How to Cope with Family Estrangement

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By Roy Faget, MA

Some of us enjoyed highly functional family lives. Others of us have to face hard facts about our family’s dysfunction. Stepping firmly away from key members or an entire group of family members is sometimes the best way to protect yourself from hurtful or damaging connections. In fact, for some of us, family estrangement is the best way to limit the interactions that cause pain and promote chaos in our lives.

However healthy and prudent, separating from family is difficult. We expect that our family bonds are perpetual, unbreakable relationships. There is, at least, some comfort in that. So, the decision to separate yourself from family may be fraught with periods of self-doubt, loneliness, deep sadness, and grief. In addition, you may endure some pushback, judgment, criticism, or disapproval from loved ones and outsiders who disagree with such separation.

Still, you may find that certain family relationships often deserve the dignity of distance for the sake of peace and progress.

The fact is, our families are a fundamental part of who we are as individuals. How we interact, think of ourselves in the world, and how we view our worth and potential is inextricably tied to how well (or how unwell) our families are. When abuse, neglect, disrespect and more become relationship norms, the ill-effects can be devastating. If you’ve chosen family estrangement, it is important to acknowledge that creating distance may be painful, but you can maximize the amount of healing you experience as a result. How?

The truth is family estrangement is marked by feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. Without the usual, built-in bonds and ties that kept life predictable and connected, you’ll have to find ways to cope productively.

Let’s explore 5 Ways to Cope Well with Family Estrangement:

1. First, tap into compassion for the family member you’re stepping away from.

You needn’t harbor ill-will or carry around a load of negative thoughts regarding this person. Consider that their behavior toward you indicates mental, emotional, or relationship problems or patterns that make a relationship with you unproductive or unsafe. That’s okay. They may simply be incapable. Allow and accept that your family member, or members, may not yet have the tools to maintain a loving relationship with you right now.

2. Next, release the guilt.

Be careful to listen to your self-talk and intentionally tone down your inner critic. Your decision to cut ties doesn’t signal that you don’t love or respect your family. Quite the opposite is true. Your choice to be estranged simply relieves you both of roles and beliefs about the connection that aren’t working or aren’t true anymore. 

3. If physical or emotional safety is an issue, take the necessary precautions.

Is your estrangement the result of abuse, controlling behavior, or threats?  It is important to incorporate safety measures so that you can cope well and move forward without fear of your family member, or fear of retaliation for cutting ties. In order to help this cause, limit the information you share with other family members. Consider removing or reducing social media connections and any listed contact information they might use to force unwanted interactions. Allow your decision for family estrangement to be a positive step toward self-preservation and taking control of your life and needs.

4. Set clear guidelines for those relationships you retain.

If you are not estranged from your entire family network, navigating around those with whom you’ve severed ties can be tricky and stressful. Be sure you are upfront and clear with loved ones about your desire to keep your distance from the other person. Though they may balk, be firm about your decision and let them know that you will spend time with them separately or via special arrangement.

5. Finally, deal with your pain.

Facing the anxiety, hurt, anger and pain of the relationship is crucial. Seek out tools and guidance that will help you use the estrangement as a time to recover. Family estrangement, despite the losses, provides space and time to cope through sharing and healing. Use the estrangement as a time to reflect, journal, work with a counselor, and work on yourself. Explore the ways your family has shaped your perspective. Challenge the assumptions you’ve made about yourself, your family, and your potential relationships.

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Roy Faget, MA, LPC Intern, LMFT Associate, works with couples, individuals, and families at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. If you are facing family estrangement or dysfunction and need guidance on the healthiest way to navigate through, Roy can help. You can call Roy to schedule an appointment at (512) 270-4883, ext. 109, or you can request an appointment with him online through the RCC Austin Scheduling page.