relationship with my very toxic dysfunctional family who still sadly continues to live in denial!
It is never too late to change! I am grateful that I made peace within with my parents before they crossed over. The last 2 years with my father were a blessed healing. He had advanced dementia, yet, was able to still recognize and cvisited te with me. He fortunately was jolly, remorseful (apologized) and grateful for the time we had together when I visited. The last time I saw my mother and said goodbye when my older sister moved her away from her best friend of 50 years was a sweet few days and a nice goodbye. She lived another 7 years, and I spoke with her a few times more. Yet, choose not to call her anymore as she had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde narcissistic personality. It caused me more suffering than not, ALL of my life! So that freedom and time apart started my healing. My sister said she died bitterly and was not surprised as even the days, weeks that lead up to her death she was angry and bitter! Very very sad that she couldn’t find the courage to let go to heal before she passed.

I am profoundly grateful I am still here to share this, especially to anyone young people who it may resonate with this and can only hope it gives them great pause to do whatever it takes to protect your precious spirits, bodies, minds and souls and to treasure and honor what you know to be true for your precious life and go for it with all you’ve got! There are sooo many ways to create one’s life worth living. For me it was being lead to an extraordinarily gifted certified DBT clinican and program for 2 years. The skillsets were fundamentally life changing and gave me the ability to do the deeper work of going to the places that scare me most which has been my deep hurt, pain and sadness. The truth will set you free!

Angela Weber

Estrangement is not the only way. Problematic relationships don’t have to be black and white, all or nothing. There’s a gray area where boundaries are respected, and flashpoints are avoided.I have found that meeting in a public place, on an occasional basis, over a restaurant meal preserves some civility and polite discourse.


I hear you Angela and agree it doesn’t have to be B or W. That was not my intention in writing this. For me this is coming from my own personal experience and I’m just sharing what I learned was true for me. For me the journey to discovering this was a spiritual lesson about learning to value, respect and honor my true self, my sensitive spirit, to protect myself, even if that means to end a relationship. Happy that you are doing and creating what works for you.

Angela Weber

I really respect that you have found a life strategy that works for you. The mentally ill are rarely likable, and all too often treatment doesn’t work for them. Unfortunately, in such circumstances, it’s more than just a difficult personality or a sibling rivalry. It’s just so darn sad.


Thank you. My life strategies are an evolving, changing, developing and growing thing as nothing in life is permanent. We all certainly now have had the direct experience to realize this from Covid.

I disagree with you regarding mental illness! I have volunteered for over 30 years to help many underserved people including the homeless and have found this is a myth about mental illness! I have met, worked with and known some extraordinary people and minds who have suffered greatly, have recovered from the severity of their mental illnesses, etc. People who were incarcerated and in a criminal state hospital and now thriving in their life and sharing their moving stories. It saddens me when I hear people stigmatize mental illness, the myths people have about diet culture, etc. These assumptions cause ALL kinds of suffering in this young nation. I read a small wise book many years ago that enlightened/deepened my awareness. I am externally grateful for Don Miguel Ruiz wisdom that he shares in his book, The Four Agreements. Hope you take time to read it and may be benefit you and your life.


Oh, for sure! I too have seen a renewal of the mentally ill to health. What I intended to say, (and didn’t do a very good job of it) is that sometimes estrangement is the only tool left in the toolbox if a person cannot cope with a mentally ill family member who remains untreated, or is untreatable. For example, my old friend has a relative who is violently mentally ill. Not much more can be done for him, so for her own safety she has distanced herself. Another neighbor was stabbed by a child who was experiencing psychosis. These are extreme examples and more than a family feud.

The Author

Marie Morin is a therapist and wellness coach at Morin Holistic Therapy. She helps women develop a daily self-care routine, so they overcome perfectionism and limiting beliefs and be their most confident selves. Marie is a grateful blogger and YouTuber. Find out more at and contact her at

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