How does family estrangement start?
If you’ve blogged for more than about, ooh, five minutes, chances are you’ve offended someone with your blog.
Me too, friends, me too.
Except in my case I really, really offended someone with my blog. It’s pretty bad. So bad that I haven’t had any contact with a big chunk of my adopted family for the best part of a year.
If you’re wondering what the HELL happened, well, you’re not the only one.
Where it Started
As best as I can understand, I wrote a blog post that someone in the family thought was about them. They thought I’d written something that eviscerated them in a public forum.
Me? I thought I’d written a blog post about myself, and about families in general.
Obviously, I’m massively self-involved so the post included quite a bit about my feelings. Specifically I shared how I sometimes find it hard to be around my family when I feel like a failure – like when I’m the only one without a job, a husband and a handle on this parenting lark.
That’s very much about my insecurities, not a suggestion that my family regularly get together to hold, “Why is Sally such a loser?” meetings. I also said that my family is brilliant and supportive but – like most families – they’re not afraid to tell me when I’m being an idiot.
I hoped it would be the sort of thing anyone with family would relate to. My relative interpreted it as me calling their family out for being judgmental.
There’s no point saying, “That’s not what I meant!” or “It wasn’t about you!” What matters is that someone was hurt, and I should have been careful, and expressed myself more clearly. That’s on me.
Faced with a furious relative, I was horrified. I tried to explain it was a misunderstanding, I was so sorry, I changed the post right away. My relative sent a couple of irate messages, culminating in them telling me that they were were furious that I could be so disrespectful to their family, especially considering they had always been nothing but kind to me.
And So It Ends
And that was it. End of story.
That part of the family simply hasn’t spoken to me since. They sent Christmas presents via a third party. We don’t know if they received the gifts my daughter chose and wrapped for them, that we delivered to their house. I sent flowers and a letter later, apologising again. Nothing.
It’s hard to keep trying. It’s hard to keep thinking of thoughtful gestures for people who think you’re a worthless piece of trash. But if you stop trying, well, you’re just confirming what they think of you. Or that’s what I thought.
There comes a point where you have to draw a line, for your own mental health. Just because someone decides you’re worthless to THEM, that doesn’t make you worthless. Sometimes you just have to draw a line and say, our family isn’t what it was before. That version of us is gone. It’s done. I’m done. And hey presto, you’re estranged.
The charity Stand Alone estimates that at any given time, one in five British families have someone who is estranged from another family member. Additionally, one in 10 mothers is said to be estranged from at least one of their adult children. I suspect the figures are even higher in the case of families where children are adopted.
Why is Family Estrangement a Secret?
When this all kicked off, I felt guilty, embarrassed and ashamed. I must be a truly awful person to have half my family cut me off, without a word. It hit every sore spot I have around being adopted. Look at me – my birth parents didn’t want me, my marriage failed, and now my adoptive family don’t even want me, if they ever did. WOW, I must be a crappy person.
But actually, the more I talk to people, the more I realise how common these splits are. In all sorts of families. And actually, I’ve seen it first hand. When I was younger, I was friends with a woman, who was divorced, then remarried. Her new mother-in-law didn’t speak to her for years. This was a good, decent, amazing woman most sane people would be THRILLED to have in their family.
Family estrangements are common, I think. But they’re also tough.
I obviously can’t speak for anyone else in my family, but I know it’s been hard for me and Flea. She’s lost contact with most of her extended family in one fell swoop, for an issue that’s nothing to do with her.
My parents (who are remaining resolutely neutral and ignoring the situation in the most British way you can imagine) have lost the joy of having all their children and grandchildren around them on special occasions. And I’ve lost a huge chunk of family, including my only surviving sibling. We’re having to adjust to being a smaller family than we were before, and I’m counting down the days until we can move, and I don’t need to worry about who I’ll bump into in the supermarket.
It’s a Long Road
Lucky for me, I have great friends and parents who are supportive (and know that I can be thoughtless, but rarely malicious). I’m so grateful to have people in my life who let me make mistakes and still want me around.
I do think about what will happen in the years to come. Quite apart from the immediate dispute, it’s the sadness down the line that compounds estrangements. I cried when I had to rewrite my will and appoint new executors and guardians for my girl, because she doesn’t have extended family in her life. Flea won’t have any extended family around when she turns 18, or 21, or gets married.
I can’t pretend that this situation makes sense to me, because it doesn’t. But I can say we should talk about it more. There’s so little insight into why these family estrangements happen, and how they get resolved. Or, if they can’t be resolved, how do we put them into the proper perspective, and move forward?
What I’ve Learned about Family Estrangement
For what it’s worth, I think I’ve learned three things through the process of family estrangement:
- Perhaps some people find it easier to cut off contact with someone rather than deal with a difficult confrontation. That’s especially true if they’re struggling with their own issues. They just might not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with ANOTHER hard thing. The person struggling might be you, or your relative. It might be both of you.
- It’s hard sometimes to understand what makes someone break off contact with a family member. But what seems like a dramatic reaction to one small event probably isn’t. It’s more likely to be the result of an unhealthy dynamic that’s built up over time, perhaps with unspoken resentments. It makes no sense to me that my family cut me off for a blog post, and so I have to assume there are bigger issues and resentments I didn’t know about.
- You CAN apologise, you CAN try to make amends, but you CAN’T make someone want to be part of your life. What you should do is forgive yourself for making a mistake, learn from it, and use that knowledge to have better relationships with people who do want to be in your life.
- Families are complicated things, because they’re made up of people, and people are weird. We all have triggers and soft spots and are inclined to react poorly to things that hurt us.
- If you have apologised and tried to make amends, then it’s time to forgive yourself. You made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be happy or have people in your life who will cherish you. And if you can manage it, try to forgive the other party. They might make mistakes too, and they’re probably doing their best to do the right thing, just as you are. Nobody wins if you let yourself be consumed by bitterness.
Be kind to yourself and try to keep an open heart. You never know when it might be possible to have a healthier, happier relationship with your family in the future.
Estranged from your family? These posts might help
If you’re dealing with family estrangement you might find these posts from other bloggers helpful: