The Best Way to Handle a Family Estrangement

Whether your goal is to reconcile, maintain permanent distance, or something in the middle

Anna Goldfarb
Forge
Published in
6 min readNov 2, 2018

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Credit: winnond/iStock/Getty Images Plus

If you’re not estranged from a family member, the odds are decent that you know someone who is. Robust data is hard to come by, but according to one estimate, as many as 12 percent of mothers are estranged from at least one of their children, with the number even higher for fathers. A 2015 study published in The Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science called familial estrangements “widespread,” noting that it’s “perhaps nearly as common as divorce in some segments of society.”

While the numbers may still be fuzzy, these kinds of familial disruptions can be devastating for anyone who experiences them. Estrangements can come with intense feelings of loss, distressing perceptions of stigma, and overall lower levels of psychological well-being, whether you’re the one who initiated a step back or the one who’s reeling from a relative’s decision to sever your relationship. While there’s no way to totally erase the hurt you may feel, you can make the situation a little easier on yourself and hopefully achieve the outcome you’re looking for.

If You’re Looking to Keep Communication Open…

You can allow the other person space while still making it clear that things can change down the road.

Give each other space

Becca Bland, chief executive of Stand Alone, a UK-based charity that supports adults who are estranged from their families, knows that people can feel tremendous pressure to reconcile, often before they’re ready to do so. Until everyone involved is able to take healthy steps toward resolution, it’s best to gently assert your need for distance. Don’t feel guilty for taking the time you need to work through your pain.

And when someone else is setting those boundaries, it’s crucial to the future of your relationship that you respect them. Someone who has been cut off “may continue to send messages, cards and presents, or criticism when they know they are unwanted,” Bland says, but “research suggests this is more harmful than helpful if the…

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Anna Goldfarb
Forge
Writer for

Writes about relationships and pop psychology for The New York Times, Vice, and more. Author of “Clearly, I Didn’t Think This Through.” Lives in Philly.