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Don’t Judge My Estrangement From Family — It Saved My Life

flickr/Pierre Guinoiseau

When it comes to understanding the deeply personal pain of being estranged from family members, the stigma is as severe as public knowledge is shallow.

Because I’m a standup comedian and therefore, by default, kind of a monster, I jokingly compare the broad spectrum of families to The Cosby Show. On television, the Huxtables were the perfect multi-brown family. Off-screen, the family’s persona was ruled by a narcissistic rapist who used that family-friendly image to wreak havoc on the lives of dozens (and dozens) of women. In other words, the only family anyone should be passing judgment on is their own — everyone else’s is an exercise in speculation.

But thanks to Hollywood, daytime television, holiday marketing, social media, and deeply ingrained cultural norms, we have a very fixed idea of what family should look like. As a result, many “non-traditional”—non-binary, non-nuclear families—have trouble legitimizing themselves on the public stage. Non-biological children of adoptive parents, a category in which single sex couples often exist, for example, are constantly faced with social pressures to connect with their birth parents—despite a lifetime of love and support from someone (or someones) to whom they’re not directly related.

When it comes to understanding the deeply personal pain of being estranged from family members, the stigma is as severe as public knowledge is shallow.

People are often ill-equipped to discuss family estrangement without projecting their ideas of how families “should” look—even when a particular familial situation doesn’t fit that narrative.

As someone who’s estranged from a sibling, this is something I know far too well.

I have often found myself in heated arguments with people whom I consider to be good friends because their family dynamics are so wildly different from my own; they’re quick to vilify the concept of estrangement, even if I say that it saved my life.

I used to just take my older brother’s insults — when he called me fat, or ugly, or stupid growing up. I used to take the same insults from his friends. I used to write furiously in a diary about the bruises and the fights. I used to think it was my fault when he blamed me for my own rape, instead of offering the slightest bit of compassion or support. I used to feel ashamed when friends would question my decision to stop speaking to him or when my parents constantly guilt tripped me to make amends because they couldn’t handle the reality that they had raised two children who despised each other. It was the worst kind of toxicity — the kind that demanded my silence so that others could feign normalcy, when there was nothing normal about that relationship.

I don’t have friends like that anymore — because, much like the people I now call family, I can and do choose better for myself.

Society, however, doesn’t always see that.

While we expect people to demonstrate care for a stranger fleeing a burning building, the same level of empathy—even for a friend fleeing a traumatic family situation—is not extended in the same way.

I can honestly say that the two scenarios are not all that dissimilar. Yet, a one-dimensional depiction of family is so deeply conditioned that it’s almost incomprehensible to imagine one that functions better in fragments. But admitting to being one of those fragmented families is a subject of public derision, not understanding.

In fact, according to Dr. Lucy Blake, psychologist, researcher and author of the 2015 report Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement In Adulthood, 68% of adults estranged from one or more members of their families believe that there is a stigma around family estrangement, citing fears of judgment and assumptions of fault or blame as a source of shame.

“When you’re dealing with [family] relationships, people often underestimate how difficult it can be,” Blake tells me over Skype. She emphasizes that families are complex, because people are complex, but television [paging Cliff Huxtable] and social media often skew public expectations of what family should look like.

It was the worst kind of toxicity — the kind that demanded my silence so that others could feign normalcy. Click To Tweet

“We see perfect images of families on Facebook and Instagram — but the truth is that reality is just a bit more complicated.”

The truth is, it only takes a moment for a person on the periphery to cast a verdict on someone who’s made the decision to go no contact (NC) with family members. Often, though, such a decision was reached after years of trauma at the hands of people society tells us we have to love and respect.

“Estrangement does not result from one conflict, one type of interaction, one type of relationship, one type of parenting style, or one significant event. It is a complex and socially situated phenomenon,” says Kylie Agllias in her 2013 paper entitled “Family Estrangement.”

Her research was quoted in another study—“It Was The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back”—which notes that estranged families are constantly challenged with ongoing public demand to “socially situate themselves and justify the dissolution of a relationship.” This puts NC individuals into a position that erodes the critical boundaries estrangement provides, which many individuals confirm open communication channels did not.

This was certainly the case for Laura*, a 33-year-old sales professional who hasn’t spoken with her mother in more than six years. “Just don’t judge — you can’t assume that everyone has loving, caring parents,” she says. Laura believes that going NC was an act of self-preservation, but it has come at great personal cost. “I’ve definitely lost friendships over the whole thing.”

Laura says that going NC was a decision she was only able to make after years of repeated physical, emotional and psychological abuse.

“One of my earliest memories of my mom, was when my brother dropped pencils on the floor and she rushed into the living room and beat the crap out of me with a broomstick instead,” she says. “I was 4 years old.”

As a child, she didn’t know anything different, but as she grew older, she says she started to pay attention to the effect the relationship had on her, and the people she cared about. In her most traumatic personal moments, she said, her mother had an uncanny ability to manipulate situations and use them against her.

“Two days after a near fatal car accident, she [my mom] said to me ‘you’re so useless — you can’t even kill yourself properly.’

