Cutting ties: How to cope with family estrangement

Family estrangement can be painful, confusing and sometimes unresolvable. Even when permanent relationship breakdown occurs, it is possible to find peace.

Regardless of how you rate the British royal family’s relevance in Australia, there is no denying their latest family rift has been headline grabbing and, as far as we know, relationship damaging.

Sadly, a lot of less famous families experience estrangement, too.

While statistics suggest one in 25 Australians is affected, 29 per cent of people in the US reported being estranged from an immediate family member in a recent poll.

“The breakdown of family relationships can occur for so many different reasons,” Relationships Australia national executive officer Nick Tebbey says.

“But at the heart of it is usually opposing belief systems and core values, because they’re what really dictate how we interact with other people.”

Cutting family ties can be painful

Falling out permanently with anyone can hurt, but a family estrangement may be particularly confronting.

“There’s a social or traditional idea that the importance of the family unit is above everything else in terms of relationships,” Nick says.

“As a result, it can feel like not just a loss, but a failing when something goes wrong.”

Therapist and Embracing Change author Jana Firestone agrees.

“We may have had expectations of what our family life would look like and how we imagined our relationships would be,” Jana says.

“If all of that falls away, it can be incredibly destabilising and jarring and can disrupt our own view of ourselves, our identity and our place in the world.

“But just because we are family doesn’t guarantee that we will always be in each other’s lives.”

How to find peace amid a family estrangement

If estrangement impacts your family, the following strategies may help.

Let yourself grieve

This is vital, whether you have stepped away or been stepped away from.

“Even though the decision may have been yours, it doesn’t mean it will always be easy,” Jana says.

“Be kind to yourself and understand that it might take some time to recalibrate, to establish new boundaries and to adjust what these new expectations will look like for you, moving forward.

“Similarly, if the estrangement has occurred outside of your control, it’s important to grieve the loss of the relationship, no matter how fractured it may have been, while at the same time allowing the other person space and being respectful of the boundaries they’ve put in place.”

Find someone to talk to

This can be key, particularly if the estrangement was not your choice.

“Ensure you have people to talk to outside of your own family, so that there’s no risk of triangulation – or pulling other people into the conflict – and to give yourself the space to talk through your thoughts and feelings without any bias or judgement,” Jana says.

Let go of expectations

“Getting closure is helpful if you’re left feeling confused after an estrangement,” Nick says.

“So if there’s an opportunity to get that by having a respectful conversation at some stage in the future, then that’s fantastic.

“But it’s also really important to accept that may never be possible, which is where self-reflection to try and unpack what occurred is critical to help you find a way to make peace with what’s happened.”

More on family relationships:

Written by Karen Fittall.