Family estrangement
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What is family estrangement?

Family estrangement is the term used to describe the physical and/or emotional distancing between family members. The term is usually used to describe a situation where one or both parties involved find the situation dissatisfactory, meaning that it wouldn’t necessarily be used if you happened to live on the other side of the world to your family.

There are many reasons that people can become estranged from their family. There is not necessarily a definable, dramatic moment where a rift is created between family members. Family estrangement can occur as the result of attachment disorders, differing values or beliefs, consistently poor communication, the life choices of one party, or parental or child alienation; and of course there are other reasons, each family unit is unique in its dynamics.

Characteristic of estrangement is a lack of empathy on one or both sides of the divide; or a perceived lack of empathy.

What is the impact of being estranged from your family?

Family estrangement can have a negative impact on psychological and physical health. Certainly affected is the person who has been cut off, but the initiator of family estrangement, in situations where one party has played an active role, can also be strongly affected.

Being estranged from your family undermines our basic human needs. It is a form of social rejection which challenges our need to belong, our self-esteem, our need for autonomy and control in social situations.

If you are estranged from your family, you may experience depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, aggression and anger, and have difficulty trusting people.

Family estrangement may also prompt the same responses as bereavement, and one or all parties will experience stages of grief as they come to terms with the death of the relationship. However, many people do not reach the stage of acceptance commonly associated with bereavement. Many are unable to reach this point as they are unwilling to believe that the situation is not reversible.

Though indeed there may be routes to explore in terms of reconnecting with your estranged family, if you have already made numerous attempts, it is worth considering the option of trying to move into the realm of acceptance. It is important that you protect your own peace of mind, and forgive yourself if you feel any guilt over the situation, and forgive the other party if you feel too much anger.

How can therapy help with the impact of family estrangement?

A therapist can help you reflect on your relationship with the estranged family member, perhaps offering a new perspective on things or giving you the space to come to new perspectives on your own. This can be helpful and might go some way towards answering your questions and helping you understand your feelings.

The idea of accepting being estranged from your family might inspire a whole wealth of emotions: anger, confusion, sadness. A therapist can help you work through the stages of grief that are associated with family estrangement and help you reach a point where you are more able to live your life fully. 

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Last updated 4 April 2022

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