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Levels of Estrangement

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."

What's in this Section

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.

Family estrangement could mean that one person is estranged from another, or that a person is estranged from multiple family members, a single family member or the entire family itself.

The reality is that there is no life book for estrangement. Each situation is different, and often there are years of unresolved trauma and underlying concerns that lead to this kind of event happening. Below are some examples of estrangement scenarios, but please know this is not an exhaustive list.

  • 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

Dr. Kirsten Lind Seal Explains Family Estrangement

Nuances of Estrangement

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. 

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."

A breakdown of the different levels of estrangement.

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. Please note that Together Estranged does not provide professional mental or psychiatric advice and therefore does not have evidence or research for the levels of estrangement we've described above. These are our interpretation of the estrangement experience and where we feel most people fall into.

Cordial Contact

Often the beginning stages of estrangement, cordial contact takes place when a person first begins to question shte health status of the relationship they have with their family member. A greater awareness of how one feels with this person has taken place. Perhaps that family member has said or done several hurtful things in the past, there has been a severe argument or their family member has shown little effort to make amends after trying to communicate with them. Cordial contact seems to be a first step towards questioning the entire foundation of a relationship with someone - and as a person is pondering over what they should do next, they may remain cordial with this family member for some time. Some ways that cordial contact takes place:

  • Coming over as frequently as before, but beginning to question the motives of the person

  • Starting to become more observant of interactions and how one feels around this person

  • Feelings of wanting to potentially keep the relationship going, but not sure how to make it better

  • Replaying certain instances with this family member to try and make sense of what's happening

Family estrangement is very complex and unique to each individual's situation - in some cases, someone may be vocal that they're going to need to distance themselves for a little while as they try to make sense of what's going on. In others, cordial contact is more of an internal process that takes place as someone questions the authenticity of the relationship, oftentimes when they don't feel safe enough to communicate their concerns to their family member. They may have previously tried to communicate with their family member but have found that this did nothing to improve their relationship. For those contemplating sibling estrangement, this article on Considerable breaks down some healthy questions to ask yourself during this particular stage of estrangement.

Low Contact

As time passes, and as a person has continued assessing their relationship with their family member they may begin to feel as though the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to distancing themselves. For example, someone may notice that they feel less anxious, upset, angry or depressed when they’re further away (emotionally and/or distance-wise) from their family member. They may notice that they have more time for themselves and that space feels good - almost as if they can breathe again. For others, time apart from their family member provides them with greater clarity and allows them to return to the relationship feeling more confident in what they need from them in order to heal and move forward.

When someone chooses to go "low contact" with a family member, they seem to become more conscious of their efforts to distance themselves from that person and the relationship. They may purposefully call less often, may stop coming over or may avoid holiday events because they don't feel safe (be it emotionally, physically, sexually, etc.) around this person anymore. For many people who go "low contact", this is a stage with a lot of conflicting emotions: guilt, confusion, frustration, anger, exhaustion, sleepless nights, freedom, sighs of relief, questioning and anxiety may be present, along with other symptoms. 

As one person describes in an article by Psychology Today, 

"I went low contact for a year beginning in 2018, meaning that our only communication was texting. I was in therapy, and began to see the patterns of abuse.."

Just as they say that, "you can't see the wood for the trees", sometimes being tightly enmeshed in a challenging family relationship can make it harder to see clearly. For this reason, going low contact can sometimes prove to be a useful strategy for taking a break and assessing one's priorities.​

Low contact doesn't always mean that a familial relationship is destined for estrangement, but sometimes it is. In some instances, low contact occurs for a period of time while both parties recollect themselves and gain greater clarity on what they want out of the relationship - in many other cases, low contact seems to be a place of exploration and curiosity for a better future regarding one’s mental health, sanity and overall safety (even if this doesn’t involve the family member). Ultimately, the focus seems to be a shift from “what can I do to fix this?” to “I’ve done a lot up to this point, maybe I deserve better”.

No Contact

No contact is another stage of estrangement and occurs when a person no longer makes an effort to communicate with their family member(s) for a period of time. This could last weeks, months or years depending on the nature of the situation.

In other cases, no contact occurs even when no conflict was involved - an adult child may never speak with their cousin, for example, not because they don't get along or because their cousin has done something hurtful, but because the two never got to develop a close relationship or connection. While more research needs to be done on the stages of estrangement, we contend that "no contact" is different from "complete estrangement" with the differentiating factor being whether or not a person considers there to be a relationship with that person - even if the relationship is stagnant.

Another example of this - someone who isn't talking to their sibling for a few months over a serious argument may still consider their relationship with their sibling to exist, just not very strongly at the time (no contact); someone who is completely estranged from their sibling would likely feel an immense loss over the relationship, as the emotional connection and meaning between the two no longer exist (complete estrangement - as if the two were strangers). 

Complete Estrangement

Complete estrangement occurs when a relationship with a family member (which can extend to the entire family) no longer exists. When a person is completely estranged from family, they no longer feel emotionally connected to them. Conversations surrounding the birth of a new baby, marriage, a promotion at a job, moving, or otherwise life-changing news is not shared with these family members anymore. Someone may change their phone number, to not be contacted by their family member again. It's an incredibly heartbreaking experience because, for many people, all they wish is to love and be loved by their family. However, certain situations and vast differences in viewpoints may perpetuate a disruptive relationship that jeopardizes someone's happiness, health and well-being - after so long, they may find that their life improves when those family members no longer play a role in their lives. 

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.