We explore what can lead people to cut off contact with family members, and the steps you may want to explore first
Families are difficult, complex, and nuanced things. They can be full to the brim with love, resentment, joy, anger, and everything in between. If you’ve ever had a difficult relationship with a family member and thought to yourself “I’m done”, you’re certainly not alone. Perhaps rows have escalated, and you’ve had stints of not speaking.
For some, taking things a step further and cutting contact entirely feels necessary. So what can you do then, if you’re thinking about cutting ties with a family member, and is it the right approach to take?
What is family estrangement?
Family estrangement is a term used when someone has cut off contact with a family member. This may be a parent, a child, a sibling, or a member of their extended family. Estrangement will look different for everyone; for some, there will be extended periods of time with no contact at all and, for others, there may be moments of reconnection.
Like families themselves, the nature of estrangement is nuanced and highly personal. There are a number of reasons why someone may want to cut ties with a family member. According to estrangement charity Stand Alone, some reasons may include differing beliefs around sexuality, gender, religion or money, abusive behaviour, addiction or unacknowledged/untreated mental illness. Whatever the reasons are, they often build up over time until a tipping point instigates estrangement.
Research from Stand Alone suggests that one in five families in the UK is affected by estrangement, with some researchers and therapists calling it a ‘silent epidemic’. Polarising political views, a difference in values, and a growing awareness of relational impacts on mental wellness all seem to be adding fuel to this fire, with experts noting that we are moving towards a more individualistic culture.
I’m thinking about cutting off contact with a family member, what should I do?
If you’ve been considering cutting ties with a family member, finding your way to a decision may feel daunting. Only you know your circumstances, and what is best for you. However, if you haven’t already tried speaking to your family member, as counsellor Alexis Pfeiffer highlights, this can be an essential first step.
“Find a way of communicating your issue with the family member in a calm way. Listen carefully to their viewpoint in order to understand better why they are behaving that way.
“If communication is too difficult and becomes emotional or inflammatory, I suggest relationship or family therapy. Counselling provides a safe space for sensitive subjects to be discussed, because the presence of the therapist ensures that each person speaks respectfully and gets a fair hearing.”
As Alexis notes, ending contact out of the blue without voicing your concerns at all can be problematic. “It can leave both parties feeling hurt, blamed, and misunderstood, and the problem is never addressed, but festers like a deep wound.”
Finding a way to keep the relationship may feel right for you and, if it is, getting support from a professional such as a counsellor can help. But if you’ve tried these methods and their behaviour hasn’t changed, or if there is another reason you’ve decided the relationship isn’t worth pursuing, or you feel unsafe entering a dialogue with them, you may decide to go down the estrangement route.
“I’ve been no-contact with one of my parents for more than 10 years now,” Happiful writer Bonnie Evie Gifford tells us.
“For me, cutting off that person was like having a weight lifted. Suddenly, this pressure and tension I wasn’t even aware had been setting me on edge, was gone. I didn’t have to second-guess myself, or worry that my decisions would cause upset. I could finally focus on what was best for me, for my mental health, and what I needed to be happy. It was a highly personal decision, one that took years to make.”
Moving on after estrangement
If you have made the decision to cut contact, you may be left with a raft of emotions. You may relate to Bonnie, who felt a weight lift. But you might feel a sense of grief at what you’ve lost.
For many, surrounding themselves with friends as their ‘chosen family’ can be important, as well as seeking solidarity from fellow estranged people. Moving forward with your life is possible, and some find it helpful to explore this in therapy. Working within a safe space can help you heal and forge a new path.
In some cases, time apart, self-development work and therapeutic support may even pave the way to reconnection and reconciliation in the future. For others, it cements their decision.
“I still have well-meaning friends and family who like to say that I will change my mind, especially as I reach certain life milestones, or as my estranged parent ages,” Bonnie says. “But I can wholeheartedly say that I have not regretted my decision. And I can’t see that changing any time soon.”
So, is cutting ties the right thing to do? It seems there are polarising views on this, with some believing it should only be considered if there has been abuse, and others who champion its benefits. Perhaps then, the answer sits in the messy middle. Instead of deeming it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ we can sit back and accept it for what it is, a complex knot of rights and wrongs.
We can’t reach for it as a ‘quick fix’ for our problems, nor can we remain in harmful situations. What feels important, then, is taking the necessary time to examine and pick apart the knot, until we can unravel what’s right for us.
Being on the other side of estrangement can be incredibly difficult. “To a parent, it can feel like a living bereavement,” Alexis says. “They may be ashamed to talk about it for fear of being judged as a bad parent.”
To help you cope with what’s happened, Alexis suggests the following:
Try therapy – preferably with a therapist who has experience of estrangement. They can help you reach out to your adult child to see if they’d be willing to have relationship therapy with you in order to help you understand their grievances. It may be helpful to apologise for any hurt you have inadvertently caused your child, and to write an amends letter.
Join a support group for estranged parents, there are quite a few on Facebook to explore.
Read up on estrangement. I would recommend The Rules of Estrangement by Joshua Coleman, and Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child by Tina Gilbertson.
To learn more about how therapy can help you, visit the Counselling Directory.