At least 27% of individuals in the United States are estranged from one or more family members. Women over 60, who culturally prefer not to air their family’s laundry, are often shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense; all the uncertainty, shame, guilt, and feelings of abandonment can take their toll.
There is a slow retreat away from talking to friends, especially if all is well in their Camelot Castle. However, keeping secrets can further complicate your well-being.
Estrangement is the relatively recent term to describe when family members experience physical and or emotional distance. Kylie Agilias, a social work researcher and educator from Australia, defines estrangement like this:
“The condition of family estrangement involves being physically and or emotionally distanced from one or more family members, either by choice or at the request or decision of the other. It is generally enacted to reduce implicit or explicit conflict, anxiety, or tension between the parties. It is characterized by a lack of trust and emotional intimacy, disparate values, and a belief that resolution is highly unlikely, unnecessary, or impossible.”
Researchers agree that family estrangement is a web of tangled circumstances that causes unequivocal emotional harm to all parties. The estranger perceives cutting off their family member necessary. The estranged must reorientate their perception and expectations based on their actions. Indeed, navigating behaviors such as being ignored, stonewalled, insulted, criticized, blamed, and abandoned add insult to injury.
Most damaging behaviors can be perceptions of inadequate parenting and accusations of abuse. Defining and clarifying abuse in many cases is in the eye of the beholder. Psychoanalyst Dr. Galit Atlas points to an uptick in younger adults who resort to alienating to protect themselves from “toxic parents.”
The strain can be heartbreaking for estranged parents, particularly those over 60. Compounding the turmoil it causes, our social upbringing has informed us that families are forever. I am sure that no one begins a family expecting it to be someday fractured.
Is it any wonder that the estranged pine for reconciliation and a return to open communication? The uncertain and eternal state of limbo can be unbearable; however, recovering your relationship is not impossible. Dr. Joshua Coleman discusses a pathway to the possibility of reuniting in his book Rules of Estrangement.
Interestingly, having been estranged himself, Dr. Coleman exposes parents’ need to justify, explain away behaviors, posture, and blame their kids for their feelings. He offers a broader perspective on the possibility of reconciling.
Making amends is often foiled due to feeling your kids will throw it in your face, inability to face your mistakes, believing you are right and they are wrong, and feeling the adult child will be enabled to more immaturity. So, how does one begin to bridge the gap?
When my clients express their grief and loss over being estranged, they soon reveal their inner desire to reconcile. Being back in the relationship will solve their emotional turmoil and make them feel better. Of course, that would bring great relief. However, the gap requires insight and reflection to create a greater connection. In other words, it is unlikely that your loved one will walk in with open arms without the critical work of self-reflection, insight, and bridge-building.
Often the focus is on the estranger, who chooses the separation. There may be ruminating memories of things said and poor behaviors. Likewise, there is the rabbit hole into regret, guilt, shame, isolation, and secret-keeping.
While you may be hoping for a bridge back to your loved one, the foundation must be reorienting the relationship with yourself. We cannot control the behaviors of others. Believing that our lives would be better if certain things fall into place leaves us in a limbo state while we wait and wait.
Consider your desire to reconcile and resume a relationship as normal but improbable for now. My biggest concern for estranged people is the tendency to believe their secret must not be voiced. Getting support is the very thing that one can do to improve their state, and so often, the very thing they resist.
My estrangement story required building a foundation for my wellness before restoration occurred. Many of those I have worked with are doing the work now and finding relief and results.
Read about what the estranger is feeling. Take a walk in your loved one’s shoes to grow your empathy muscle, which is very different from enabling. Your empathy muscle grows by honoring the validity of their perceptions. Read about other estrangement stories and build that muscle too.
Remember, you are among many others who have lived this and survived. Dr. Karl Pillemer’s book lists stories of reconciliation and those that never recovered. Being informed will bring insight, empathy, and be an excellent way to build your foundation.
