Although family estrangement is experienced by many families today, it is seldom spoken about. In fact, some people may be experiencing what is technically family estrangement, but may not be able to put a name to it.
In short, family estrangement can be defined by the diminishment or disappearance of any form of relationship between two or more family members that continues over a long period of time. Family estrangement is often deliberate and has a cause or a number of causes.
In this article, we will provide an overview of the common causes of family estrangement, how widespread family estrangement is, how to prevent family estrangement, and the possible emotional effects that can come from family estrangement.
How Common is Family Estrangement?
As we hinted at earlier, family estrangement is not a common conversation topic among friends or colleagues. Given this, it may suggest that family estrangement is not common. However, what is much more likely is that family estrangement is just avoided as a conversation topic as it is stigmatized —because most studies suggest it is rather common.
In fact, one commonly cited study found that almost half of all families, or 40%, have experienced some form of family estrangement at some point in their life. When we compare this with another common family phenomenon, divorce, it actually looks quite similar, at least in an American context where divorce occurs in approximately 2.9 couples out of 1,000.
Family estrangement most commonly occurs between immediate family members, such as parent and child.
What are the Common Causes of Family Estrangement?
Although the factors leading up to family estrangement may seem complicated, the motivating factors for estrangement can surprisingly be narrowed down into three main factors. They are:
Issues related to separation and divorce
As we mentioned previously, divorce and separation are a common part of family life. As the very purpose of a separation or divorce is family division, it would make sense that these divided relationships could lead to estrangement. In the case of young children, sometimes this may occur if they are under guardianship of one parent who then cuts off contact with the other parent. If a divorce occurs when children are adult age, they may disapprove of the behavior of one or both of their parents and therefore make the decision to no longer associate with them.
Differences in values
Although adults can sometimes pass down their values to their children, sometimes the exact opposite happens. After all, when children become adults they have the freedom to form their own place in the world which often comes along with forming their own opinions. If they feel these opinions are greatly at odds from those of their parents, it may lead to estrangement.
Abuse or trauma
Unfortunately, not all families are happy and healthy. Sometimes the cycle of abuse and generational trauma can lead to family members experiencing abuse or mistreatment at the hands of another family member. Understandably, once the abused party is physically distant from their abuser, they may choose to no longer continue with a relationship in any form.
What are the Emotional Effects of Family Estrangement?
Given that what occurs in families can often have a very prominent effect on our mental health, it makes sense that estrangement can have a profound effect on families. Some of the most commonly cited emotional effects of family estrangement include:
- Low self-esteem
That being said, the emotional effects of estranging from a family member can not be summed up simply. For some individuals who make the decision to distance themselves from a family member, the emotional consequences of staying in contact with their family member may have a much more dire outcome.
How Long Does Family Estrangement Last?
Sometimes, family estrangement can be finite —i.e., it can last a lifetime. However, there are certainly some cases where estrangement can be a temporary state of being. Some of the factors that may determine how long an estrangement will last include:
- The severity of the falling out
- The ages of the parties
- The amount of time that has passed
Although it is certainly possible that a family estrangement can last the remainder of the lifetime, in reality this simply isn’t so. Oftentimes, estrangements are reconciled — especially if there is a mother involved.
How Can Family Estrangement Be Prevented?
Given that we are able to pinpoint the most common reasons for family estrangement, it would make sense that there are measures that can be taken to prevent an estrangement. Some of the common actionable items that can be taken to avoid a family estrangement include:
- Setting proactive boundaries with your family members
- Family counselling and individual counselling
- Practicing healthy communication within family units
- Healing generational trauma
Family Estrangement: the Bottom Line
In conclusion, family estrangement is an emotionally laborious but relatively common phenomenon. Although it can be heartbreaking for many, for some individuals it may be the only decision that they have at their disposal in order to protect their mental health and care for themselves. If you are currently estranged from a family member that you are hoping to reconcile with, it is possible and it does happen —however, like most things in life, it is never a guarantee.