My Dog Won’t Fetch

lazy-dog - Erik Johansson

“The scariest thing about distance is that you don’t know whether they’ll miss you or forget you.”
― Nicholas Sparks

In my last post I was speaking a bit about the notion of “emotional labor” and whether or not estrangement is “women’s work” – by which I refer to the business of “worrying” about relationships, naming and speaking “feelings” for self and for others, feeling “responsible” to solve and resolve emotional tensions and feeling or bearing a disproportionate amount of blame and shame for being unable to successfully manage these tasks.

I had an email from a man this week, who spoke a bit about how estrangement had happened in his family. I will not get into the particulars of that, other than to say, at a certain point he became aware that when he was unhappy with someone in his family (most often his younger sister and mother) he elected to remove himself from the family. In other words, he “estranged”. This “solution” to emotional difficulties, or to disapproving of something his mother or sister said or did, was cyclical – it had happened many times. Most often, after a period of time, he advised, his sister or mother or both, would seek him out, apologize for the rift, and coax and encourage him back into the family fold. He agreed with the content of my previous post, and advised he had indeed, thought of this as “women’s work”, a job he simply expected the women in his family to do.  “I never went looking for them” AND he never intended to stay gone forever. He knew his mother and sister would sort it out. (To his credit, he appeared quite sheepish about this).

I’m a little curious about this story – I don’t think for a moment that it is respresentative of all men by any stretch, or of all women. At the same time, his words made explicit a theme that I have seen pop up from time to time in my work. I call it “pursuit and distance”.

I note that pursuit and distance is not just limited to interactions between men and women, but also note it does seem perniciously present in male/female relationships; or maybe simply it is a reflection of power imbalances, typified by one person being more invested, or caring more about the outcome of the relationship. (Some) men manage emotional tension by distancing or removing themselves, (some) women manage the same tension by seeking increased connection and closeness. It seems women are more likely to “fetch” the relationship back in part because they are more invested in the success of relationship — it’s their “job”.

What happens when/if women stop taking on the responsibility to pursue and repair relationships? What happens when the dog (regardless of gender) won’t fetch? What might this have to do with estrangement?

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Is Estrangement Women’s Work?

women's work1

“… for a long, long time the wars that women have been left to wage on behalf of men, on behalf of the human race, have started much sooner, in the home, in front of the hearth, in the womb. We do what we must to protect and provide for our young our families, our tribes.” ― Ana Castillo, Goddess of the Americas

Firstly, hello dear readers! It turns out that grad school and full time work, don’t leave a lot of extra space for blog writing, so I am fitting in time to write as and when I can. Fortunately, I am researching family estrangement and so I come up with fresh information, new thoughts and have no shortage of post ideas.

Recently I have been planning research methodology and have been thinking about future research participants, which leads me to thinking about the sorts of estranged people I come into regular contact with through the course of writing this blog and doing the clinical work I have with people who are estranged. Less than 10% of my estranged clients have been men. Less than 10% of the post responses and emails I receive are from men.

In respect to the academic estrangement literature, men’s voices are conspicuously absent. This is such a huge problem because it means research is largely leaving out the voices (and experiences of estrangement) of 50% of the people who are estranged. Academic estrangement research is generally gender neutral and assumes the experience of female / male family estrangement is ‘equal’ or the same. Yet I know from my work there is something “not the same” about the involvement and interaction of men in participating in discussions about estrangement or seeking professional support to resolve it.

Existing estrangement research is almost completely conducted with women ‘subjects’, which suggests to me that women are more likely to agree to discuss estrangement and may even find estrangement more of an issue. Social work researcher, Kelly Agllias has conducted some great research about family estrangement through a lifespan perspective; what happens for estranged people as they get older. Her 2009 journal article, “No longer on speaking terms: The losses associated with family estrangement at the end of life“, presents one case study, a woman, but the article is framed in gender neutral terms of “older people”. This leaves me wondering is she really discussing older people, or is she talking about older women? This theme is picked up in a later (2013) Agllias article,  “The Gendered Experience of Family Estrangement In Later Life“, which definitely teases out the implications for older women who are estranged and maintains,

“… women must come to terms with loss of relationship but are also keenly aware of social stigma associated with “tainted or devalued parenthood”, loss of role (motherhood) and the very real possibility of social exclusion and rejection as a result of estrangement.”

