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


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Family Privilege

“Family privilege is the abundance of benefits, mostly invisible, that accrue from membership in a stable family.
- Sieta and Brendtro – Kids Who Outwit Adults

We usually think of families as a place of safety and refuge and want to believe that family members are our most likely source of unconditional regard, acceptance and nurturing. Plenty of research tells us that family relationships are prevention against negative outcomes to stressful life events and healthy family functioning is associated with positive outcomes in reducing family stress, enhancing child development, improving family interactions, and increasing family resilience.

Yet family is not a place of refuge and safety for those people who experience trauma within their families or for those who are unable to maintain even the most tenuous of connections. The idea that participating in a nurturing family is not a “right” afforded to us all is made explicit through the concept of family privilege. As the quote above says, family privilege is a naturally occurring benefit that people in healthy functioning families receive, simply for being part of their families. These benefits are practically invisible for those who receive them but are painfully absent for many people who are estranged. People who are estranged from their families are not afforded the benefits of family privilege. Their families do not function as mediators of stressful life events and instead are experienced as places and relationships of unresolvable conflict and stress.

When we are estranged, we don’t just lose relationship with a family member or members, we lose family privilege; support through difficult times or illness, assistance with a new baby, respite for our older children, a ride to the airport, a visit in the hospital, someone to attend our school concert or our wedding. We miss out on inter-generational learning, a loan when we need one, shared holidays and other family milestones, help and caring when we grow older and knowing other people are holding and sharing our history. Estranged people miss out on having people who love us, well …just because we’re us and part of them. We are not a “part of”. We are estranged.

I’ve had the privilege of having my, now adult, children stay with me for the past weeks. It’s an incredible joy to have “remember when …” conversations, to share a laugh about something that happened long ago, to know we’re building new memories. It’s been great to be able to help them, care for them, support them. It was terrific to have them here to share my birthday. I take none of this for granted.

Some of us who are estranged, have the amazing good fortune to retain wonderful, caring relationships with at least some of our family. We especially value these interactions and relationships, shared moments and building of shared histories, with those members of our families who show up, care for and love us and who happily receive our love and caring, at least in part because we have other family members with whom these relationships are not possible. We understand family privilege, precisely because its been denied to us.

Let’s remember to love the ones we’re with.

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hidden Sadness“Disenfranchised grief is the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.”

- Kenneth Doka, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow

I’ve been hard at work reading and researching and stumbled upon Kenneth Doka’s work about disenfranchised grief. His work touched my heart as many estranged people not only live with the very practical realities of relationship loss, they also do so with very little acknowledgement or support.

I have spoken previously about estrangement as a “dirty secret” – something that has happened and keeps happening to us, that we cannot speak of openly for fear of judgement or misunderstanding. Estrangement often carries with it shame – for those who have been estranged from, but also for many who have chosen to estrange.

When our grief is disenfranchised, we feel forbidden to grieve and we lose the opportunity to participate in family or community rituals that allow the expression of our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the loss of someone we may once have cared for or loved deeply and maybe still do.

checkCheck In

What is your experience of estrangement grief? Have you found a safe place to honor your loss? Is this something important to you?


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