Family estrangement - how can counselling and support groups help?
The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has shown, in a very public arena, just how difficult family dynamics can be. Estrangement within Meghan Markle’s family has become news and, as is often the case with public figures, the source of much opinion and judgement. Other, far less famous people also experience family estrangement, and the stigma they see as a result of this is no less potent. According to Stand Alone, a charity that provides support and carries out research on family estrangement, one in five families in the UK will be affected by estrangement and over five million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member.
I am aware that people experiencing estrangement face a wide range of feelings about their family relationships or lack of them. I have found that shame, uncertainty, hopelessness, loneliness, sadness, guilt, and anger are all very common. I have also seen how much difference it can make for someone who is estranged to share this with a trusted other who can help them make sense of what has happened, examine feelings and decisions, and open up the possibility of moving on, whatever this might mean.
People attending the support groups run by Stand Alone are often desperate to know how to reconcile with their estranged family member. I’m sad to say there is no magic solution, and both parties do not always even desire reconciliation. Some relationships are just too broken and, for at least one of the parties, estrangement can offer the way to a healthier or less painful way of life.
The groups do, however, offer a space in which people can express the range of feelings they experience about their estrangement and find care and compassion from others who have experienced something similar and do not respond with shock or judgement. This can be an extremely healing experience.
Similarly to what we know of most research about general counselling and psychotherapy, the most transformative aspect of individual therapy for people estranged from family is also the quality of the therapeutic relationship. In my experience, clients often feel it is difficult to make changes without the back up of family as they feel emotionally fragile and insecure. Speaking out of a relationship of trust is vitally important, then. Every decision can feel like the wrong one - the choice to estrange; attempts to reconcile. It sometimes feels nearly impossible to make the right decision without any regrets.
Estrangement can be freeing, as it allows people who have struggled for a long time to step away from damaging relationships and choose to live in a different way. It can be difficult, however, to go forward without ever looking back, or to be able to fully shed the old skin. It can be invaluable to have a space such as therapy where difficult and conflicting feelings can be explored without judgement or agenda on the part of the therapist.
The media treatment of estrangement, as highlighted by the case of Meghan Markle, can heighten feelings of shame and isolation. People who have been cut off from families often see themselves as abnormal and even abhorrent, as opposed to images presented in the media of strong, loving, and unbreakable family relationships. Particular dates in our calendar such as Christmas, Mother’s day and Father’s day are heralded as times when perfect looking families come together to celebrate. This often serves to perpetuate the myth that family life is uncomplicated, and that love between family members is always unconditional and lifelong.
By opening up a dialogue amongst therapists as well as wider society about the reality of family relationships in all their complexity, and facing the reality of the prevalence of estrangement, perhaps we can create communities, including therapists, who understand and are compassionate towards people who have chosen or been faced with family estrangement and thus help them to feel less condemned, ashamed, and isolated.
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