With Christmas just around the corner, many will be finalising plans to see their families over the festive period. Yet for others, family relationships are challenging, distant and a source of pain. In some cases, relationships break down entirely leaving people estranged from close relatives.
Results from a new online survey of people estranged from family members that I conducted with the charity Stand Alone, has shown how difficult Christmas can be. The survey was completed by 807 people who identified as being estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child.
Almost all identified the holiday season as the most challenging time of year, describing feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness. These feelings and experiences are in direct contrast to the idealised images of happy families around the dinner table that feature in Christmas advertising and the media at this time of year. One respondent said:
Everyone always says ‘what family plans do you have for holidays?’ and look at you funny when you say none. It’s hard to explain to people why you don’t want to be with your own parents.
Two-thirds of the respondents felt there was a stigma about family estrangement. They described feeling judged or blamed – and feeling that estrangement was a taboo subject about which there is little understanding or acknowledgement.
No two estranged relationships looked alike. Yet common factors often led to estrangement, such as having mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, clashes in personality and values, and emotional abuse.
Estrangement was found to be more complex than simply a lack of contact or communication between family members. Although most of the respondents who were estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child had no contact whatsoever with this individual, approximately 25% had contact that was minimal in nature. These results are similar to those of Australian social worker Kylie Aglias, who has distinguished between family members who have no contact at all (physical estrangement) and those whose contact is infrequent, perfunctory, and often uncomfortable (emotional estrangement).
We also found that estranged relationships change over time and that cycles in and out of estrangement are common. Of those who said they wished that their estranged relationship was different, most wanted a relationship that was more loving, warm and emotionally close.
What can be done to help?
When it came to getting support, respondents said those friends and support services which offered them emotional and practical support and took the time to listen to them and show them understanding were the most helpful. They found it unhelpful when they felt friends or counsellors dismissed them or when they felt they had been judged and blamed for the estrangement.
It would be wrong to assume that all those experiencing estrangement wish for there to be reconciliation in the future. Feelings about the future of estranged relationships were varied. Of those who were estranged from a mother or father, most felt that there would never be a functional relationship between them in the future. Yet for those who were estranged from an adult son or daughter, most felt that there could be a functional relationship in the future or were unsure of the future direction of the relationship.
Four out of five respondents also reported that there had been a positive outcome from their experience of estrangement. These included feeling more free and independent, feeling happier and less stressed, and having gained a greater insight or understanding of themselves and relationships more broadly.
By listening to the hidden voices of people who are estranged from close relatives, we can begin to move beyond assumptions about what families could or should look like and begin conversations about families and family relationships as they really are.