‘Our families are supposed to be the ones who love us the most, who will take care of us and support us through difficult times. But what happens when they treat you so badly that you have to walk away?’
So, I don’t talk to my mum or her side of the family, except her dad – my grandad, who is honestly my favourite human. I’m not going to give the long, and quite honestly, boring details. Essentially, for a variety of reasons, I have been estranged from them for a few years now.
Estrangement comes from the French word ‘estranger’, and this comes from the Latin phrase ‘to treat as a stranger.’ Despite 27% of people being estranged from at least one family member at some point in their lives, meaning that right now there are currently 8,000 adults that are not talking to at least one member, it is, as Shaheen Hashmat argues, ‘one of society’s last major taboos.’
The idea that a child chooses not to talk to their parents/family seems like a total inversion of nature to most. I get it all the time from, ‘oh but they’re family’ or ‘I’m sure they’re sorry, you should just forgive them’ and the classic gut puncher, ‘you’ll regret it, they aren’t around forever, don’t you know.’
People tend to simplify parent and child relationship into “no matter what, you are supposed to love each other”. It’s so much more complex than that.
The CEO of Stand Alone, a UK charity that helps those affected by estrangement, Becca Bland concludes ‘there is a strong pressure to reconcile, when in fact what’s needed is acceptance of the reality of estrangement.’
An investigation by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge (U.K.) and Stand Alone¸ entitled ‘Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood’ interviewed 800 adults about their experience of familial estrangement. All spoke of feeling humiliation and shame. They felt people judged their decision and that there are no concrete services to help them deal with it. The only advice they ever get is about starting communication again.
There is no consideration for the past which has led me to this decision; just the view that because I’m genetically similar to these people, I should forgive everything they do. You have no idea about the years of psychological and emotional manipulation I have experienced. And you have no clue about the countless times I tried to improve the situation, but had it thrown back in my face. Therefore, you have zero right to comment on my choices.
Because of my estrangement, I am seen as screwed up. In fact, a friend of mine was told by someone to not associate with me ‘because she’s f*cked up and toxic.’ Cheers Hun, I don’t even know you, but clearly, you have a crystal ball that has showed you everything about me to lead you to this informed decision.
There can be serious mental health problems for those who experience estrangement. I chronically feel isolated, rejected, and totally alone. It is a persistent pain that will probably never fully go away. A common trigger for me is birthdays, Christmas and Mother’s Day. They are the annual hollow-eyed reminders of my lack of contact. Nevertheless, I can say that no matter how bad I feel, reconciliation is not the way forward for me.
34-year-old Joe told Terri Apter, Ph.D., a Senior Tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge, “I no longer speak to my mum. I don’t take her calls, either. But every day I hear her voice inside my head, and every day I ask myself whether I’m doing the right thing, for me. Over and over again, scenarios play in my mind. I picture us coming back together, but as that reel plays on, I hit the wall of her anger and criticism. But I never make peace with the separation.”
And yet, that’s not to say estrangement always has to be permanent. One of my friends used to have a horrific relationship with his dad and didn’t talk to him for five years. However, his dad did everything he could to prove he had changed and would spend forever trying to make it better. They now have a totally normal father-son relationship; it’s not perfect, but none are.
So, if for you, like myself, reconciliation isn’t what’s best for you, then how can you cope with your estrangement?
Appreciate those you do have. I am lucky. Although I don’t talk to anyone on my mother’s side, except my grandad, I still have my dad and my step mum who have been my absolute rocks growing up. I also have my amazing friends and, bizarrely, my best friend’s parents.
Although I don’t have a mum in the traditional sense, I have an entire congregation of surrogates – why have one rubbish one, when you can have seven amazing ones? And although I didn’t ‘pop out’ any of them, (thank Christ, that’d be traumatic for everyone) they have done more for me than my ‘real’ family ever have.
Laugh about it. Seriously, humour is the best medicine. The number of times I’ve called myself Oliver Twist or joked about how I save a shed load on Mother’s Day and at Christmas.
Don’t be afraid to get emotional about it. You don’t have to act strong and brave about it. Our society deems it perfectly normal to become an emotional mess when a romantic relationship breaks down. Therefore, you are well within your rights to have the occasional bad day.
If you want professional advice and assistance, organisations like Stand Alone are providing some brilliant help. They offer regular therapeutic meetings in a group setting, adult foster care for those aged between 18 and 30 years, and practical support for students experiencing issues with finance and accommodation.
I would also highly recommend going to Advice and Counselling. Honestly, it helps so much just to get it out and have someone give an unbiased opinion. My counsellor made me finally accept I wasn’t the problem or the cause, and I was not a failure for realising the relationship was not salvageable. He also helped me understand my confusing emotions about it.
Estrangement from just one member of your family can make your head a tornado.
One minute you’d give anything to just speak to them again, and the next you’re researching voodoo dolls. Whatever you decide to do in the long run, make sure you are putting your wellbeing first and not bowing to anyone else’s opinions.