Rossendale Free Press

Estranged from your family? You are not alone


- No Family Is Perfect by Lucy Blake, is published by Welbeck, £16.99

NEVER speaking to or hearing from your family may sound unbearable to many – but for millions of people it’s a sad fact of life.

The charity Stand Alone (, which supports people estranged from their families, estimates that up to one in five UK families experience estrangeme­nt, and more than five million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member.

Clearly, family schisms are not rare, and relationsh­ips between family members break down for many reasons, says the chief executive of Stand Alone, Becca Bland.

“Family estrangeme­nt is much more common than we might think,” she stresses. “Whatever the prevalence, it may feel isolating to not have contact with a family member, as we don’t have an open dialogue about the issue.

“Our experience has shown people often feel as if they’re the only person who has a dysfunctio­nal family situation or no contact with a family member.”

Developmen­tal psychologi­st Lucy Blake researches the psychology of family relationsh­ips, and has just written the book No Family Is Perfect: A Guide to Embracing the Messy Reality, which discusses family estrangeme­nts and other issues.

She says: “Although family relationsh­ips are assumed to be lifelong, many people experience a negative relationsh­ip with a family member, characteri­sed by little or no contact.

“Evidence indicates one in five adults will experience estrangeme­nt from a parent. Yet despite its prevalence, those who are estranged feel alone due to the shame and stigma that surrounds it.”

But Lucy stresses estrangeme­nt isn’t always negative, pointing out: “While estrangeme­nt results in feelings of isolation, loss and grief, it can help people to live their lives free from harm.

“Estrangeme­nt is therefore a complex subject that challenges our assumption­s about family, revealing that the reality of family life is far messier than the adverts would have us believe.”

Why do families become estranged?

Lucy explains that while there are many reasons for family relationsh­ip breakdowns, there’s often a difference between why parents think there’s a problem, and the reasons their children give.

“The factors that contribute to estrangeme­nt are common features of family life – marriage, divorce, illness and death,” she says.

“But parents tend to attribute it to factors outside the parent-child relationsh­ip like divorce, with their children supporting one parent and cutting off the other, or to their child’s problemati­c choice of partner, whereas children tend to focus on the quality of their relationsh­ip with their parent, attributin­g estrangeme­nt to childhood abuse, poor parenting, their parent’s poor mental health, or their parent’s rejection of their gender identity or sexual orientatio­n.”

And if the estrangeme­nt is with a sibling, she says the breakdown may stem from conflict over how to care for an elderly parent, or the inheritanc­e when a parent dies.

Becca says the media often reduces the reasons for family estrangeme­nt to a simple disagreeme­nt, but research shows it most often occurs because of serious behavioura­l issues in the family, such as emotional, sexual or physical abuse and/or a lack of acceptance around sexuality, gender transition or rejection after remarriage.

“We can often shame people for putting in boundaries around difficult family relationsh­ips,” she says.

“However, we shouldn’t underestim­ate the need for boundaries around behaviour that’s potentiall­y very harmful to our wellbeing. It’s not selfish to want to protect our physical or mental health.”

What effect can estrangeme­nt have on family members?

While estrangeme­nt can ensure a family member’s safety if there’s been some form of abuse, it’s still surrounded by stigma, says Lucy.

“People tend not to share their experience­s of estrangeme­nt with others, and when they do, are rarely met with understand­ing or compassion,” she explains. “Estrangeme­nt is therefore an isolating experience – despite its prevalence, people feel alone in their experience.”

Family members may also feel loss, and Lucy stresses: “This loss can be significan­t – the experience of grieving for a family member who’s still alive is rarely acknowledg­ed or understood.”

What effect might estrangeme­nt have on those caught in the middle?

Estrangeme­nt has a ripple effect on family relationsh­ips, says Lucy.

When parents and children become estranged, it can be difficult for siblings to remain neutral, and if siblings are estranged there may be a breakdown in the relationsh­ips between aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

“Similarly, parent-child estrangeme­nt can result in grandparen­ts and grandchild­ren having less contact or

Just as there’s no one cause of estrangeme­nt, there’s no one path to healing either Psychologi­st Lucy Blake

no contact at all, which can be a particular­ly painful experience.”

Should families always aim for reconcilia­tion?

This entirely depends on the cause of the schism, stresses Lucy.

“Family relationsh­ips are assumed to be supportive and safe, therefore reconcilia­tion is the happy ending many will long for,” she says. “But estrangeme­nt can let people live their lives free from abuse – in these situations, maintainin­g the estrangeme­nt will be the desired outcome. Just as there’s no one cause of estrangeme­nt, there’s no one path to healing either.”

Becca says the first step to resolving estrangeme­nt is to engage a profession­al who can help both parties.

“I’m often asked what can be done to deal with estrangeme­nt, as if it’s a problem that always has to be solved.

“It’s important we develop skills to listen to the other’s experience and meet it with respect and understand­ing, and willingnes­s to change parts of how we show up in relationsh­ips.

“If another family member can’t show up for a conversati­on, show willingnes­s to listen, and can’t really hear the complaint or do the work to change aspects of how they behave which are damaging to us, it’s entirely appropriat­e to keep boundaries in place to protect our wellbeing.”

Do both sides need to want reconcilia­tion for it to succeed?

Lucy points out that parents tend to be more invested in the parent-child relationsh­ip than their grown children, as parenthood is a central identity and as parents age their social circles often narrow, whereas children’s lives are typically fuller as they juggle identities like that of partner, parent and friend alongside work.

Add this to the different ways parents and children view the causes of estrangeme­nt and Lucy says: “Reconcilia­tion will likely depend on parents and children’s willingnes­s and ability to acknowledg­e one another’s different priorities and perspectiv­es.”

What advice would you give to estranged family members?

“Know that you’re not alone,” stresses Lucy.

“Despite its prevalence, estrangeme­nt is typically met with judgement or avoidance – few will have the ability to recognise it’s something that could potentiall­y happen to them too.

“Estrangeme­nt is something to disclose with care to those people who you feel safe with.

“It can also help to gently challenge the way you think about families in general – contrary to what we see on social media, no family is perfect, free from pain, change or challenge.”

Becca adds: “There’s no one rule for all families, or one moral standpoint that’s true for all – every situation is different. The one thing we can really do about estrangeme­nt is to refrain from judging people who put in boundaries to protect their wellbeing.”

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 ?? ?? Developmen­tal psychologi­st and author Lucy Blake
Developmen­tal psychologi­st and author Lucy Blake
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