Family estrangement is not uncommon: 25% of people report that they live with some kind of family estrangement, whether it’s a parent-child rift, sibling rift, or otherwise. If you’re dealing with estrangement, you’re not alone – and we have tips for how to deal with it.
The Pain of Estrangement
Living with estrangement can lead to feelings of shame, isolation, and sadness. Many who live with estrangement yearn for re-connection, and find it’s constantly on their mind.
If you’re not dealing with estrangement, you may wonder: “What’s the big deal anyway? Why can’t people just get over it and move on?” And if you are in the midst of an estrangement, your question is likely: “Why does this bother me so much, even after years?”
What Makes Estrangement So Painful?
There are four factors that make estrangement so painful, but underlying all of them is one core principle: human nature is such that our happiness depends on reliable, secure, and predictable social relationships, and without them, we feel lost. Living with estrangement leads to chronic stress, broken attachment, the pain of rejection, and the perils of uncertainty.
- Chronic stress: Like a chronic illness, in estrangement, flare-ups are followed by periods of relative calm but colored by worry that things could easily take a turn for the worse. Persistent rumination and “awfulizing”—imagining that the situation is the worst it can possibly be—thus add to the chronic stress.
- Broken attachment: Losing someone through estrangements activates what psychologists call the “attachment system.” Based on the old bonds, the person’s absence leads to grief at the loss. Because family members are specific, irreplaceable individuals, our attachment leads to feelings of separation anxiety, yearning for the relationship, and disruptions in our other social relationships. The human bonding that occurred over years of childhood makes us feel deeply insecure about the loss.
- The pain of rejection: Research shows that losses involving social rejection have especially damaging effects. Rejection is especially stressful because human beings have a fundamental drive toward social inclusion and belonging. Being rejected threatens our evaluations of ourselves, causing us to feel worthless and even lowering our self-esteem. The double whammy of a threat to self-esteem and a lack of ability to control the situation make social rejection one of the most harmful things we experience.
- The perils of uncertainty: If there is one thing we humans like, it’s certainty. Research shows that we are made uncomfortable by situations in which we are stuck in ambiguity with limited information to guide us. The lack of clarity freezes the process of grieving, blocks coping, and hinders decision-making. So it is with estrangement, when the person is physically absent but psychologically often intensely present.
Dealing With Estrangement
First, if you are in an estrangement and deeply distressed by it, know that you are not alone. The chronic stress of a family rift can wear you down and affect your other relationships.
Second, don’t hesitate to get professional help. Studies have found therapy to be transformative in either coping with the estrangement or working toward reconciliation.
How To Know If You're Ready To Reconcile
Reconciling an estrangement is a complicated and highly personal process. You may be asking yourself: “Do I stay in this estrangement that is at least stable and a known quantity, or do I go forward with a reconciliation attempt that may bring uncertainty but also great rewards?”
Psychologists and sociologists have studied extensively the topic of behavior change. Decades of research on this show that when we move toward a major life decision, most of us enter a stage called “contemplation.” In that stage, we recognize the existence of a problem and we start to weigh the pros and cons of making a change. When contemplation leads to a decision to move ahead, we prepare and eventually act.
There are four signs that you may be ready to reconcile:
- You’re experiencing ‘anticipated regret’: One powerful motivation comes from a sense of anticipated regret. Psychologists have established how useful anticipated regret can be. Examining our own regrets and observing those of others helps us to assess what we might regret at a later date and act accordingly.
- The circumstances have changed: Estranged family relationships become frozen in time due to the end of contact. Because people are cut off, they’re often unaware of if and how circumstances have changed. In some cases, however, the change is clear - like a problematic person leaving the picture - and these new circumstances may pave the way for mending.
- You start developing a plan: One sign of being ready to reconcile is finding yourself working out concrete plans. You may imagine alternative ways to reconnect, sometimes in detail. When your vague inclination to reconcile makes way to pondering concrete strategies, it could be a sign that you’re feeling ready.
- You get a sign: People who reconcile offer a piece of advice for knowing when you are ready to reconcile: Look for a sign. It’s not about being spiritual or mystical, but rather when we are feeling ambivalent about making a change, we can become aware of the topic all around us. You may hear a sermon, read a book, find an old letter, attend a retreat where forgiveness is discussed. A surprising number of individuals pointed to a particular moment when they knew it was time to reconcile, and they paid attention to it.
- If you're in an estrangement and deeply distressed by it, know that you are not alone. The chronic stress of a family rift can wear you down and affect your other relationships.
- Don’t hesitate to get professional help. Studies have found therapy to be transformative in either coping with the estrangement or working toward reconciliation.
- If you’re ready and open to it, reconciliation is possible, even after bitter conflicts and many years of separation.