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In a Family, Estrangement Means Crisis

The world of family estrangement can be complicated, best navigated with openness and empathy

By Tracy K. Ross

Family estrangements, in the best of times, bring isolation and hopelessness. But as the family experiences a crisis — a death in the family, a parent becoming ill or cognitively impaired, a divorce — it brings confusion and often longing for a way to connect, and a glimmer of hope that past hurts can be put aside so families can rally around the problem.

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As a family therapist, I routinely hear stories about "cutoffs." There is an event or a disagreement and family members stop talking. Sometimes the estrangement is unspoken, but the rift goes on for years. The shame involved in acknowledging family cutoffs hides the widespread nature of the phenomenon.

The decision to heal a family rift is multi-faceted; there is a surplus of fear and uncertainty when grappling with the emotions and practicalities of finding new ground.

In fact, while researching this article, everyone I spoke to had a personal example. (I am using their first names only.) In my practice, I have also seen how a crisis can be an opportunity to reconnect with estranged family members or can be a trigger for past hurts.

Jackie's Story

Jackie looked at her brother Scott's name on her phone contact list. For the tenth time that morning, she thought about pressing the call button. Spending another day on the phone with her father's oncologist, primary care doctor and surgeon, while comforting her mother, was more than she could handle.

For the first time in six years — since the family's relationship with Scott became strained — she felt the acute loss of her brother's once-close support. Even though the doctors reassured her they could watch and wait over the coming months, Jackie envisioned a hospitalization and "no visitation" scenario brought on by COVID-19 precautions and considered whether now was the time to reach out to her brother.

The family had been close, but their parents (74 and 72) never hid their disapproval of Scott's girlfriend when she entered the picture. And over time, Jackie adopted her parents' views.

After Scott married Sonya and the babies arrived, estrangement ensued: "If you can't respect my wife, I can't trust your influence on our kids," he said. Perfunctory visits wiped away all traces of the once-close relationship.


Emma's Story

Dorothy and Joe, both 70, took great pride in their daughters' close relationship, routinely describing the three sisters as best friends. Emma's sudden announcement that she had fallen in love and was leaving her husband came as a shock.

Instead of receiving unwavering support, the news blindsided the family. How could she do this to her children? Emma, in turn, felt betrayed. Why were they so worried about her husband? The family teetered on the brink of cutoff as a rift — accompanied by old grievances and past hurts — rose to the surface.

Healing a Family Rift

I met both families when they were struggling. In Scott's family, the "now or never" moment presented an avenue to break the ice and reconnect. In Emma's, the crisis triggered by her leaving her husband had everyone worried about irreparable damage to the family relationship. 

The decision to heal a family rift is multifaceted: There is a surplus of fear and uncertainty when grappling with the emotions and practicalities of finding new ground.

The immediate need of the here-and-now offers relief from the circular conversations and allows an openness to softening.

This turned out to be the case with Scott's family. The crisis provided an opportunity to begin a slow, intentional process of reconnecting. Emma's family wasn't able to mend right away; they needed time to process the differences and eventually accept the new normal.

Some wounds must be addressed in order for a relationship to move forward while others will never be resolved, and the only option is to agree to disagree. Without new tools for safe communication and the possibility of acceptance, a continuation of the cutoff is almost predictable.

A skilled family therapist can help everyone consider options for redesigning the relationships.

The Impact of Crisis on a Cutoff

When you have been deeply hurt or betrayed, cutting off the source of the hurt may feel like an act of empowerment. The break offers needed relief from acute pain while sending a message and establishing firm boundaries. 

But over time, the absence of contact and the loss of family get-togethers highlights the collateral damage. 

Any type of crisis may spark a desire to restore contact. Crisis itself tends to soften intractable feelings around the split. Even small shifts in one person's approach can kindle the healing process. 

If you are successful at initiating contact, realize that crossing into new territory may take numerous interactions over time.

Reaching out is scary. It's normal to be nervous. Check in with yourself at every step; this requires vulnerability with the risk of opening old wounds without finding a new way forward. 

When reaching out to an estranged family member, consider whether you want to do it alone or with professional support. If the estranged person expresses openness, say thank you and indicate why you are initiating contact.

5 Ideas for When You Are Ready to Try to Connect Again

  1. If there is a current crisis that is time sensitive, put it out there: "I want you to know how much I appreciate your willingness to be in touch. Mom is not doing well, and I wanted to include you in what's happening."
  2. Affirm that you are not there to re-litigate the past: "I just want to say up front that my goal in this conversation is not to go over what has already happened. Dealing with the crisis has made me re-evaluate, and my hope is that we can find a new way to move forward."
  3. Reassure them that you do not assume an ongoing relationship: "I'm doing this without expectations, I want to share what's going on, and my hope is we can find a way to reconnect, even a little bit."
  4. Be willing to listen without being reactive: "I appreciate your willingness to have this conversation. I'm committed to listening to where you are coming from. I may not get it right every time, but I am open to what you have to say."
  5. If it comes from the heart, apologize or take responsibility: "I'm sorry I judged you and didn't listen to where you were coming from; I've had time to think abut it and realize how hurtful my reaction must have been."

If you have regrets and are willing to own your part in the cutoff, let the other person know. Empty apologies have a way of causing more damage to an already delicate situation. Only bring it up if the regret is authentic. And be specific.

If you are successful at initiating contact, realize that crossing into new territory may take numerous interactions over time. Building a lasting relationship is a process. Remember: communication that feels like the whole situation is backsliding may be the bottleneck that opens into a whole new relationship. 

Working It Through and What Happens Next

Once a family decides to reconnect over a crisis, there is a honeymoon phase often followed by an intense pull to rehash "what happened" as if fact checking will settle the issue. People often resist hearing each other's experience, feeling somehow threatened. The avoidance mechanism is automatic, but it is never successful. 

An emotional experience that is not validated does not heal; there must be an openness to reconnect, bond and express empathy. A crisis requires attention in the present, which may be just enough to allow past wounds to be put to rest and new ways of relating to emerge. 

Crises present rare opportunities for family healing, but only if they are navigated with empathy, openness and an absence of pride.

Contributor Tracy K. Ross
Tracy K. Ross 

Tracy K. Ross is a couples and family therapist in NYC.  For over 25 years, Tracy has been working with couples at all phases of their relationships including pre-marriage and post-divorce. In addition to couples and family therapy, Tracy’s specialties include parenting, discernment counseling, collaborative divorce, sex therapy and running Optimal Sexual Experience groups for couples. She has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Therapy, Gottman Method, EMDR, and Relational Sex Therapy. With graduate degrees from Columbia University and Fordham University, Ms. Ross is a licensed clinical social worker, organizational psychologist, certified discernment counselor, and collaborative divorce coach.
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