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Family Estrangement in a Modern World – Is It Always a Bad Thing?

by Andrea M. Darcy

Don’t talk to your parents, siblings, or children? And worried about the long-term affects of family estrangement?

Is it really family estrangement?

Family estrangement can happen suddenly, with one family member deciding to cut out others, or simply disappearing.

But if you are talking less and less, without any real connection or honesty when you talk? It could be an estrangement.

Research shows it is more common that family estrangement happens slowly, with increasingly less communication over time. Or it can happen in cycles, with long periods of no contact followed by attempts at reconciliation. 

Is it normal to be estranged from family?

Modern marketing makes millions with adverts of happy families, teaching us that if you have one, you are a success. 

But that ideal family is unrealistic, and family estrangement is actually increasingly common. 

Stand Alone, a UK charity helping those who feel overwhelmed to not have family support, suggests that as many one in five families in the UK suffer estrangement. 

Am I in a healthy relationship quiz

Don’t talk to your parents?

It’s actually the most common form of family estrangement. A child decides to no longer have contact with parents once they become an adult themselves. And it’s not just the cliché of the absent father.

An American research overview looking at over two thousand mother child relationships found that over 10% had an estrangement with one or more of their children. 

Family estrangement causes

In movies and films family ruptures come from a big fight or clear incident. But in real life it’s rarely so obvious.

Family system theory in psychology suggests that we ‘cut off’ from others in order to create the space to process overwhelming emotions. 

And overwhelming emotions build up over time. They result from secrets and lies around things like trauma, abuse, violence, and emotional neglect. And from years of poor communication and unmet needs.

But the most common family estrangement cause has actually been found to be when family members simply no longer have what psychologists call ‘value similarity’. They no longer share personal values and core beliefs.

This can be a question of religion, different perspectives, or new life choices. Or it can be something like one family member violating social norms in a way other members simply can’t accept.

How modern life causes families to fall apart

Society is changing in ways that support the individual over a unit. And this could be adding to family estrangement. Things like higher education, financial security, and strong social systems might mean we need family less than before.

A research paper from the University of Zurich also points out that not only are young people are more geographically mobile, and drifting away from parents? But how parents are more interested in freedom from their children.

When personality disorders run in families

Personality disorders can also be at play. If someone has a personality disorder they see themselves, others, and the world in a very different way. 

Schizoid personality disorder leads to someone simply not being interested in relationships.  

Other personality disorders lead to destructive behaviours that drive other away. The family member can physically hurt or endanger others (antisocial personality disorder), or mentally and emotionally abuse them (narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder). 

Is a family estrangement always a bad thing?

Traditionally, the belief has been that alienation from family should not be long-term, as it has negative effects. Family systems theory, for example, believes that an emotional cut-off with family just gets ‘passed on’ to our other relationships, such as causing issues in your marriage.

But if a member of your family has a personality disorder, or is putting your wellbeing at risk?  Then an estrangement can be a matter of self-care

 If you feel more able to cope on a daily basis without family contact, then it might be that at this time in your life estrangement is actually appropriate. 

And new research is challenging if we have to have good relationships with our family to be happy and healthy. Family researcher Dr. Lucy Blake concludes in her 2017 review on estrangement literature, that we need to “move beyond our assumptions and understand family relationships as they are, rather than how they could or should be.”

Estrangement can also have a positive side. In a survey put out by both the University of Cambridge and the Stand Alone charity, 80%  of those who responded reported “greater feelings of freedom and independence”.

Family estrangement and depression

Of course there is loneliness and lack of support to consider.

family estrangement

photo by Jonathan Sharp

If you relied on your family for your sense of self, or never got the love and support from your family you needed as a child? Nor learned how to find that in adult relationships?

A family estrangement can leave you with a secret feeling that you are utterly alone in the world, or defective in some way. This can lead to overwhelming shame, low self-esteem, and depression

Repairing family estrangement

If you actually are depressed about estrangement, does this mean you have to repair family estrangement to feel better? 

 If you’ve not dealt with the repressed emotions and unresolved issues that led to the estrangement, an attempt to reconcile can simply re-trigger everything. 

The best way to approach repairing family estrangement is to see it as an inside job first. The more we can process upset and find a solid sense of self-worth that isn’t reliant on family acceptance? The more we feel better regardless if a reconciliation does or doesn’t take place. And the more we can lower our expectations of the other person, so that if it one does, it’s more likely to last.

[Ready to attempt reconciliation? Sign up to our blog now to know when we publish the next article in this series, “How to Repair Family Estrangement’.] 

Need support to work through feelings of loneliness and distress due to family estrangement? We connect you to top London talk therapists. Or find a UK-wide registered therapist or online counsellor on our booking site. 

Want to share your story or advice about family estrangement with other readers? Use the comment box below. 

Andrea M. DarcyAndrea M. Darcy is the editor and lead writer of this site and a well established psychology writer. After years of trying to repair her estranged family, she realised that sometimes acceptance is key. You can also find her on Instagram @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Relationships

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