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Levels of Estrangement

Estrangement isn't always an all or nothing experience. In fact, there are many levels in-between.

A breakdown of the different levels of estrangement.

Read through the levels by clicking through the slides.

What's in this Section

The dictionary defines estrangement in a few different ways:

"The fact of no longer being on friendly terms of part of a social group."

"The state of being alienated or separating in feeling or affection."

"Estrangement happens when something - or someone - makes you feel like a stranger."

Estrangement is a spectrum and not a "one-size-fits-all" experience, and someone may fluctuate between different stages as the relationship and circumstances change.

Family disagreements may seem small on the surface but can add up over time. In fact, certain events that seem to be the "sudden cause" of someone's estrangement are often the cherry on top of a long history of unresolved issues. If these family members were not able to work out their disagreements, or if one or more individuals have been unsuccessful in trying to communicate with their family member about what's been causing the deterioration of their relationship, it may indeed collapse.

It's also important to note that estrangement doesn't just apply to situation with a parent. Someone may be estranged from a step-parent or parent-figure, aunt/uncle, son/daughter, cousin, grandmother/grandfather, sibling, etc. Estrangement can essentially occur between anyone in a person's nuclear or extended family.

 

Estrangement is a spectrum and not a "one-size-fits-all" experience, and someone may fluctuate between different aspects of estrangement over the years and as the relationship and different circumstances change. 

Problems that have stacked on one another leading to estrangement can be exacerbated over time by external factors, such as other family member strains, mental health concerns, physical illnesses, etc. While the "solution" to family estrangement may appear simple to others, it can be very complex and highly personal. 

  • Not feeling loved, supported or accepted

  • Physical/sexual/psychological abuse or neglect

  • Poor parenting skills

  • Substance abuse

  • Issues related to money

  • Extreme differences in religious/political beliefs

  • Spousal conflicts

  • Childhood trauma 

  • And more

Nuances of Estrangement

Dr. Kirsten Lind Seal Explains Family Estrangement

Those who are indirectly involved in someone's estrangement, like a person's friends, coworkers or other acquaintances, may never truly understand what goes on beyond the surface because they are not on the immediate receiving end of a strained or abusive family relationship.

In a 2020 article by Glue Ottowa titled "I'll be Home for Christmas: Breaking the Stigma around Family Estrangement", Dr. Megan Gilligan - a sociologist, gerontologist and professor at Iowa State University explained that sometimes estrangement is a better option for someone's wellbeing than being forced to conform to societal normal and remaining in a dysfunctional family system. She stated,

"We need to understand that families who have an estranged member are most likely families that need these boundaries between members. We need to know that sometimes this is what is best for some people and we need to honor and respect that."

When someone is estranged, they typically do not have a healthy, ongoing relationship with their family member. Communication may be very limited, knowledge about a person's day-to-day events may be very small, or family members may interact but have little genuine conversation with one another. For anyone going through this experience, it can feel very confusing, hurtful and messy. Those who decide to estrange themselves may feel isolated, depressed and experience low self-worth. For all sides, estrangement hurts.

Should I Become Estranged?

Identifying whether or not to distance oneself or "cut off" a family member can be a stressful situation, and a person may spend weeks, months or even years trying to figure out how to best go about the dynamic that's developed between themselves and their family member(s). The choice to move towards estrangement is a very personal one, and anyone contemplating this should feel supported and empowered to make the decision that is best for their mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing - whether that's reconciling or stepping away from a toxic relationship.