You hear it all the time: Blood is thicker than water, and it’s important to stick by family. But for many people—including myself—family estrangement, or not being on friendly or speaking terms anymore, is simply a reality.
Unfortunately, estrangement isn’t something people talk about very often, and it’s shrouded in stigma, says licensed counselor Kelly McDaniel, LPC, who specializes in mother-daughter relationships. This means people might have to navigate these uncomfortable feelings on their own and work through the shame that can follow. But there are a ton of valid reasons why people choose this path, and there can actually be many benefits to it too. Life with my parents felt impossible, but once I chose to distance myself from them, the world became much easier to navigate.
It’s important to note that there’s a spectrum of estrangement, and it’s not always a forever thing, says psychologist Joshua Coleman, PhD, author of Rules of Estrangement. Sometimes people distance themselves or experience a loved one pulling away from them for short periods of time, long stretches, and sometimes forever. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common reasons for family estrangement is abuse, differences in cultural values or identity, and the failure to acknowledge the hurt that was caused, Dr. Coleman says.
When I was 20, I resolved I’d never tell my mother where I worked for the rest of my life. My decision to not stay in touch after I left home was far messier: I had to settle for not initiating contact, just enduring it. Around the same time, I decided I’d never initiate contact with my father, who left our family when I was 14. At one point, he disappeared for seven years, and I assumed he died. He later re-appeared, and I didn’t ask for an explanation, continuing our sometime-y relationship.
Still, as an only child who wasn’t in touch with my aunts, uncles, and 20 cousins, I felt obligated to remain in some contact with my parents. But I also did what I had to do for self-protection, as I saw no possible advantage in staying in frequent contact with people I found cruel and absolutely unreliable in every way. I knew no one else who estranged themself from their family (this was long before internet support groups), and I constantly faced uncomfortable questions like, “So are you seeing your family this Christmas?” I never knew what to say, but I knew replying that I didn’t know if they were alive or dead was not the desired response.
These days, odd things make me sad, like news reports about criminals whose parents assured their kid that they loved them. But, for me, there is one shining, unexpected benefit to estrangement: I’m overwhelmingly happier. Without the burden of my complicated and unhealthy relationship with my parents, life as a whole feels like a cinch in comparison to what it was.
Estrangement isn’t an easy path to walk, and it can be filled with a whole range of feelings—like relief and contentment that you no longer have to deal with an unhealthy dynamic, grief for the relationship you once had, nostalgia for some cherished memories, confusion, and even excitement about what’s to come in the future, McDaniel says. But, because estrangement still doesn’t seem to be a topic that’s often brought up at dinner parties, it’s also not uncommon to feel overwhelmingly alone in your experience. If that’s the case for you, here are stories from nine people on what it feels like to be estranged from their family—whether they committed to that journey or someone in their family pulled away from them.
1. Sometimes it’s about not wanting to make the same mistakes.
“I’ve been estranged from my parents for the past 15 years after they kicked me out during college because I began seeing my boyfriend again. There was a lot of verbal abuse growing up. I set very clear boundaries and asked them to make changes in their lives, but they were unable to recognize a problem existed, so I didn’t want to rejoin [their lives]. I delved into psychology at college, which helped me so things didn’t spill over into other aspects of my life, and I learned how to not make the same mistakes. I now have more of a foundation [in my life]. My husband and I live with his mother, a wonderful person, and two foster children.” —Jamie
2. Estrangement doesn’t always last forever.
“My brother was horrible toward me growing up, with constant physical and emotional abuse and bullying. I was 34 when I broke off contact with him for almost two years. I didn't permanently end our relationship, and we later reconnected because of changes on my part. I needed some time, space, and therapy so I could decide how to move forward. Therapy and the timeout gave me the reset I needed, and I no longer avoided family gatherings where he was present. Our relationship now is still distant, but it's not toxic. About five years ago, I asked him not to joke about the mean things he did when we were kids. He apologized, said he wouldn't do it again, and hasn't.” —Mary
3. Remember: You made this choice for a reason.
“After my child was born prematurely, I realized I didn’t want my baby to grow up in the same toxic environment I did—I endured a lot of physical and emotional abuse for much of my childhood and adolescence. I desperately felt trapped, as if I had no power to escape [my reality]. I’m in [limited] contact with my mother and only speak with a cousin or two because they understand my reasons and completely respect my boundaries. It's really hard raising young children without any family help. At first, it was extremely depressing and isolating, but I've found a lot of inner peace and healing through community and therapy. I know I made the best choice that allows me to be a better mother and person overall.” —Nico
4. And your feelings are valid.
“I ended the relationship with my father when I was 17, when he divorced my mother, left the family stranded with no income or savings, and refused to take any financial responsibility for college eight months before I was supposed to start classes. In one conversation, I drew the line, and he said my opinions and feelings were just a reflection of my mom’s pain. He wasn’t taking my reactions or emotions seriously and didn’t even try to see me as an individual. The only thing I’ve said to him since 1980 was ‘excuse me’ when I bumped into him at a funeral. My coping strategy was to focus on [what I could do to help myself], making a plan to get money for college by waitressing. It felt weird at first to refuse his phone calls the first few times or to walk out of the house when he showed up, but honestly, it wasn’t difficult by the fourth time. … I saw the break with my dad as my big chance to take control and build a satisfying life.” —Julie
5. Wondering if you made the right decision is normal.
“I’ve been estranged from my younger sister for the past 20 years. We don’t speak for a long time, then [we] have contact, and [then] she pretends nothing is wrong. … I wake up angry in the middle of the night, and I think about it under the surface all the time. … I’ve tried to assess if I’m too harsh on her, if I should reconsider my position or compromise. It’s sad as I’ve also had no contact with her two grown kids for a long time and found photos online of her son’s wedding in 2017. I wasn’t invited.” —David
6. It might feel both very right and very hard.
“I’ve been estranged from my biological family for the past 17 years. My anxiety has come from my abusers, and I knew I could not heal if they were still in my life. Cutting ties with them was the hardest and best thing I have ever done.” —Kate
7. You might not fully understand how you got here.
“I’ve been estranged from my brother since 2003, and I didn’t invite him to my upcoming wedding. I think the rift began when our father died and my brother felt the estate wasn’t divided fairly. (It was split in half.) He’s hot and cold and has a long list of perceived injustices. … I wondered if I should apologize for something, and if so, what? Or [should I] make it right? I never imagined I wouldn’t be close to someone in my family; I get along with everyone else.” —Yvonne
8. There are so many people who can relate.
“I’m a mother of a 20-something son who distanced himself from me as COVID set in. There were a lot of conflicting messages, like an emotional yo-yo. He made it clear he wanted no contact with me, but then he did things to rekindle the relationship on his terms. There was no contact for Christmas; a month or two later, he sent me a gift certificate. I connected with Facebook groups, attended webinars, and read books on this topic to cope, which helped me feel I wasn’t the only one dealing with this.” —Donna
9. And no matter what, you can choose your family.
“I’m estranged from the majority of my family on both sides. My father was [sexually abusive]. When I started to speak with my aunts and uncles about this, most had no desire to bring it into the light or examine and heal their pain, but two joined me in a criminal case against him. I’ve felt a great deal of sadness in separating from [the rest of my family] but learned I can choose my family, [and they] don’t have to be my biological family. My life is now much richer on many levels. The emotional connection to biological family can easily become like invisible shackles. Personal freedom is priceless, and getting there takes courage.” —John
These responses have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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