“My grandfather doesn’t approve of my marriage, and has cut me out of his life. I can’t be someone I’m not… but I also feel incomplete without my grandfather in my life.”
Estrangement is a very painful- and often hidden- part of many families. Sometimes, the estranger (the one deciding to end communication with another) is explicit in his or her intentions: “I don’t want to see or hear from you again.” Other times, the estranger simply never responds to efforts at communicating from the estranged (the one being estranged) and doesn’t reach out to the estranged. My assumption in writing this article is that if you are identifying as an estranged person, you have tried to communicate with the estranger, and they have either not responded to your several attempts via different avenues (telephone, email, letter, stopping by) or they have explicitly said they do not wish to be in communication with you. At this juncture, it is safe to say that you have made all the reasonable effort you can make, and that a return to communication will have to happen through future efforts of the estranger.
When you become estranged, rejection, loss, grief, shame, unworthiness, and a host of other debilitating feelings may come to the fore. To be estranged- especially by a relative- is one of the most triggering of the human experiences. A family is oftentimes a symbol of security, love, and acceptance- and yet, here, you are experiencing instability, indifference, and rejection. The most important thing for you to know is that the estrangement is often not about who you actually are. In fact, estrangement is most often indicative of the social and emotional intelligence of the estranger. Many people- when they have a disagreement with someone- are able to initiate a dialogue about the conflict and come to a place of healing and relationship preservation. Not so, with the estranger. Barring a hard “no-contact” boundary on account of abusive history perpetrated by the estranged, the estranger is often incapable of maintaining healthy relationships with people whom they find challenging- and sees no reason to develop this capacity.
Some people deeply value family and family connections, and others don’t. This can be one way that estrangement happens: if a relative does something you don’t like and you don’t value family, it might be easy to decide you never want to see that person- or his or her children- again. On the other hand, some people deeply value family and family connections- so much so, that they have developed an enmeshed experience in their families, where identities blur and the choice of a relative is seen to reflect either poorly or positively on oneself. In this case, it may be very painful to estrange a relative who has made a choice you wouldn’t make for yourself- and yet you might value your “pride” or “honor” over keeping the relationship intact.
I put the words “pride” and “honor” in quotations because they are smokescreens hiding something not so positive in the shadow aspects of the estranger’s consciousness. Much estrangement comes from the estranger judging something about the estranged and “disowning,” or cutting that person out of the estranger’s life- and sometimes, out of a whole nuclear family or branch of the extended family. The example quoted at the beginning of this article is an example of such a case. When the estranger is judging the estranged, it is very often coming from self-hatred, via the psychological process of projection. The estranger sees something in the estranged that the estranger has been rejecting in him or herself, pushing consciousness of these traits or tendencies down so as not to think about them- though they often do manifest, anyway- simply in ways the estranger is not willing to see or address. A dramatic example of this is the phenomenon of right-wing, openly homophobic politicians who are found to be soliciting gay sex in public bathrooms. These politicians are projecting their fear and hatred of their own homosexuality onto others, actively oppressing an entire group of people. At the same time, they are engaging in the action they say and believe that they hate- albeit surreptitiously and anonymously (until they are arrested, publicly shamed, and their political careers are ruined!) While projection doesn’t often have such a dramatic consequence, the consequence of families being broken apart on account of someone’s unchecked projection is a major disturbance in the fabric of the family and in the emotional well-being of all family members involved.
If you have been estranged by a relative or a branch of the family, the pain is real. You may not be able to reunite your family, but there are several things you can do to take care of yourself.
Cultivate Your Compassion
The very first thing we need to do when we’re in pain is to acknowledge the pain and to be gentle with ourselves. If someone asks about the relative who has estranged you, it’s okay to say you haven’t heard from that person and that it’s something you’d rather not discuss. Take time to journal if that helps you. This is also a great time to seek the company of friends and other relatives who will be able to support you as you navigate the waters of estrangement. The care of a psychotherapist is a powerful tool on which to call, especially at a time like this. In your work with a therapist you may be able to uncover your personal emotional and cognitive symptoms resulting from the estrangement and develop coping strategies for them. You may also be able to address the healing possibilities described in the next two sections, Heal Your Relationship, and Fill Your Life With Loving People.
