How Do You Handle Being Estranged from Family?

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated: December 24, 2019

How Do You Handle Being Estranged from Family?

Being estranged from family can be really difficult. And even when, remarkably, it is not as difficult—when we know our boundaries, have made our choices, and have formed our chosen families—we come up against the narrow cultural expectations that bubble up around, say, holidays like Christmas or Mother’s Day.

We asked Santa Monica–based family therapist Ashley Graber how she helps clients navigate boundaries, loss, and the holidays. “Every day of work, I’m helping people fight against some societal norm that has them really fighting against their own inner core and their own beliefs,” she says. “When it comes to estrangement, clients tell me sometimes the shame is worse than the loss of the person.”

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A Q&A with Ashley Graber, LMFT

What kind of family and estrangement issues do your clients face?

The people who come to me are struggling with the fact they’re estranged from somebody or they are considering estrangement from someone. In every case that I’ve had, people have bumped up against societal norms, which seem to be the biggest cause of shame around the decision they’re trying to make. Our society leans toward the family—and we’ll say often that we should put family first, regardless of anything else.

In many of the cases I see, there is either abuse or addiction in the relationship. One client who comes to mind was struggling with people’s reactions to the fact that she was estranged from her parents. She was physically abused by her father when she was younger and her mother didn’t do anything to help, despite knowing that the abuse was happening. This woman had made the decision to be estranged from her parents but was feeling so much pressure. Even a past therapist had responded to her with this sort of societal norm: that she should be in a relationship with them. It really sent her into a depression, as though she were doing something wrong.

In her case, estrangement was for safety and security. It’s not always cut-and-dried. A client of mine had parents who were addicted to drugs and alcohol, and they are still addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her decision to become estranged from her family came out of recognizing how unhealthy it was for her to be around them—even though it’s painful to not have a relationship with her family. She decided her sobriety was most important.

How do you help clients understand which boundaries are worth upholding?

The crux of our work is really understanding the person’s reasoning and also understanding the whole story: If there has been a history of abuse, for example, and the family has had an opportunity to work through that, then they might end up going on as a family who can heal from it. If you get clear around what the abuse was and how it affected you, and you’re in a place to be able to be with the people who might have perpetrated the abuse or been privy to it, that becomes a part of the work. I try to help the person have a center core, have self-esteem, and process the trauma—whatever that trauma may be—to the point where they’re not activated by it.

But there’s a range; it depends on what we’re talking about. In cases of abuse or neglect, which can often be included if a child grows up in a home with addiction, there’s a long line of trauma that happened. That’s what we work together to figure out: Where are they in their healing process? Is this the right decision for them, based on their own trajectory and in their healing? And then, how to go about that. It’s facilitating the conversation and understanding what happened, to help a client to be able to put their emotions into words. Because oftentimes what will happen, especially in cases of abuse, is that the person has difficulty even talking through it.

I’ll give you an example: I did talk therapy for a long time with a client to try to help her understand her estrangement from her family. In the process, we uncovered a lot of the trauma that she had experienced, and we used EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)—a trauma modality—to help her work through some of the trauma and even be able to continue discussing the different layers of it. In our work together, through talking about it, through doing the trauma processing and reprocessing, she was able to get clear that most of her discomfort was being driven by societal norms. At her core, she didn’t feel like it was safe for her to be in a relationship with her family; estrangement was right for her.

One of the things that’s really important as a therapist is to help a person come to conclusions on their own. Although I could’ve told her my conclusion from a very early point in our work together, I never said that to her, because that was just my thought. It was a theory I had about it. But she was able to come to that on her own, in the process of talk therapy and trauma reprocessing.

What questions can you ask yourself to try to figure out what’s right for you?

Is it safe for you to be in a relationship with that person? Do you know what safety means to you? What kind of sensations do you notice and what emotions come up when you think about being in a relationship with that person, when you imagine it, and when it actually happens? What happens in your body somatically?

If your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations are pretty okay, then it gives you good information. But if every time you think about being in a relationship with that person or being in the same room with that person, you feel your heart race or you get sweaty or your stomach hurts, then these are somatic indicators that there’s work to do. And that could be cognitive work, just working with our mind and figuring out our thoughts, or that could be somatic work or trauma work to help reprocess any traumas that may have happened.

