Tales of family estrangement

Ruptures in relationships with family have existed for as long as families have. Whatever our own experience of family, we are likely to identify with some of the rivalries and jealousies that are the stuff of family stories from The Old Testament to Harry Potter.

The love, grudges, loyalties and betrayals present in family life, can have lasting psychological and emotional effects. Whether we remain close or become separated, the relationship we have with parents, siblings and other family members has the potential to shape and inform us like no other experience. It can define us, or leave everlasting suggestions as to who or what we should be.

Families are by nature, fluid and dynamic. Individual family members undergo their own processes of development and maturation. Ideally, communication and interactions between relatives evolve alongside this. Friction can arise when family dynamics conflict with individual processes and aspirations. External and social factors will impinge on and add to the situation. Nothing illustrates these intimate conflicts better than dramas like Eastenders. The popularity of soap-opera in most cultures illustrates our on-going and universal fascination with the intricacies and fabric of family-life.

These stories play out many recognisable situations. Initial experiences of jealousy, ambition, rivalry, belonging and rejection occur within and in relation to family. Families are where we humans are closest and most intimate, where important tasks of nurturing and growth take place. Family teaches us values and how to interact with the outside world. It is the place we hone the life-skills of trust, care and reciprocity. There is a lot to get right or wrong.

Estrangement is often a direct response to events or the emotional temperature of a family. It might be the culmination of years of drift and difficulty, during which contact is consciously restricted. Sometimes, cutting off or estranging from family is an important part of an individual’s plan. A way for them to achieve success or the necessary psychological or physical separation to live their own life-style. The Biblical and classic tale of the prodigal daughter/ son is a victorious story of estrangement where the off-spring returns to the family nest after achieving success and receiving validation from the outside world.

This type of vindication may be more elusive in real life. Estrangement often embodies a conflict between an individual’s need to separate and the irrevocable nature of biological ties. Balancing individual needs with the demands of family and managing the impact of belonging to this network, is not easy. For many it is such a difficult and unmanageable equation, that estrangement is the only solution, either as a temporary stop-gap or a permanent life-choice. Severing psychological ties however, often proves much harder than cutting physical contact. Literature brims with examples of individuals bound by the invisible barbed tendrils of their family connections, separated but forever grappling with the emotional imprint of their family.

New versions of family stories and twists on estrangement appear in fiction all the time, reflecting the endless permutations of conflicted relationships in the real world. Estrangement nevertheless remains taboo and is not represented in the glossy adverts and other images so common at this time of year.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London EC2A & E9
Written by Jill Twentyman, Registered Member MBACP (Accred) Integrative Psychotherapist
London EC2A & E9

I am a BACP registered counsellor. I have experience working with addiction, trauma and with individuals who are estranged from their families. I will shortly be facilitating a workshop on 'Coping With Christmas' for people who are estranged.

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