Never speaking to or hearing from your family may sound unbearable to many – but for millions of people it’s a sad fact of life.
The charity Stand Alone (standalone.org.uk), which supports people estranged from their families, estimates that up to one in five UK families experience estrangement, and more than five million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member.
Clearly, family schisms are not rare, and relationships between family members break down for a huge range of reasons, says the chief executive of Stand Alone, Becca Bland. “Family estrangement is much more common than we might think,” she stresses.
“Whatever the prevalence, it may feel isolating to not have contact with a family member, as we don’t have an open dialogue about the issue. Our experience has shown people often feel as if they’re the only person who has a dysfunctional family situation or no contact with a family member.”
— Stand Alone (@UKStandAlone) August 22, 2017
Developmental psychologist Lucy Blake researches the psychology of family relationships, and has just written the book No Family Is Perfect: A Guide to Embracing the Messy Reality, which discusses family estrangements and other family problems. She says: “Although family relationships are assumed to be lifelong, many people experience a negative relationship with a family member, characterised by little or no contact.
“Evidence indicates one in five adults will experience estrangement from a parent. Yet despite its prevalence, those who are estranged feel alone due to the shame and stigma that surrounds it.”
But Blake stresses that estrangement isn’t always negative, pointing out: “While estrangement results in feelings of isolation, loss and grief, it can help people to live their lives free from harm.
“Estrangement is therefore a complex subject that challenges our assumptions about family, revealing that the reality of family life is far messier than the adverts would have us believe.”
Why do families become estranged?
Blake explains that while there are many reasons for family relationship breakdowns, there’s often a difference between why parents think there’s a problem, and the reasons their children give.
“The factors that contribute to estrangement are common features of family life – marriage, divorce, illness and death,” she says.
“But parents tend to attribute it to factors outside the parent-child relationship like divorce, with their children supporting one parent and cutting off the other, or to their child’s problematic choice of partner, whereas children tend to focus on the quality of their relationship with their parent, attributing estrangement to childhood abuse, poor parenting, their parent’s poor mental health, or their parent’s rejection of their gender identity or sexual orientation.”
And if the estrangement is with a sibling, she says the breakdown may often stem from conflict over how to care for an elderly parent, or the inheritance when a parent dies.
Bland says the media often reduces the reasons for family estrangement to a simple disagreement, but research shows estrangement most often occurs because of serious behavioural issues in the family, such as emotional, sexual or physical abuse and/or a lack of acceptance around sexuality, gender transition or rejection after remarriage.
“We can often shame people for putting in boundaries around difficult family relationships,” she says.
“However, we shouldn’t underestimate the need for boundaries around behaviour that’s potentially very harmful to our wellbeing. It’s not selfish to want to protect our physical or mental health.”
What effect can estrangement have on family members?
While estrangement can sometimes ensure a family member’s safety if there’s been some form of abuse, it’s still surrounded by stigma, says Blake. “People tend not to share their experiences of estrangement with others, and when they do, are rarely met with understanding or compassion,” she explains.
“Estrangement is therefore an isolating experience – despite its prevalence, people feel alone in their experience.”
Family members may also feel loss, and Blake stresses: “This loss can be significant – the experience of grieving for a family member who’s still alive is rarely acknowledged or understood.”
What effect might estrangement have on family caught in the middle?
Estrangement has a ripple effect on family relationships, says Blake. When parents and children become estranged, it can be difficult for siblings to remain neutral, and if siblings are estranged there may be a breakdown of the relationships between aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.
“Similarly, parent-child estrangement can result in grandparents and grandchildren having less contact or no contact at all, which can be a particularly painful experience,” she says.
Should families always aim for reconciliation?
This entirely depends on the cause of the schism, stresses Blake. “Family relationships are assumed to be supportive and safe, therefore reconciliation is the happy ending many will long for,” she says. “But estrangement can let people live their lives free from abuse – in these situations, maintaining the estrangement will be the desired outcome.
“Just as there’s no one cause of estrangement, there’s no one path to healing either.”
Bland says the first step to resolving estrangement is to engage a professional who can help both parties. “I’m often asked what can be done to deal with estrangement, as if it’s a problem that always has to be solved,” she says.
“It’s important that we develop skills to listen to the other’s experience and meet it with respect and understanding, and willingness to change parts of how we show up in relationships.
“If another family member can’t show up for a conversation, show willingness to listen, and can’t really hear the complaint or do the work to change aspects of how they behave which are damaging to us, it’s entirely appropriate to keep boundaries in place to protect our wellbeing.”
Do both sides need to want reconciliation for it to succeed?
Blake points out that parents tend to be more invested in the parent-child relationship than their grown children, as parenthood is a central identity and as parents age their social circles often narrow, whereas children’s lives are typically fuller as they juggle identities like that of partner, parent and friend alongside work.
Add this to the different ways parents and children view the causes of estrangement and Blake says: “Reconciliation will likely depend on parents and children’s willingness and ability to acknowledge one another’s different priorities and perspectives.”
What advice would you give to estranged family members?
“Know that you’re not alone,” stresses Blake. “Despite its prevalence, estrangement is typically met with judgement or avoidance – few will have the ability to recognise it’s something that could potentially happen to them too.
“Estrangement is something to disclose with care to those people who you feel safe with. It can also help to gently challenge the way you think about families in general – contrary to what we see on social media, no family is perfect, free from pain, change or challenge.”
And Bland adds: “There’s no one rule for all families, or one moral standpoint that’s true for all – every situation is different. The one thing we can really do about estrangement is to refrain from judging people who put in boundaries to protect their wellbeing.”