How do you say that to your child?”

According to the authors of “It Was The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back,” the key to public understanding around why estrangement happens is the backstories.

Abuse, both emotional and physical, is a common denominator in the backstories I heard as to why people choose to go NC with family members. In fact, in Agllias’ 2016 paper entitled “Disconnection and Decision-Marking: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents,” abuse, poor parenting, and betrayal are cited as the three major underlying factors as to why family members become estranged from one another.

For Lavender Wolf, it was a combination of all of the above. I became acquainted with him when we were artists in Berlin, running in similar circles that supported artists of color. As we became closer, we realized we had so much more in common than our occupations. He says that an emotionally detached mother, absent father, and a physically abusive stepfather have permanently altered his family dynamics. After ten years of no contact with his father, Lavender says repeated questions from his former partner led him to reach out during Christmas of 2013. Initially the interaction was cordial, but as Lavender began to open up about his life, he noticed that his father was dismissive of crucial aspects of it.

“I told him about me, about where I live, that I’m gay because he didn’t know that… and he responded to everything except the fact that I’m gay and that I have a partner.” After a lifetime of his absence, it was the indirect rejection of major parts of his life and his past that ultimately led Lavender to question wanting to re-establish a relationship with his father. “I told him about how abusive my stepfather was and he said that if he had known, he would’ve done something.”

Abuse, poor parenting, and betrayal are cited as the three major underlying factors as to why family members become estranged from one another. Click To Tweet

“It felt violent to not be able to talk about my life and my partner, to have that ignored — and on top of that, how could [he] say that he didn’t know these things were going on?”

This “parental indifference,” as Sharp, Thomas, and Paxman refer to it, is a common theme in the backstories of estranged children:

“Unlike maltreatment and abuse, where adult children reported being actively targeted by their parents, indifference occurred when children were ignored, overlooked, disregarded, or not believed.”

As they discuss further, it is the combination of both abuse and indifference that ultimately drive people in Lavender’s situation to seek greater distance.

“He had so many excuses as to why he couldn’t be in my life… why he wasn’t there when I needed him, and none of them were good enough.”

Despite the often harrowing reasons that lead individuals to go NC with family members, the research conducted in Dr. Blake’s paper indicate that the outcomes can be extremely beneficial. Of the 807 participants in her 2015 study, 80% agreed that estrangement had had a positive effect on their lives saying they felt “freer, more independent, and stronger.”

Of all the individuals who shared their backstories with me for this piece, none regret the decision to go NC. While most agreed that feelings of sadness are inevitable, some referenced feelings of indifference or resignation. They also emphasized that the decision to cut ties was an important exercise in exerting their own autonomy. It allowed them the room they needed to take responsibility for their emotional health, create more positive relationships, and establish boundaries that helped to repair years of trauma.

These are people who, for years, tried to love and support family members who stole money, invented horrendous lies for financial gain, were violent or sexually abusive, who devalued every autonomous decision their victims ever made, reduced their self-worth to a fraction of its true value or permanently traumatized them from being able to trust anyone else.

And they all agree unequivocally, that going NC was an act of necessity, not a source of shame — though public stigma and the social expectation of reconciliation often prove to be continuously re-traumatizing.

“What people found really unhelpful was being pushed in any direction — to forgive, or to reconnect,” says Dr Blake. “Rather, they found that being listened to and believed was very helpful.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Laura, who asserts that going NC with her mother was the hardest thing she’s ever done, and it’s a choice that requires a great deal of support and compassion.

“It’s important that if someone is going through that situation, you just listen. If they’re not speaking to their family, there’s a reason why — what do they need from you?”

For Lavender, the decision to be NC is an exercise in redefining the concept of family to one that is healthy and that doesn’t subscribe to standard conventions of what a family should look like. “The people I decide to hold close to me are adding something that feels healthy and good… As an adult, I can make that decision.”

Dr. Blake agrees that creating more space for different variations of family, and normalizing those variations, is key to offering better support networks for people outside of the traditional framework. “There’s so much diversity in families that you don’t see on TV and they’re no less legitimate. I’d like to see more friendship-based families, which are increasingly popular alternatives.”

And why not? Let’s just roll out the increasingly popular concept of Friendsgiving year round — if blood is thicker than water, than turkey gravy surely has blood beat.

There’s so much diversity in families that you don’t see on TV and they’re no less legitimate. Click To Tweet

Every now and then I find myself in a situation where I’m asked why I don’t speak about my brother. I’ve experimented with a variety of colorful diversion techniques — my favorites being: “stay in your lane” and “look over here; I’m baking a pie!” — But if the interaction gains enough traction or depth, I inevitably confess that the reason why I don’t talk about my brother is because we’re estranged.

Like Laura, I’ve lost friendships over it. I’ve lost relatives over it. But instead of mourning the family persona that never fit my reality, I’ve chosen to create room for a better one that does — where friends, colleagues and partners fill my life with the kind of love that helps me to be a better, happier person…

…Just like in Living Single which, I think we can all agree, was an infinitely better example of families as they are, not as they should be.