Every year, we are gifted thousands of guides on how to suck it up and tolerate, thwart, minimize or otherwise endure the racism, sexism, homophobia, bad political opinions and general shittiness of some of our relatives, all for the sake of Turkey Time. If we don’t, then what? We’re guilty of not doing it right, of not appreciating what we’ve got (however flawed it might be) for the sake of family and an idealized tradition.
But all this presumes that whatever we’ve got on the family front is worth preserving. What do you do when it isn’t?
When it comes to family, lots of us were dealt a shit hand that isn’t worth the shuffle. And it’s hard to admit when commercial after commercial shows hugs, smiles and happy dogs — glossing over the reality of what many real reunions are like.
So here’s an idea for Thanksgiving: Don’t go. This year, skip it. Sit it out. Do something else. Just. Don’t. Go.
I’ll admit, it never sounds good to say you’re estranged from your family. Telling other people often results in a mixture of pity and judgment — adding insult to injury. In some accounts of estrangement, the estranged adult child learns to rarely speak of the painful fact, because others are so quick to question the decision.
“I have often found myself in heated arguments with people whom I consider to be good friends because their family dynamics are so wildly different from my own,” comedian Jennifer Neal writes about her estrangement from a sibling, who bullied and berated her throughout her childhood. “They’re quick to vilify the concept of estrangement, even if I say that it saved my life.”
Neal cites research from Kylie Agllias, whose paper on the subject found that estranged people often find themselves pressured to “justify the dissolution of a relationship.”
As estrangement expert Kristin Scharp told Next Avenue, the estranged person will experience strong guilt for both the predicament and their choice. “They’ll think, ‘What kind of person doesn’t love their mother? Or what kind of person is not loved by their mother?’ ‘Am I a bad person?’”
This is the crux of the problem: While most of us agree even a nice family can be a real pain the ass, saying it’s so bad you’re going full communication blackout means it’s certainly possible they’re evil incarnate, but it’s also just as possible that you’re a melodramatic, grudge-holding asshole. Also, what’s wrong with you that you won’t work tirelessly to call a truce? Why can’t you just rise above it? Isn’t it worth it? After all, it’s family, and they’re the only one you’ve got.
But recent research into estrangement may surprise you: It’s more common than you think. It’s on the rise. It’s not an impulsive act by a selfish jerk, but a considered move that comes after a long, slow accumulation of painful betrayals — death by a thousand cuts. And most importantly, for many people, it’s the best, healthiest thing they ever did. A lifesaver.
What Makes It Estrangement?
In a recent look at estrangement misconceptions at the New York Times, they define it via experts as an intentional choice to end a familial relationship that is negative. So estrangement doesn’t mean you just don’t speak to your family much, or that you live too far away to make it home much for the holidays. Or that you’re distanced but polite, because maybe you don’t get along that well. It means you’re deliberately avoiding them, and deliberately maintaining the distance between you, because the whole thing is bad news.
By some estimates, it’s 8 percent of adult children in Britain, and 12 percent of adult children in the U.S. Because it’s rarely talked about due to the shame, guilty and stigma, the numbers jump wildly, and experts believe is underreported. Another bit of research suggests 27 percent of adult children will cut off contact with one family member or another at least once in their life for some period of time.
What Does Estrangement Look Like?
You could maintain a relationship with siblings but not a parent, one sibling but not another, a parent but not a sibling, and so on. And there are as many versions of it as there are reasons for doing it. Estrangement isn’t necessarily severed contact for life. Some estranged adult children cycle in and out of the estrangement with instances of contact, only to resume the distance again when the person proves to be the same jerk they always were. The cycling is more common for women than men, as men are more likely to dig in and refuse to engage again.
Adult children are more likely to end the contact with the older parent, usually between the age of 24 to 35, for one or more of four reasons: the parent was cruel/abusive, neglectful, mentally ill in a damaging way, or excessively needy. Even if the final straw is something ridiculous — one recurring anecdote of estrangement is the woman who baked the same dessert as her mother-in-law and caused a rift so deep it could never be healed. But the truth is, the dessert was the straw that broke the camel’s back — a final blow to a longstanding series of instances of rancor and disrespect that proved too much for either person to endure.
As for how people cut off the contact, that varies, too. The Times notes some anecdotal examples from recent research on estrangement:
Some adult children, for example, moved away. Others no longer made an effort to fulfill expectations of the daughter-son role, such as a 48-year-old woman who, after 33 years with no contact with her father, declined to visit him in the hospital or to attend his funeral.
Still others chose to limit conversations with a family member to superficial small talk or reduce the amount of contact. One 21-year-old man described how he called and texted his mother, but not his father, after leaving for college. “They still live together so obviously he noticed and that bothered him,” he said.
