Understanding family estrangement

“When are you heading home for Christmas?” This seemingly innocuous question, which might be casually asked by a colleague as Christmas approaches, can be a painful and challenging one for people who are estranged from their families.

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Understanding family estrangement

‘Family estrangement’ is a term used to describe the breakdown of a relationship between family members. Defining estrangement is nuanced, as the experience is deeply personal. For some people, estrangement might mean no contact, while for others it could be infrequent communication. For others still, there could be physical proximity but an emotional distance. People may make a conscious choice to estrange from a family member or member(s), or people may become estranged without choice, or awareness. Research indicates that family estrangement is increasing in prevalence, impacting an estimated one in five families in the UK (Stand Alone, 2015).

Why might some families be estranged? 

I recently attended a professional training for therapists on family estrangement with counselling psychologist and integrative psychotherapist, Dr Samantha Barcham (2021), who has conducted research into this area. She emphasised that pathways to estrangement can be multifaceted and complex, highlighting multiple reasons families might be estranged.

These can include harsh or poor parenting, divorce, a problematic child-in-law, mental illness or addiction, as well as divergence in values and lifestyles, such as religious and political beliefs. In my own experience as a therapist, I have encountered people who have been rejected by their families for their gender and sexuality, as well as people who have experienced parental neglect as children and decided to cut contact as adults.

While every person’s experience is unique, Dr Barcham emphasised that “estrangement often comes with incredible sadness and heartache for all those involved, and it is not something done on a ‘whim.'” Her research describes estrangement as a 'relational injury' or trauma (Barcham, 2021). As relational beings, a person’s sense of self-confidence and self-worth may be significantly impacted by family estrangement.

The societal stigma associated with estrangement can lead to individuals feeling judged and ashamed for their decisions to estrange, as well as for being the rejected person. Dr Barcham describes people experiencing stigma about “coming from a dysfunctional family or seen as unable to form meaningful relationships." Many people, therefore, try to keep family estrangement hidden, which leads to a lack of emotional support for someone who may be struggling with feelings including anger, rejection, isolation, sadness and loss.

There may be a paradox and ambiguity around the loss of a family relationship, as it is not a death. The person is living and there is often a hope that the relationship will be reconciled. The uncertainty of this reconciliation can leave people in great emotional turmoil, as they oscillate between feelings of hope and despair. 

How can therapy support people who are estranged from their family?

If you are a person who has experienced family estrangement, being able to talk freely and honestly about your situation can help to address some of the shame and isolation. Talking to a trusted friend, who is independent from your family, could provide much-needed validation and support. A compassionate therapeutic relationship can provide another pillar of support. Therapy can offer a safe and confidential space to explore difficult feelings and lived experiences in depth.

This space may be particularly needed at times of the year when society focuses on family, such as Christmas or Mother’s Day. But having a space to talk may be equally important for navigating everyday experiences when the absence of a family member feels very present.


References

  • Barcham, S. (2021). A mother without a mother: Women’s experiences of maternal estrangement in motherhood. Available at: https://repository.mdx.ac.uk/download/142bd92b5984ef4bb32647c94063b503fb6449a2ae504a12737f08721084a53c/1767763/SSSBarcham%20thesis.pdf
  • Standalone (2015). Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. Available at: https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Letticia Banton, UKCP (accred.), MBACP, GMBPsS, MSc, MA (Oxon)
London EC2A & E8

Letticia Banton is an integrative psychotherapist who works in private practice and for Strides Highbury Counselling Centre, a low-cost psychotherapy clinic in London. She is also a tutor at the Inner Citadel Institute in Oxfrod: https://icinstitute.co.uk/

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