What do you do when someone wants to explore reconnecting with family they’re estranged from?

If a person wants to be reunited but they don’t know for sure, we talk it through. What is it that I’m upset by? What can I compromise about? What could I actually deal with? And what is the role the other person’s going to play? We do have to think about that—not everyone is willing to get back into a relationship.

Most estrangements aren’t because of one big thing. It’s not like people wake up one day and they say, “I just don’t know how this happened and so much time passed by.” If you want to reconnect, it’s important to understand what it is that happened for you, and what your part in it is. And get comfortable with vulnerability: If you’re going to try to reunite with somebody, it’s going to be vulnerable because there’s a chance you could be rejected.

The other person may not be willing. But the act of trying to find out for yourself why you’re in this place—and what your part in it is—gives you the best chance at facilitating a conversation that can come to a positive conclusion. Because most of the time, it’s little things that add up over time, and there’s all this space in between. Oftentimes people don’t even know why they’re upset anymore, and then their stories are so different from what the other person is experiencing.

What tools are there for people considering estrangement?

The idea of measured contact can be really helpful, because it helps people build the boundaries and have some of the power that they never had as a child or even in later life.

If you’re thinking about estrangement and that is something that feels necessary, you don’t have to initiate a full-blown estrangement without doing measured contact first. You start by figuring out how often you would like to be in contact with that person or people.

Second, decide the type of communication you’re comfortable with and decide the length of time that the planned, measured contact will go on for. It could be one month, eight months, a year, two years, whatever. I invite the person to come up with mental reminders of why they’re doing this in the first place. Having something to be able to refer back to as the reason why they’re doing this helps them organize mentally when they’re in something emotional, so that they don’t emotionally reason with themselves.

In the measured-contact realm, there’s a specific amount of time, and it can be explained to the other person: “I really do want to get along with you and have a better relationship, but it might be helpful for us to take some time apart.”

The hope is that you learn in the midst of this trial where your boundaries are. When a person builds their boundaries slowly and over time, then they may be able to be in the relationship in question, because they have boundaries that they may never have had before or never have been allowed to have before in that relationship.

And what if, after that period, you feel like estrangement is best?

One of the biggest pieces of all of this is that, once we make the decision to be estranged, we also have to process our loss. In this country, we’re not great at processing grief. We sort of package it up and put a nice bow on it and we can often shove it to the side. If you lose a family member or you lose a friend this way, it can be felt like a death. So we really want to take time to process that loss.

For your clients who are estranged from parents or siblings, how do you help them navigate the cultural pressure to be in those relationships?

This is a boundary question: What people express and share with other people is a boundary. I feel like every day of work I’m helping people fight against some societal norm that has them really fighting against their own inner core and their own beliefs. When it comes to estrangement in my practice, clients tell me sometimes the shame is worse than the loss of the person.

I help people to understand what their boundaries are and what they’re comfortable with. I’m thinking of one person who is estranged from her mother and has done a ton of work. But she also doesn’t really want to share with people. At her core, she doesn’t feel like it’s other people’s business.

So we have a plan in place for what she shares with other people, including on holidays, and on Mother’s Day in particular, which is a difficult time. On Mother’s Day, she had a date with a friend and was going to be with this person all day. If people asked her what she was doing for Mother’s Day, what felt comfortable for her was to say, “Mother’s Day is a day I spend with chosen family.” When people say things and she doesn’t want to talk about it, she’ll say something to the effect of, “My relationship with my family isn’t always easy.”

And if and when people push her—because they have—she’ll say, “I have somebody that I talk to about this, and I don’t have my thoughts all clear, but when I do, I’ll consider bringing the topic back up.” She just keeps it really simple, and then she’ll get out of the conversation if somebody’s pushing her. That is her boundary. You’re allowed to have a boundary around this; you don’t have to share it with people.

Ashley Graber is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a meditation and mindfulness educator and speaker. She has a private psychotherapy and meditation and mindfulness practice in Santa Monica, California, and created the Mindfulness for Families Program at the Center for Mindful Living.