September 23, 2021

Family Estrangement: How to Cope

Although family rifts have been present since time immemorial—after all, what is civil war but brother versus brother?—the modern age has seen a rise in family estrangement. The reasons for this can only be speculated. Is it because society now prizes personal fulfillment over duty? Because our increased isolation and detachment from each other makes it easier than ever to cut someone off? It’s impossible to know. 

What we do know is that family estrangement usually hurts everyone. (An exception is where a parent or child has cut off an abusive family member for their own safety.) Those of my clients who suffer from a loss of contact with a family member often struggle with the question of not only why, but what to do. And an estrangement, even a justified one, can take its toll. Here’s more about how to cope. 

First — The Why

On a micro level, family estrangement can be caused by anything from serious issues like abuse and neglect to subjective matters like perceived destructive behavior, ideological differences, lack of supportiveness, and even conflicts over an inheritance. Certain personality types are more likely to initiate estrangement than others. A family member with long-time grievances and dissatisfaction with his or her life will have a much higher tendency to cut off the family member with whom they are angry. Less likely to cause estrangement? A family member who is fulfilled and secure.

Second – How to Reconcile

To the extent that you are seeking reconciliation, there are some steps you can take to try to rebuild a bridge with your loved one. As you might expect, communication is key—and trying to resist the urge to blame and criticize will increase your chance of success. Assuming the channels of communication are open—and that you have not been electronically blocked—I have guided my clients to try the following techniques for ending estrangement:

  • • Reach out. A voicemail, email, or text with a simple expression of care and desire to reconnect can work wonders. If you have been blocked from electronic communication outlets, a handwritten letter is sure to get through. 
  • • If your family member is willing to speak with you, start by listening. Do not defend yourself; do not beg. 
  • • If you have contributed to the estrangement in any way, own your role in the matter and apologize. 
  • • If the family member is open to seeking family therapy, this can also be a great resource.

Third – When Reconciliation Is Rejected

Perhaps you have reached out and attempted to heal the relationship to no avail. Perhaps beyond being ignored you have been explicitly turned away. If this is the case, take heart: you do not have to let your family member’s opinion of you dictate your self-worth. With patience, your family member may come around. Then again, they may be determined to keep the estrangement in place. Reach out for support from friends and family on whom you can count. Be kind to yourself. And remember that you cannot control the reactions and feelings of others. You can only ever control your own self.  

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