Therapists Explain Why Estranging Yourself From Family Can Be Lifesaving

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FAMILY DYNAMICS CAN run the gamut. If you come from a family where mutual respect, love, and everyone getting along is the norm, it may be tough to imagine not having your relatives in your life. But if your roots are steeped in trauma, boundary-crossing, and conflict, family estrangement may be something you face at some point in your life.

It’s estimated that 27 percent of people are estranged from a family member, but experts believe the number could be higher.

Estrangement refers to someone voluntarily putting distance between themselves and others or separating from them altogether, according to the American Psychological Association. It also includes decreasing or cutting off contact with someone that you used to have a close relationship with, like a parent, sibling, or other close friend or relative.

Estrangement can be permanent or temporary. Either way, it’s common for several reasons, says Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC, a licensed therapist at Talkspace.

“Family trauma carries on for generations, and it’s easier to completely cut off ties than it is to push for change,” she says. “People are scared of rejection. We fear rejection more than death, so in some ways, estrangement prevents that experience.”

For some people, estrangement is the last resort when you feel you have no options left, “after ultimatums are given, and behavioral change is not made,” Rice says. It can protect you from toxic relationships.

Most families certainly have good times and bad. Still, estrangement is often necessary. But, it can take a mental health toll, especially when you have to see the person you’re estranged from or explain the situation to others.

Why Does Estrangement Happen?

“All families are dynamic—families experience periods of healthy and unhealthy relationships,” says Olivia Baggett, LMSW, family care coordinator at The Berman Center. “Each family dynamic is unique and can have its own challenges that may lead to a need for distance, boundaries, or estrangement.”

When boundaries fail time and again, cutting ties might be the last straw, Rice says. Some behaviors that often warrant estrangement include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Mental, emotional, or physical abuse, which each person may define for themselves
  • Constant toxicity
  • Gaslighting
  • Substance abuse left untreated
  • Mental illness left untreated

In some cases, family disagreements can lead to estrangement. And, certain situations may exacerbate unhealthy family dynamics, Baggett says.

“Tension around estrangement and difficult family relationships is often heightened during the holiday season, as there are many expectations about what the season should look like,” she explains.

How to Deal With the Stigma of Estrangement

Estrangement can be stigmatizing. Rice says that most people are averse to conflict, especially if they’re the recipient, and those who end relationships may be perceived as the “bad guy” by outsiders who don’t understand the situation.

“Often, family dynamics are challenging to talk about, especially with people outside of our family system,” Baggett says. “It’s not always fun to have to be the ‘boundary setter.’ Setting a boundary can often be uncomfortable and may come with judgments from others.”

Boundaries protect you and keep you safe, however, she adds.

When someone asks about your father, sister, or another family member that you’re estranged from, it can be uncomfortable and catch you off guard. To prepare for these instances, “keep a safe phrase in your back pocket,” Baggett suggests, such as, “I’m choosing to spend my holiday with other members of my family this year.”

How estrangement can affect you

Besides the toll of what led you to end the relationship, estrangement itself can affect your mental health. It can potentially cause depression, anxiety, hopelessness, stress, suicidal ideation, and feelings of grief and loss.

Rice suggests talking to a mental health professional about your estrangement at any time, but especially when it’s affecting your ability to:

  • Socialize with others
  • Get involved in the community
  • Go to work or school
  • Feel motivated
  • Enjoy the activities you love
  • Be intimate with others
  • Feel good about yourself

“If we don’t protect ourselves, nobody else will,” Rice says. “We have to teach people how to treat us. Sometimes our estrangement leads to positive change in others, as well as ourselves.”

Keep in mind, too, that estrangement doesn’t have to be forever, she adds. If everyone puts forth the effort, sometimes relationships can be mended.

“Estrangement does have to be long enough to be able to see changes that are required to be in our lives,” Rice says. “People do better with serious boundaries to their behavior.”

What to Do When You Have to See the Person You’re Estranged From

Setting boundaries is crucial when you’re dealing with a toxic relationship. But depending on your family dynamic and situation, you may have to actually see the person you’re estranged from sometimes, such as during a holiday gathering, wedding, or another event.

These instances can be uncomfortable, stressful, and sometimes triggering. Baggett and Rice offer these tips for handling situations when seeing someone you’re estranged from is inevitable:

  • Make a conscious effort to acknowledge them before they acknowledge you
  • Keep the conversation simple—stick to topics like the weather and neutral daily activities
  • Redirect the conversation if someone brings up topics you don’t want to discuss
  • Limit your time with the estranged person
  • Have an “out”—a reason to leave the conversation or event
  • Have an ally nearby, a person who’s aware of the estrangement and your boundaries

Working with a therapist can help you develop a strategy for handling potential conflicts and an “escape plan” for when you become overwhelmed, Baggett says. This might be driving your own car to an event so you can leave when you want or locating a safe space where you can take a breath.

“Boundaries are made to keep us safe,” she says. “You’re allowed to have boundaries, and others should uphold them. Allow yourself permission to do what feels most right and safe for you, even if it’s outside of holiday tradition and expectations.”

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