A strained, distant or broken relationship with a family member is one of the most painful things a person can experience. When your childhood was complicated by abuse, neglect or trauma, the relationships you have with your family in adulthood can continue to be painful, confusing and sometimes difficult to endure. Often, the hurtful or dysfunctional behaviors continue, even after you've left home and established your own life.
From the outside, it can be so hard to understand how family members can become estranged from each other. But the heartbreak of distancing or cutting off contact with a parent or sibling can stem from traumatic events, such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect, growing up in a household with mental illness or addiction. According to Kylie Agllias, author of Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, these particular issues strain family relationships in ways that make families vulnerable to estrangement.
Estrangement takes many forms—efforts to establish emotional distance while maintaining contact, a breakdown of support, or a complete cut off of communication and contact. Trying to figure out what kind of relationship you can have with someone who's hurt, neglected or abused you is a painful process. Many questions arise during the process of trying to determine how to approach such damaged relationships. How much time can you spend talking with or visiting them? How much will you let them know about your life? Do you need to take a break from the relationship for awhile to give yourself time work through and heal from trauma? Or is contact with this person just too painful, damaging?
Many of the people I see in my therapy practice are struggling with this painful issue-either after becoming estranged from family members or as they're trying to find a way to stay connected. When there has been abuse or a failure on the part of a parent to acknowledge or protect against abuse, the adult parent child relationship is often deeply effected. If estrangement has grown out of a history of abuse between parent and child, the decision to cut off contact or find a way to maintain some sort of connection is naturally fraught with having to make decisions that will promote your own well-being and healing.
In her book Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, Kylie Agllias writes that: “estrangement from a perpetrator of abuse is a legitimate and often essential way to promote health and healing for survivors. There are times when reconciliation is not appropriate. There are other instances where survivors of abuse find some form of reconciliation or forgiveness important to their health and healing. The very personal decision to estrange or attempt some form of reconciliation is one that should always be respected.”
A broken family relationship is often difficult to talk about openly. Trying to explain why you're estranged or distant from your family can add to the distress of your experience- and add to the guilt, anxiety and shame that can become overwhelming at times. It's common for those who are estranged from their family to try to conceal this part of their lives, for fear of being judged, criticized or to avoid stigma. Add to this the fact that abuse is often kept secret, hidden away from others in the family and the community, making it that much more difficult to find the understanding and support you need.
Therapy can be a safe place to thoughtfully explore what you need for your own healing and how to best approach your family relationships-whether you're ready to work toward a reconciliation, to grieve the loss of the relationship that you can no longer be a part of, or to find somewhere in between.
To read more on this topic, check out this recent article from the New York Times:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/well/family/debunking-myths-about-estrangement.html