I was having a conversation recently with a woman who was in her 60’s. We hadn’t known each other long, but somehow the conversation turned to family and she began to speak about her relationship with her estranged daughter. After she had spoken at some length, she tearfully advised me she had, “never shared all that’ before.” With some gentle questioning, it soon emerged that she felt a deep sense of shame, as a mother, as a therapist (her profession) and as the daughter of a mother, who had also chosen estrangement. Her daughter had initiated the rupture of their relationship, without sharing her reasons but still my new friend asked, “How could I have let this happen?” In the absence of reasons, we have an astounding propensity to blame ourselves. It is not then, what happened with ‘us’, what do ‘we’ each bring to the creation of the problem – but rather, what did I do wrong?
Shame, guilt, and a pervasive sense of being bad, wrong or not good enough is a frequent feature of estrangement, whether the individual initiated the estrangement or not. This seems to be one area where it matters less who is the dumper/dumpee (See Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends, Skinner) and is more about the perceived responsibilities for the relationship. Parents often feel that they must keep putting out fires to maintain their relationship with their child, even when it is evident their child is ferociously burning bridges. Children often feel profoundly disloyal and strangely ‘orphaned’ even when they make the choice to disconnect, armed with multiple ‘good’ reasons to do so. Siblings feel fractured when relationships crumble, even when they are the ones doing the crumbling. Assumptions are made, realities built, stories told and retold until they crystallize into strange structures resembling truths. Polarization occurs and very often even people central in the estrangement equation are left wading, knee deep in ambivalence, wondering ‘why’?
Not only do people who are experiencing estrangement often feel badly about themselves, they are often judged quite harshly for their estrangement, whether self imposed or not. In another conversation, a friend advised, “my sister is estranged from her son – and everyone knew it was going to happen. Jess (name changed) was always a terrible mother‘. Considering the harsh judgment, I asked my friend if she was estranged from her sister or her nephew, she denied it saying, “I’d never do something so terrible.” The judgments were dual – only ‘terrible’ people become estranged and only ‘terrible’ people do the estranging.
Is it any wonder that estrangement becomes hidden, a poison dart, straight to the heart, a family secret, that is not so secret?
But you are not alone. Many people, famous and completely un-famous, experience estrangement. Consider some of the well known celebrity estrangements; Julia and Eric Roberts; Angelina Jolie and her father, Jon Voigt; Tori Spelling and her mother, Candy; Alice Walker from her daughter, Rebecca; Brittney Spears and her mother, Lynn. This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a quick Google sampling of famous disconnects. You are not alone. Read that again…
You are not alone …
Just because you find yourself estranged from a family member doesn’t mean you are bad. It doesn’t mean you have done something terrible. It also doesn’t mean that the person you are estranged from is necessarily bad or terrible. Estrangement is complex. There are many reasons it occurs; sometimes due to catastrophic factors like abuse, mental illness, addiction and sometimes for reasons of intolerance but often reasons are seen differently across time and across relationships. Being estranged does not need to be shameful and it does not need to be a secret you carry, like a large boulder on your shoulder.
It’s okay to hop out of the “bad person box’, it’s okay to let go of your judgments of yourself and its even okay to let go of your judgment of others. This doesn’t mean you don’t have rights to your grievances, it only means you don’t need to carry them like a heavy cross.
Should you tell your secret?It’s become something of a social norm to blow family business wide open. I read recently of how one celebrity would not maintain a relationship with her mother after their ‘dirty laundry’ had been very publicly aired. Obviously we need to exercise discretion, and consider carefully where we lay our trust. Sharing with other family members may result in further estrangements, if they are unable or unwilling to meet you at your needs or insist on colluding to maintain the family ‘secrets’. Yet there are people who will support us, who can hear our stories and validate our experiences. Some of these people may be family, but they may equally be friends, therapists, clergy members or people who have experienced similar circumstances. In the absence of sharing with another person, we can try other methods of opening and releasing; journaling, visualization, meditation, and body work to name a few.
Estrangement is what it is – a complex web of interactive, interpersonal and changeable variables. Don’t allow family fractures to become dirty little secrets. Give yourself the support and healing that comes from sharing your story, selectively, with people who care.