Estrangement: The Silent Epidemic
Despite its prevalence, stigma and shame can exacerbate the pain and loss.
Posted August 12, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Over 1 in 4 Americans are currently estranged from a family member.
- Estrangement often causes stigma, disenfranchised grief, and social disenfranchisement.
- If given the chance, apologize for past hurts and traumas and try to see the other person's side without being defensive.
- When there’s no opportunity for reconciliation, try to grieve, forgive, accept, and find joy in other relationships and interests.
Over 25 percent of Americans are currently estranged from a family member, and over 43 percent have experienced family estrangement at some point. And those statistics are probably low since they are based on pre-COVID data—before the stresses of the pandemic and the political climate deepened existing fault lines in many families.
That means millions of people are living with the pain of being cut off from the people they love. And yet, estrangement is still seen as taboo. It's a silent epidemic because so few people are willing to talk about it.
There are many reasons why family members cut ties. Whatever the cause, though, estrangement can be devastating.
I know all too well. I've been estranged from my adult daughters for over five years. Our relationships were casualties of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and divorce. I mourn that loss, and because I can't let go of the hope that we may someday reconcile, estrangement has left me with an open wound that I've had to learn to live with.
Stigma and disenfranchisement
In a qualitative study of 25 parents who were estranged from their adult children later in life, most described the loss as traumatic, unanticipated, unchosen, and ambiguous because of its uncertainty and inconclusiveness. Many also said they experienced social stigma. In an interview with a mother estranged from her children, Professor Kristina Scharp of the University of Washington recounted:
I feel like I have to keep [the alienation] secretive, because people will look at me like I'm a piece of shit. Like I'm—what kind of a horrible human being of a mother could not have her kids? They assume that I'm either like a drug addict, lost her kids, or I beat my kids, or neglected my kids.... So there's a social stigma that I like to avoid, and yes, I keep it a secret.
It is also common for parents who are estranged to feel "disenfranchised grief," which is bereavement that is not socially supported or publicly acknowledged. You feel alone, that you can't talk about it, and that you can't escape thinking about it when even business meetings begin with sharing stories of time spent with family during holidays, graduations, and vacations (which contributes to social disenfranchisement). Disenfranchised grief is deeply personal and varies widely, and it can cause sleeplessness, angry outbursts, bouts of tearfulness, loneliness, withdrawal, difficulty with self-care, forgetfulness, and lack of concentration or focus.
What can you do if you are suffering from estrangement?
Dr. Jade Wu, a clinical health psychologist and research scientist at Duke University School of Medicine, offers some advice to those going through an estrangement who have an opportunity for reconciliation. If given a chance, apologize for past hurts and traumas, and try to see their side. This isn't the time to rehash old disagreements or discount how they are feeling. Simply acknowledging their experience without being defensive can be cathartic. It's important to show that you're open to change in order to turn an opportunity for reconciliation into an ongoing dialogue.
And when there is no opportunity for reconciliation, Dr. Kathy McCoy, a marriage and family therapist specializing in midlife and geriatric issues as well as families in conflict, provides tips for coping:
- Grieve without rumination. Rumination means endlessly obsessing about your pain. That can keep you stuck in an endless loop of sadness, depression, and helpless victimhood. Allowing yourself to go through the grief process and move on doesn't mean the pain goes away—it means you make peace with living with your pain while beginning to see new possibilities for yourself.
- Reimagine life on your own. You don't have to give up hope of reconciliation, but you should embrace life as it is, feel gratitude for the love you still have from other family and friends, and overall let love, however it happens, back into your life.
- Forgive yourself and your estranged loved one. Nursing grievances and pain can keep you mired in bitterness that not only makes reconciliation unlikely but also saps the joy from your life.
- Don't let pain define your life. If your negative feelings overshadow every aspect of your daily life, your pain and isolation will only deepen, potentially driving friends and other loved ones away. Try to be in the moment when enjoying time with friends and family instead of rehashing your devastation over the estrangement.
- Take care of yourself. You will be happier overall if you eat healthy foods, exercise every day, and pursue interests that bring you joy.
- Accept the reality of what is at the moment. Instead of desperately begging for reconciliation, let it be. At least for now. Dr. McCoy quotes a mother who has been intermittently estranged from her daughter for some years:
I have this saying I repeat day after day: ‘It is what it is.' This acceptance, which has been hard-won, is freeing. It gives me a resting place to reflect and go on with my life. Of course, nothing would thrill me more than a reconciliation with my daughter. My door and my heart are always open to her. But in the meantime, accepting what is and enjoying other aspects and other people in my life has been comforting and transformative.
If you're estranged from members of your family, know that you're not alone. And that it's OK to talk about it. The more we break the silence, the more we can help each other heal.
Brody, J.E. “When a Family is Fractured.” The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/well/family/when-a-family-is-fractured.html.
Coleman, J. (2021). Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. United States: Harmony/Rodale.
Conti, R.P. (2015). Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate. J. Psych. & Behav. Sci., 3(2):Abstract 4. DOI: 10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4
Pillemer, K. A. (2020). Fault lines: fractured families and how to mend them. New York: Avery, Penguin Random House LLC.