Estrangement – what an ugly, harsh-sounding word. Jarring to the ears, in fact.

The dictionary definition of estrangement is “to turn away in feeling or affection, make unfriendly or hostile, alienate the affections of.”

Estrangements are shrouded in secrecy and shame. Estrangement is a stigma.

Those who have experienced estrangement, either as the one who cut off the relationship or as the one who had the relationship cut off by someone else, all share one thing in common: a sense of being alone.

Statistics, however, do not bear out this assumption.

According to Karl Pillemer, PhD, in his newly released book, Fault Lines – Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, over one quarter of Americans surveyed reported currently being estranged from a relative – translating into 67 million people.

The Triggers

What leads a person to break off a key connection? There are many reasons, including:

  • One is done trying to make the relationship better.
  • Lack of desire to further accommodate demands.
  • Done overlooking intolerable behavior.
  • No wish to keep apologizing for a different lifestyle.
  • Done ignoring disrespect for a spouse or partner.

Often one key event usually triggers the estrangement.

Pillemer notes that there has been a dramatic increase in the human life span. Therefore, the amount of time children spend as adult offspring can likely be 30 to 50 years. Thus, our family relationships – whether positive, negative, or both – affect us for many decades.

Past conflicts, violated and/or unmet expectations, the lasting effects of divorce, in-law issues, money and inheritance, unmet expectations, and value and lifestyle differences are all fertile areas of estrangement cultivation.

The Effects of Estrangement

Estranged parties share many of the same emotions. They feel deep sadness and a rudderless feeling of loss which often leads to chronic stress and separation anxiety. The pain from rejection is real and intensified due to the physical absence but psychological presence.

Unfortunately, estrangement does not just stop with the family members intimately involved. The entire family/kinship network often feels the ripple effect. The collateral damage spreads far, wide, and deep.

There is disruption of social capital resources – sources of financial and practical support that family members could tap into if the rupture were not present.

Let’s face it: Estrangement jumpstarts tiny earthquake-like ripples. A tradition of exclusion and isolation ushers in. Family members often have to choose one family member over the other. Nasty damages to generations can ensue – spewing spite and bitterness among the relatives.

Slow-Building Estrangement

Many estrangements spring from the explosive power of a single event, but in fact may have been building up for years or decades as a long history of pain and disappointments. Whether it’s a pivotal incident or an accumulation of hurts, people in estranged situations often echo many of the same thoughts:

  • It never stops hurting.
    • It’s taken 10-20 years off my life.
    • The estrangement is an open wound.
    • There is a sadness in me that just won’t go away.
    • I lost faith and trust in myself.
    • It’s like a death, but with no funeral or closure.

I remember years ago, when I was married to my first husband, traveling regularly from Florida to Ohio with my two small sons to visit my parents.

Saying goodbye after an extended stay in my hometown was agonizing – my mother would cry uncontrollably and lament the unfairness of me living nearby my husband’s family and not my own.

In those moments, all I wanted to do was distance myself from her pain as quickly as possible. And the more miles that separated us, the calmer I felt.

Estrangement Is Toxic

Estrangement between any two family members is a culmination of a long history of tension and disappointment, notes Pillemer. It is significant and widely toxic.

The dreaded phrase uttered from one family member to another: “I never want to see you again,”is a phrase that too often ushers in a formal declaration of estrangement and collateral damage for generations to come.

It, says Pillemer, is a “before and after moment in which everything changes irrevocably.” Angry rumination follows – as does silence, stand-offs, and stonewalling. Past history shifts as it in interpreted in light of the volcanic event.

Is It Possible to Mend a Relationship?

Fortunately, there are those who are able to bridge their rifts. It doesn’t happen because their situations are easy to resolve. Actually, the driving point is the personal benefit of ending the estrangement – of dropping the weight of anger, hurt feelings, and negativity that had plagued them for years.

They do it for themselves.

What Goes into It?

In estrangements, both parties have composed narratives that support their sense of self and the way they think about the relationship. Estranged individuals often disagree dramatically on the meaning of the pivotal event.

Those who are able to reconcile (Pillemer refers to them as Reconcilers) let go of both the need to align the two versions of the past and to agree on the past. Starting from the present is the key. (And individual counseling and therapy invariably helps this process.)

How to Cross the Chasm

First, successful reconcilers change their expectations. They stop expecting the other person to become someone he or she is not. Also, they stop expecting that person to live up to their values.

Both parties have to settle for less than they desire to restore the relationship – moving from seeking an ideal relationship to realistically attempting the best connection possible.

And second, successful reconcilers share common tools. They are able to set clear limits and boundaries, while making sure their own needs are met. They protect themselves by realizing “you can go home again, but it well may be a different ‘home’.”

Whichever it is, it’s definitely worth preserving.

If you have experienced familial estrangement, what has helped you mend the rift? What advice would you give others in this situation? How can you prevent the breaking-off of relations? Please share your thoughts and tips with the community.

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