Daily self-care includes intentions, prayers, meditations, movement, breathing techniques, spending time with people you enjoy. Do what you enjoy daily. If you have isolated, commit to volunteering or calling a friend just for a chat, go to lunch, walk in the park and breathe the fresh air with a friend. Decide to do what is best for you. Stress hurts us in our emotions and bodies. Self-care allows us to nurture and heal.
Remember, your basics count as well. Drink enough water, eat nutritious meals, make sure you move every day, get sunlight, and sleep. Try a guided meditation or a warm bath if you are not sleeping well. Go to bed around the same time every night and turn off any screens at least an hour before bedtime. When we are sleep-deprived, stress increases, so make this a priority. When we sleep, we allow restoration, think more straightforward, make wiser decisions, and feel alive.
Due to the ongoing pain and chronic stress of the loss of closeness, varying coping mechanisms pop up to avoid pain. Stress levels increase. Like physical pain, masking it away or ignoring it will not make it go away. The root cause needs to be exposed and treated.
Emotional visits are times set aside to let yourself feel. Yes, it is uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort. Careful compassionate appointments to explore and then return to your courage to move forward. Simple journal writing while allowing yourself to ventilate.
Leave the self-judgment behind and write. Handwritten journaling is best, so you slow down, think, and feel. Pause, express, and process your feelings. Think of it as an opportunity for intimacy where you accept what you feel and allow it to be.
Allow yourself to cry, and you will know when you have released, then set it aside and return to everyday activity. Honor what is in your heart and move forward. Like stuff you need to store away, set it aside, and do something that pleases you. Go back to your emotional visits on another day, doing the work to allow more release. Bring your most compassionate self with you.
If it hurts badly, remind yourself you can, and you will get through. Each time you visit, experiment with more self-compassion. Visiting your emotions is an exercise in patience and determination – practice patience in letting the contents inside unfold. Determine to come through knowing yourself better.
Self-compassion might be foreign, especially if you grew up thinking you needed to do better and be better. Are you caught in a trap of self-incriminating thoughts? What then?
Estrangement can wreak havoc on you emotionally and physically. Are you stuck and feel as though we are pulling a tractor-trailer? If you find yourself here, there is no shame in getting help. Regularly talking to others in a support group or seeing a therapist can help unravel your stress.
Likewise, support can help enlarge your insight, teach communication skills, offer options, and provide a safe place to ventilate. Fortify your foundation with support. Be sure to embrace the idea and act.
Permit yourself to unfold your hurts to someone who will be in your corner. I wish there were an easy way to your deepest desire, but the only way out is to do the work. Estrangement can be disturbing, and the loss and grief can be too much to bear alone.
Some professionals can compassionately guide you in this process, assess your emotional state, and provide a safe, enriching experience. There is no shame in getting help if you are stuck. You are not alone, and you do not need to struggle longer than necessary.
Gratitude is a practice we choose to partake. It is the dessert of life. Once you taste it, you want more and realize you don’t want to deny yourself the treat. Gratitude can change your daily perspective, beautifully adjusting your lens to rose-colored. When we commit to this practice, we offer our psyche a measure of rest and refreshment.
Self-compassion grows in an atmosphere of gratitude. What and who are you most grateful for when reflecting on your life? Remember that teacher in high school who believed in you? Remember that friend who cared for you when you were ill? Land on those memories and feel them for about two minutes indulging in the sensations.
Reflect on areas you are proud of yourself and how you have positively impacted others, and be grateful you acted. Be thankful for the time you have enjoyed with others; recall when you had fun and enjoyed life. Sit in this state and feel the goodness of gratitude.
Estrangement is intensely stressful and heartbreaking. The hope within you to have the desires of your heart is real. The gap is accurate as well. Your commitment to building a foundation for emotional wellness will strengthen you in your journey.
You need not do this alone; you can inform yourself to practice self-care and compassion. Make gratitude your friend and choose to live a fuller life despite your story of estrangement. Let your foundation define you and not your story.
What can you commit to so you feel better? In what areas in this article can you relate? Can you imagine yourself being free of the burden of estrangement?