When she was eight years old, my mother was out shopping with my grandmother when a woman my mother didn’t know stopped to talk to them. As the woman was walking away my mother asked, ‘Who was that?’ My grandmother answered, ‘Not someone we talk about.’ (The painful family pact of silence was kept, my best guess is that it was related to an illegitimate child.)
Estrangement is the temporary or permanent destruction of affection or alienation from our relatives. Although seldom named, it is a common motif in families and sometimes threads can be found running through multiple generations of the same family.
Estrangement is among the most excruciating of human experiences, often triggering deep-rooted feelings of exclusion stemming from attachment wounds. It is usually shame-filled, whether you are the person who broke contact or the one on the receiving end.
A British study, Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood, published in 2015, shines light on this social taboo. The research estimated that 8% of roughly 2,000 British adults said that they had cut off a family member, which translates to more than five million people in the UK.
There are many reasons why family members break off contact. Interrupted relationships might be a form of protection; they may hide a dark tale of abuse; bring the pain of mismatched expectations into the open; or be part of a normal developmental stage called differentiation – the process of becoming an independent adult, distinct from one’s parents. In many families the estrangement is not stable and cycling in and out of the relationship is common, particularly when adult children are estranged from their mothers.[i] However, estrangements can become permanent, and all can appear unfathomable from the outside.
Estrangement in your Family Tree
If it is experienced as shameful and taboo now, how hard might estrangement have been for our ancestors, when so many decisions, or ways of being, were deemed wrong? Even in living memory much has been stigmatised or considered dangerous, and so got buried or camouflaged with lies. Pregnancy outside of heterosexual marriage, a diagnosis of tuberculosis, homosexuality or, perhaps, in the case of the brilliant Victorian, Dr James Barry, transgender – there was a time (and it could be argued this still occurs today) when families would have worked hard to keep such things hidden, for fear of judgement. On the other hand, imagine being a victim of domestic abuse with no one to turn to.
Some families have whispered secrets that may be possible to unpick. In others there are those known to have become estranged, perhaps appearing in every generation as the ‘black sheep’ who is perceived as somehow different.[ii] Tragically, some family separations will transmit as psychological inheritance, playing out through disengagement with adult children, siblings, cousins or grandchildren down the generations, leaving a painful legacy of loss. This may be especially true in adult parents who were unable to build a secure attachment with their own caregivers.
If there are no tales of separation in your family, it is possible to expose tragic examples of people who might have struggled to be accepted in the time or place in which they lived; this may indicate forced separations or voluntary estrangements. Sensitively ask about family stories, reflect on DNA results, or look for records concerning mental or physical illness requiring institutional care; adoption; migration; someone working far from home or a man going to war. A will may also indicate a breakdown in relationships if money was left to some children, but not another who was still alive.
In my family I discovered a great-grand-uncle, born to a lay preacher and a devoutly religious mother, who was incarcerated in a mental asylum for most of his adult life, simply for identifying as homosexual. His diagnosis divided the family, but I am proud to write that my paternal grandmother did not turn her back but visited him throughout his life, periodically inviting him to her home for tea.
Holidays and Family Gatherings
In a 2012 article in The Guardian, Becca Bland, who no longer had contact with her parents, posed the question, ‘Why couldn’t I just tell people I was estranged? Why did it seem so loaded?’. Becca writes, ‘If estrangement is on the rise – a “hidden epidemic”, as experts are suggesting – then it seems crucial that the word “estranged” is added to our general vocabulary. Like bereavement, it is, after all, a loss…it would not only be helpful for those who are already estranged but might also help those who need to walk away but are held back by fear of stigma…acceptance of estrangement is not only allowing people to become clean, but also making provisions for support.’
With this in mind, it seems fitting to talk about this subject in December. Dates, holidays or activities can trigger estrangement pain and anxiety lurking just beneath the surface. As Psychologist Teri Apter writes:
‘Quintessential times of family gatherings, communal hopefulness, gratitude, and celebration become hollow-eyed reminders of continuing emotional loss.’[iii]
If estrangement affects you, treat yourself with compassion. Remember what you feel about it, especially at special times of the year, can spark your fight-or flight-response. When this happens, your body releases a surge of hormones that can result in physical symptoms of anxiety. Work out what will soothe you, so you will be ready in case you need support.
If you’re the one who pulled back from one or more family members, remember that your feelings and instinct to protect yourself are valid. No one wants to disconnect from family. This is not a decision anyone makes lightly.
If you have been cut off, respect the other person’s decision and resist the urge to reach out on a holiday; this is not the time. Consider reading the guide below. Do all you can to live a positive life despite your loss. If the other person later reaches out, you will have something new to share and show.
Wherever you are with estrangement in your family, embrace any friendship, love and warmth in your life, create new traditions, and most importantly look after yourself.
You are not alone.
Future blogs will look at how dissociation and personality traits can ricochet down the generations. Why not subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss them?
And if you would like to know more about what I discovered in my own family tree and how this could help you understand how to piece together your own ancestral history, please register an interest.
is a life-long explorer of social history and weaver of factual family tales, with a Diploma in counselling. Fascinated by psychological theory and the stories we develop to make sense of ourselves and our family, Helen’s original quest was to understand her Victorian grandfather, Walter Parker, born in 1885 in Upwell on the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire border.
Family history doesn‘t survive unless it‘s in print, which is why Helen set out to write an engaging and accessible biography that would not only explore working-class Victorian life in an English village but could motivate and encourage other family historians struggling to pass on what they have painstakingly discovered. The result, in part, is an exploration of transgenerational legacy of loss, trauma, anxiety and depression. Helen is now not simply a genealogist, but a geneatherapist, investigating the roots of inherited traits, bringing them into the light and seeking to heal (and help others learn to heal) future generations.
[i] Standalone.org.uk. (2015). Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. [online] Available at: https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices. FinalReport.pdf [Accessed 24 Nov. 2018].
[ii] Fitness, J 2005, Bye bye, black sheep: the causes and consequences of rejection in family relationships. in KD Williams, JP Forgas & W von Hippel (eds), The Social outcast: ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying. Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology series, Psychology Press, New York, pp. 263-276.
[iii] Apter, T. (2015). The Persistent Pain of Family Estrangement. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/domestic-intelligence/201512/the-persistent-pain-family-estrangement [Accessed 24 Nov. 2018].