What do you do about a strained or broken relationship? We’ve all been there in one way or another. Whether it’s discontinuing a relationship due to disagreements or arguments, mistreatment in some form, or recognizing that it’s just safer or healthier to distance oneself from another person or group or people, this is a decision that is never an easy one to make.
Granted, it may eventually become ‘easier’ as time goes on and you begin to realize that split had to occur for you to be the healthiest version of you. But leading up to that decision, it’s never a cut-and-dry, simple decision.
There are so many factors that go into estrangement. But before we go into that, let’s first define what it even is. Some have coined this process “Emotional cutoff,” which is a term coined by American psychiatrist Murray Bowen.1 It has been described as “people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them” in order to reduce their anxiety.2 This type of distancing can happen on a physical level – literally moving far away from someone in your past or simply refusing to see them; or on a more interactive level -avoiding sensitive topics of conversation or otherwise closely “managing” the relationship through one’s behavior and manner of communication.
I’ve seen this many times in my work with others. Some clients note a history of mistreatment and/or abuse that leads to them making this decision. Some may note that their family member or even friend is just too emotionally unstable to figure out what their next moves are, not knowing what is going to come out of their mouths next, and therefore it is safer to distance themselves.
The point is, it never feels good to say, either explicitly or non-verbally, “I’ve had enough. I can’t take anymore.” Maybe there was a final argument that precipitated the split. Maybe you just walked out of the house after one last meal, deciding to never go back. Whichever way it has looked, the act of estrangement in and of itself brings up a range of emotions, including but not limited to fear, worry, guilt and resentment. It even can trigger people to have negative responses just by the thought of setting such a hard and definite boundary.
According to a Psychology Today article by Susanne Babble, PhD, she notes “Some people choose to cut off a family member not because of abuse but because of religious belief, conflict, betrayal, addiction, mental illness, and criminal or unhealthy behaviors.” 3
Dr. Kylie Agllias notes that “when a person is estranged by a family member, they generally experience a range of immediate grief, loss and trauma responses. Bodily responses such as shaking, crying and feeling faint are common, alongside emotional responses such as disbelief, denial and anger. People often ruminate over the estrangement event or the events that led up to the estrangement. Over time, most acute emotions and bodily responses seem to decrease in intensity, and generalised feelings of hurt, betrayal and disappointment might emerge.”4
Most of the research indicates that being estranged by a family member is one of the most painful events across the lifespan. It is intensified by: (a) its unexpectedness, (b) its ambiguous nature, (c) the powerlessness it creates, and (d) social disapproval.5
Oftentimes these breaks within the relationship happen so out of the blue for those on the receiving side of the deal that they don’t know what to do with this newfound information, this sudden change in the relationship dynamic. Furthermore, it remains unclear what the terms are. “How long do I go on without continuing contact;” or on the receiver’s side, “How long will my loved one [family member, friend] continue on without talking to me?” It leaves a lot of room for guesswork and being in the dark. And that creates a feeling of helplessness. You wait by the phone, the computer, the door, the mailbox to hear from that person, only to be disappointed again and again. Perhaps there’s even a thought process of “should I reach out first, and if I do, how will it be perceived?” “Should I just wait to hear from them??” The questions remain elusive, painful, and without a blueprint on how to move forward. It feels like you’re on a hamster wheel of emotions with no clear way to move forward.
Finally, there are people in your circle who just may not get it. You may hear them say such things as “blood is thicker than water,” as a suggestion to continue to be in contact with family who may have otherwise hurt you. They may tell you to pray on it. Or if it’s a friend, there may be a sentiment of “friends are the family you choose,” and therefore there is pressure to reach back out to this person.
During the holidays when you are the one not going home and not eager to do so, people question your character and your ability to forgive and forget, even your desire or willingness to love. They don’t get it. They don’t understand the years of hurt, pain, and turmoil behind your already difficult decision.
What are the triggers and what can I do?
This is what you’ve been looking for. An answer to what to do with the triggers surrounding estrangement. First, know that triggers may happen expectedly, such as the date of your estrangement or the last time you all saw each other; or birthdays, anniversaries, or such holidays as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Mother’s Day as examples.
The triggers can also come unexpectedly. This can include hearing a song that reminds you of the loved one, seeing a movie or TV show that you all used to watch or enjoy together, or even seeing someone who looks similar to that person. Furthermore, if you happen to hear other stories of estrangement through people you know or even don’t know (eg., stories on the news, on social media, etc.), this can trigger an emotional response within you.
“So what do I do with this information?”
Good question. There are several things – 3 to be exact – that you can do to and for yourself when coping with an estranged or strained relationship.
- You can first and foremost engage and indulge in self-care. What does this mean? It means making sure all of your mental, emotional and physical needs are met. Eat a proper diet, exercise or move around, doing something you truly enjoy, and do something like read. This might be a good time to begin to practice mindfulness and meditation, bringing yourself to the moment of now, the present, rather than ruminating on what you all may have had. Insight Timer is a wonderful app to help cultivate your meditation and mindfulness practice. There are several more out there, but that one is my favorite!
- Next, you can begin to process the relationship in various ways. Perhaps it’s in the form of writing a letter to the person you miss. You may not even send it, you may just choose to crumple it up and throw it away, shred it, or even burn it. But it is a way to express yourself and get your thoughts down on paper (note: I suggested writing on paper, not typing it. There is something additionally therapeutic about the physical process of writing). Furthermore, you can seek out a therapist/mental health clinician who can help you sort out your thoughts and feelings towards this person and make sense of the complicated nature of all of the emotions you may be experiencing. Psychology Today, amongst many others, is a great website to find a local therapist in your area who may be able to help.
- Finally, you can attempt to reach out to the person in order to mend what has been broken. Only you will know when the time is right. There is no prescribed amount of time that passes before you decide that the time to act is now. Be kind, compassionate and understanding with yourself and your process. For some it may take weeks, months, a year, or even many years. There is no wrong answer or time frame. A wonderful resource I’ve recently discovered in helping with this part of the process is Lost Connections Greeting Cards (LCGC), an innovative and compassionate card company to reach out to your estranged loved one. Complete with various seasons or reasons on the cover, and pre-populated messages in the cards, it is one of the most precise and on-point cards I’ve seen that express what may otherwise be hard for you to do, whether you don’t have the words, time, or emotional energy to do so. They take care of the hard work for you. Trust me, they clearly have put the research into the development process to ensure that the odds of success (whatever that may be in each of these relationships) are greater with what you choose to send.
So there it is. I truly wish you the best of luck in mending your broken relationships however you choose to do so. Remember, practice self-compassion and kindness when it comes to this process, as it’s never easy, but it sure is worth it in the long run knowing you gave it all you could to save what was salvageable.
1, 2. Babble, S. (2011, 22 July). Effects of Trauma: Estrangement From Family. Retrieved From https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/somatic-psychology/201107/effects-trauma-estrangement-family
3. Babble, S. (2011, 26 July). Reconciliation After Estrangement: It Takes Care and Time To Reconcile with a Loved One Who Has Become Estranged. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/somatic-psychology/201107/reconciliation-after-estrangement
4, 5. Agllias, K. (2014, October 3). “You’re Dead To Me,” Why Estrangement Hurts So Much. Retrieved From https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/family-conflict/201410/you-re-dead-me-why-estrangement-hurts-so-much-0