It’s Not Impulsive
Though we tend to picture cutting off ties as an impulsive move made in the heat of the moment, experts say it’s a gradual buildup of hostility, toxicity, animosity, painful experiences and sadness that happens slowly over time, not all at once.
That may be because it’s viewed as so severe to refuse to forgive that even people who would benefit most from it, and who are completely justified in doing so, still realize it’s not a good look, and second guess the decision often.
“In our culture, there’s a ton of guilt around not forgiving your family,” Kristina Scharp told the Times. “Achieving distance is hard, but maintaining distance is harder.”
It’s Not a Casual Decision
Family lawyer Trevor Todd, who’s practiced estate litigation for over 40 years, says he’s seen a distinct rise in adult children who no longer speak to their parents, but it’s never for whimsical reasons.
“In my experience as a lawyer, when estrangement occurs, the reasons are usually very understandable, troubling and valid,” he writes. “The departing family member often has been very badly emotionally damaged in the relationship.”
He lists 11 different reasons he’s seen over the years for estrangement in estate battles: Intolerance, divorce, remarriage, mental illness, addiction and domestic violence, verbal abuse, neglect, ongoing toxic dynamic, recurring fights, an unaccepted spouse.
In all instances, rather than stick with it, hang in there, and keep putting up with it, they decide it’s simply not worth it to keep getting batted around by people who are supposed to care for them. But it’s not for lack of trying. In most cases of estrangement, the adult child has made numerous futile attempts to improve the relationship before ditching.
Psychologists back this up: there are a number of valid reasons such as the one above for cutting ties with a shitty family member who simply won’t acknowledge their behavior, much less change it.
Clinical psychologist Sherrie Campbell says any abuse is a justifiable reason to split — verbal, physical, sexual. If the relationship is only negative, that’s a logical reason. When it’s so stressful it affects other areas of your life. When the relationship is entirely one-sided, either in effort made, or in another dynamic, such as you only exist to someone to provide money.
The Stories Are Terrible
Often, in the stories of estrangement, an adult child will feel continually defeated by a parent’s verbal abuse or criticism and just wean slowly over years until making that final break. Consider this chilling anecdote from the NYT research:
It’s been three years since Nikolaus Maack, 47, has had contact with most of his family. But he started distancing himself from his parents and siblings a decade before. “I was staying away,” said Mr. Maack, a civil servant in Ottawa. His father’s temper had always kept him on edge, he said, and he felt that holiday meals were particularly uncomfortable and demeaning. Eventually, Mr. Maack stopped attending Christmas festivities altogether.
Reached by email, Mr. Maack’s father declined to be interviewed but insulted Mr. Maack and said he no longer considered him a son.
It’s Hardest During Holidays
It’s no surprise, then, that even when you have bulletproof certainty that your choice to cut them off was correct, it’s still most painful to be reminded of your subpar family situation around the holidays, when ads, social media and the personal performance of every Facebook friend you have is shouting out family harmony, togetherness and love. When you’re estranged, you can’t even fake that with a staged photo. Even just walking around in the world during holidays and estrangement, seeing families everywhere spending time together, shopping and dining out, feels like you’re window-shopping a humanity you’ll never experience.
But It’s a Positive Choice for Most People
Even though it’s painful to accept that your family is a pack of rabid dogs running loose at a landfill, there is no shame in setting healthy boundaries for yourself so that you might still have a shot at good relationships with people who don’t torment you.
“Estrangement is often a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment,” Scharp told Next Avenue. That’s born out by people who’ve pulled it off estrangement and moved on with their lives. They express regret, but only at not doing it sooner.
That Doesn’t Mean You’ll Spend the Holidays, or Your Life, Alone
What is Friendsgiving, if not the ultimate thumbed nose at a family that couldn’t rise to the occasion? Estranged people typically go on to form their own familial network with other friends or colleagues who act as a kind of second family or chosen family. There are numerous support groups for estranged folks, the only other people who get your bitter mom jokes. (In the U.K., nonprofit Stand Alone offers resources and therapy workshops for the estranged.)
“Many people with estranged family relationships build their own family with friends and others who they surround themselves with,” Scharp said. “Often, they won’t even think of the estranged family as their real family.”
Of course, if there’s a chance to reconcile or heal, you’d take it. But that’s not your life. And you can’t pick your family, but it’s also illegal to banish them to a 2D plane like in Superman 2.
So this holiday, save yourself a lot of pain and suffering and just don’t go home.
After all, we don’t begrudge people from celebrating their freedom and moving on from a marital dissolution. It’s high time we simply thought of estrangement as an even more logical and necessary divorce — just from the family you didn’t even get to choose in the first place.