It’s not the first time I have noticed or said this but, where are the voices of estranged men?

I know for a fact that men experience family estrangement in roughly the same numbers as women. I know this because women’s stories tell me this is the case. Women are estranged from father’s, brother’s, uncles, nephews, sons, grandfathers – and this means men who are father’s, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, nephews and sons are also estranged. I don’t for a moment think that men are unaffected by estrangement as an issue, and I know this in part to the men (however small the ‘sample size’) who have stepped forward as former research participants, post commentators, email writers and clients.

Yet men do not appear to be seeking out support and resources in the same way that women do. This leaves me wondering about women’s “place” and sense of responsibility for family. It also leaves me wondering about the impact of genderizing the work of feelings and emotions.

Is worrying about family relationships “women’s work”? Is “relationship repair” also women’s work? If relationships don’t “get fixed” are we more likely to socially stigmatize women for not making it happen? Are women more vocal about family estrangement because the business of estrangement is, at the end of the day, women’s work?

Do men care, the way women care, about estrangement? What do you think?

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We Don’t Want To Know You

“Generally speaking, ostracism refers to being ignored and excluded (Williams, 1997;2001). Social exclusion refers to not being included within a given social network (but not necessarily ignored). Rejection is usually an explicit verbal or physical action that declares that the individual is not wanted as a member within a relationship or group. Bullying usually involves others’ aversive focus on an individual, and often is accompanied by physical, verbal and nonverbal abuse of an individual.” 

[Kipling D. Williams Joseph P. Forgas William Von Hippellisa  Zadro in The Social Outcast)

Continuing on with my research proposal for grad school, and stumbled upon a book, The Social Outcast. I thought I’d share the above quote from the book as I think it highlights a range of possible experiences of family estrangement and further exposes gaps in our understanding and conversations about defining the experience of estrangement.

It’s my experience that family estrangement may indeed include ostracism, social (and obviously familial) exclusion (with or without being formerly “estranged”), rejection and bullying. It may also be any combination of the above. Regardless of finer details, all the above methods or means of separating self or others has profound impact for those who experience it.

The aforementioned book addresses social exclusion as a relatively new and under-researched area and addresses the emotional and psychological toll of rejection. The book does not specifically deal with familial exclusion, aka family estrangement, however, those with an academic bent and willingness to wade through research articles may find it worthy of exploring.

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I Don’t Have To Hear This Anymore

Things we hearAnd when someone apologizes to you enough times for things they’ll never stop doing, I think it’s fearless to stop believing them. It’s fearless to say “you’re not sorry” and walk away.”
― Taylor Swift. Image from People of the Second Chance

There seems to be an idea that regularly surfaces that people who are estranged need to “get over their past”, make or receive amends for things that have happened, and get on with it. Sometimes people who have elected to estrange are perceived as being “ruthless, unkind, damaged, lacking in compassion, unwilling to forgive and forget – unwilling to go the distance”.

What is regularly overlooked is that for some people who are estranged, the problems didn’t necessarily start in childhood, nor did they end there. Adults may be subject to ongoing toxic stress and trauma and just because they are older it doesn’t mean that it hurts any less.

I listen to people who are estranged talk about the experiences they had in their families as children or young people. It’s possible to see the impact those experiences have had far into their adult lives and relationships.

I also hear people who are estranged tell me about the day-to-day ongoing erosion of self-worth and esteem that occurs in their families now. Sure abuse may have occurred in their childhoods, but not always. For some it began later in life and relentlessly continues on, in their lives as adults. Estrangement isn’t always about things that came before, it can just as easily be about terrible things that continue to happen now.

Family estrangement isn’t just about getting over the past, sometimes it’s about protecting ourselves (and our loved ones) from toxic stress today.

Many people successfully break the legacy of toxic stress and abuse. They change their environments and relationships and make choices in their lives, which build resilience and are life enhancing. They work hard to move themselves forward so they can have healthy, meaningful and peaceful relationships and lives. Sometimes they need help to do this. Sometimes it takes time, a lot of time even.

Sometimes electing to estrange is a part of this journey.

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The Invisibility of Estrangement

Invisible

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