Further, when we consider the deep suffering that the person who has estranged us must be experiencing, it is a little bit less painful to be estranged. When we see that this rift is on account of someone else’s suffering and that it is out of our hands, we are able to let it go. Take some time to consider the magnitude of confusion and pain that the estranged must endure every day to be able to cut a part of themselves off- like cutting off a hand, or a leg. When you envision this suffering, you may begin to realize that your own suffering is not even the half of it.
Heal Your Relationship
While the estranger has made it clear that they no longer wish for a relationship with you, you still have the capacity to heal your relationship- or the representation of that relationship- within yourself. Two ways I suggest doing this are through prayer and forgiveness meditation. Prayer means different things to different people, but in this case, it would involve sending up prayers for the estranger to find peace and healing.
Forgiveness meditation is a process where you allow your heart to rest on the ways you have hurt yourself and others, and the way others have hurt you- all out of confusion and pain- and to cultivate forgiveness towards yourself and others. When you are able to see the pain and confusion out of which you and others have acted, you are more able to actually feel forgiveness. People who are suffering cause others to suffer. This meditation cuts through the illusion that the estranger is acting from a place of strength, pushing you down and hurting you. Remember that to forgive does not mean to forget. While forgiveness may allow you to not carry hatred any longer in your heart, you are still able to use discernment about whom you welcome into your life. I have heard it said that forgiveness is “the abandonment of the desire for the other to suffer.” Here is a text version of a forgiveness meditation, as well as a 10-minute video meditation, both by Jack Kornfield.
Fill Your Life With Loving People
The beauty of our highly populated and internet-connected world is that there are so many people to befriend. What may seem like a loss of the estranger is actually an invitation to broaden your “family” to include new people. Your tribe can be an international powerhouse of loving, supportive people- if you want it to be! Unlike the distant days of small villages and only ever knowing the same 200 people your entire life, you can now build a family of choice. Whether in your city or town, or with people you have met while traveling the globe- in person or virtually- you can find community. Don’t let the grief of familial rejection hold you back from finding your tribe. And don’t let that grief cause you to shutter your light. Let your light shine, and find others who are sending out the same signal. There is a community for everyone, and community is- from my personal and clinical perspective- the most important factor for mental health. There is a tiny fraction of the human population that genuinely does not feel benefit from being in community- if you know you can benefit from building your social circle, reach out and find your people.
Even deeper than the general concept of community, we also all need people in our lives who fill certain roles. There are numerous archetypes- or characters with specific traits and behaviors- that cross cultures and are found in all of our psyches, according to Carl Jung. Examples could be the mother, the brother, the priest, the hermit, the father, the crone, the fool, the teacher, the judge, etc. When we are able to embrace the elements of these archetypes within our own psyches, we are most whole. It is also helpful and stimulating of growth to have people in our lives who play some of these roles for us. In an intact family, you would have an actual mother who is nurturing and compassionate and patient and an actual father who is supportive and loving and encouraging. However- whether through estrangement or not- some parents aren’t actually like this. In that case, you can become friends with older women or men who treat you in these respectfully maternal or paternal ways. I want to be clear that this is very different than the often-criticized “daddy issues” or “mommy issues” that some people have: a need to be taken care of by an older man or woman (often in a romantic relationship) on account of being rejected by one’s actual mother or father, or an angsty need to rebel against an older man or woman (such as a boss at work, landlord, or professor) on account of some unresolved anger towards one’s actual mother or father.
Your tribe can be comprised of not only age-peers who have your same interests, but multi-generational kindred spirits who are role models and mentors for you, and for whom you are a role model and a mentor. You don’t have to have any actual sisters or brothers to love people as if they are your own siblings. Let this estrangement be an invitation for you to turn around and embrace others.
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
If you have experience healing from estrangement, please share it in the “comments” section. The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!