Family Estrangement

“[Family estrangement can be defined as:] ‘the breakdown of a supportive relationship between family members.’…

…despite the relative prevalence of estrangement, people suffering through it often describe feeling judged, stigmatized and misunderstood. As a result, they tend not to talk about their experiences, a reticence that has led to what some experts have called a ‘silent epidemic’ affecting many of today’s families: a wave of strained relationships and estrangements that are going unacknowledged, and thus without any semblance of support.”

—Lauren Sproule, “Family estrangement a ‘silent epidemic’.” Broadview. September 18, 2019.

The magic relationship ratio is useful for understanding estrangement. The central idea of the magic ratio is that there needs to be five positive interactions (or more) for every negative one in order for a relationship to be good.

It’s not necessary to create a balance sheet of positive and negative interactions. Most of us do not want to live our lives that way. But, instead, treat it as a guideline and ask yourself for each relationship you have: how’s the ratio on this relationship?

If we think about relationships over the long term, perhaps we might be inclined to look at some relationships as having more positive interactions in the bank, particularly with family with whom we have a longer history. But, in any relationship, these reserves can be exhausted. For most relationships, the correct response to a bad ratio with no reserves and no prospects of change in the future is to end the relationship.

But for family, our mental model tends to be that family is forever. Instead of ending, family relationships become estranged. On one level, this makes sense. A familial relationship implies a fabric of interwoven relationships, and even when one thread is cut, there are other threads binding us to the extended family.

I remember having a conversation with my mother-in-law about my estrangement from my mother. She said:

“But, she’s your mother. How could you not talk to her for so long?”

It’s not just my mother. If I choose not to have my mother in my life, it also makes it impossible to go to weddings, funerals or holidays where she might be in attendance because the likely outcome is that some unwanted drama would overshadow the event. These conflicts create situations where people have to chose sides and decide whom to invite or risk open conflict ruining the occasion.

And, it’s not just families. You see the same kind of phenomena when couples break up. It’s not just one relationship that ends or fractures. It touches everyone in that social circle to one degree or another.

But, we accept this as part of friendships. Friendships end. Marriages end. But, family relationships can only become estranged?

And, there’s probably an underlying concern. My mother-in-law must look at my “estranged” relationship with my mother and wonder whether that could happen to her too. If I could not talk to my own mother for more than a decade, could I not do the same to her? And if I could do it, then it is in the realm of the possible that her own children could too?

Easier not to face the tough answer to that question: Yes, I/they could. Rather, it’s better to not entertain the possibility or try to push for a reconciliation. Or, faith is put into the fact that family ties bind in a way that prevents estrangement. And while there is good reason to believe that the larger family network can help heal some of these divisions, the prevalence of estrangement suggests it’s not true to the degree we would like to believe.

At heart, estrangement is almost always when something else is casting a shadow on or is prioritized over the relationship in a way that compromises it, i.e., the relationship is characterized by a bad magic ratio that has or will deplete all reserves of goodwill. There can be many reasons for this that cannot be helped, such as mental illness, addiction, etc.

Sometimes, people are jerks. That’s life. But, there is a small subset of people that are jerks almost all the time. They live their lives lying, manipulating and doing whatever they want without regard for others. These people are putting themselves above any of the relationships they have with anyone else. Perhaps it is something that cannot be helped. Perhaps it can. But, either way, these people are bad for everyone else to be in a relationship with.

Some relationships go bad due to choices. If your father has recently been “born again” and is hell-bent on sharing the “good news” at every opportunity? He’s putting something else above your relationship. If he pushes it to the point it creates a bad magic ratio that exhausts the relationship reserves, estrangement is a very likely result.

It’s perfectly acceptable to estrange yourself from jerks and people that care more about their beliefs than they do about you, even if they are your mother, father, sister, brother or someone else in your family. But, it’s hard because you aren’t just looking at one person but a whole group of people, and they all weigh in the balance.

I guess the moral of this little essay is that you have to do what seems right to you. Hopefully, this provides some food for thought. You should try to put relationships first, but if someone is consistently harming you, you should accept the fact that you may need to cut them out of your life. Do it, and don’t worry what other people might think.

6 thoughts on “Family Estrangement

  1. Agreed.

    I am a gardener, I will give you anything out of garden but don’t touch my compost, it is a sacred blend that took months to form.

    ‘Anything’ organic can be composted as you know, some things just take more time than others to break down and become non toxic.:)

      1. In Bengali, there’s an expression: if you want to swim in the river, you have to learn to live with the crocodiles. I think it is better not to swim in crocodile infested waters. The trick is not to forgive the crocodiles. The trick is not to get eaten by one. That’s easier when you don’t spend your time where they are.

  2. Very thought provoking.

    I luckily never experienced familial estrangement (that seems like a really painful long term one) but we all will experience ‘endings’ in Relationships. Assuming we are all unfinished and/or wounded on one level or another it seems hopeful that any relationships actually survive….perhaps with help from the “magic relationship ratio”.

    “Humans, other people……that is the “Wild Card”

    Lately I have bristled at the word “closure”, from observation there is no real closure without “compost”. Taking those parts of relationship that we have discarded or left behind for whatever reason and allowing them to integrate into the new soil of our life we are forming that will nourish us as we go forward. All that pain and discord does not leave when we declare “closure”, it is part of the story. Instead of pushing it away I want to integrate it into my life it in a new healthy form growing with it not in spite of it.

    Nothing is forever, everything changes. My latest challenge ” Forgiveness” ….. how much composting does it take to get there?:)

    1. Everyone may be wounded. And, sure, we need to make allowances for the shortcomings of others, let go of old hurts and forgive. That said, some things cannot be put in the compost pile. The feces of carnivores, for example, have parasites and are breeding grounds for pathogens. Making them fit for the compost pile is more trouble than it’s worth, assuming it can be done at all.

Comments are closed.