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“There is a difference between love and a relationship”: What it means to be estranged from your family

how to navigate estrangement
How to navigate estrangement Justin Case - Getty Images

Ah, the family – supposedly a haven of lovingly homecooked meals, mischievous pranks, and matching Christmas pyjamas. A unit made up of, as fictional Mafia boss Tony Soprano (obviously an excellent example of the benefit of family ties) once observed, “the only [people] you can depend on”.

Except, of course, most people’s experiences aren’t like this. In fact, despite all the grand promises of the family – unconditional love, steadfast loyalty, and unceasing emotional (and financial) support – many people are actually left with unresolved trauma and a myriad of attachment issues (Chic!). And yet, although we all know this, we continue to aggrandise the family as some kind of universal sanctuary from the ruthlessness of everyday life. In turn, those who dare to challenge this status quo by cutting ties with their family – whether by choice or necessity – are stigmatised, often positioned as having ‘betrayed’ their familial ‘duty’.

“The hangover in our culture that family is about duty means that it can become very difficult to talk about,” says Becca Bland, the founder of Stand Alone, a UK charity supporting people with family estrangement. “Even when statistics show that so many of us go through it, it feels like we’re doing something wrong.” Bland says the “end game” of this stigmatisation is that “people end up holding trauma and pain alone, and face huge material and financial disadvantages as they can’t access help they might be entitled to.”

how to navigate estrangement
Family is supposed to be a "haven" Flashpop - Getty Images

As per Stand Alone statistics, one in five families in the UK will be affected by estrangement, while over five million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member. What’s more, 68% of those who are estranged feel that they’re judged for contradicting societal expectations.

No clearer is this than in the press frenzy surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, both of whom are now estranged from members of their families. Rather than interrogate the dynamics that may have led the pair to make these difficult decisions, the tabloids prefer to accuse them of “harming” their families, with Meghan in particular bearing the brunt of the criticism. She, for example, has “savagely punished” her father – a “deeply hurt and bemused” man, who brought his daughter up “with such love and care” – by estranging him “in such heartless manner” over “a silly mistake”.

Family estrangement is often misframed in this way – as a cruel act inflicted upon an innocent and unsuspecting person (usually a parent) for a trivial reason. But this undermines the seriousness of these kinds of estrangements, which tend to be a last resort, often after months or years of contemplation.

Bland herself became estranged from her parents in her early 20s, after, she claims, surviving abusive dynamics in her childhood. “The most foundational pieces of wisdom [that I’ve learned from my own estrangement] is the difference between love and relationships,” she says. “We love our family members, so we feel we should accept any behaviour, but this isn’t a healthy and safe way of having a relationship – our needs matter and we have to have boundaries.”

This view appears to be increasingly prevalent among Gen Z and Millennials, posits Bland, because of the destigmatisation of mental health. “Our generation is trying to deal with generational trauma passed down through the family that’s been undealt with,” she says. “As we have more access to therapy, and a better dialogue about the importance of healthy relationships in our lives, we’re doing the work to create a different culture in our families.” But, she adds, this “isn’t easy and people don’t always want to come along with us on these changes.”

how to navigate estrangement
Justin Case - Getty Images

Although there’s no formal data into it, therapists, psychologists, and sociologists have suggested that intentional parent-child break-ups are on the rise in Western countries. There’s some evidence for this in growing online estrangement communities. The #Estranged hashtag on TikTok, for example, has over 41 million views, while the subreddits r/EstrangedAdultChild and r/EstrangedAdultKids have 47,000 members between them. As well as influencing factors like abuse and divorce, the intensifying polarisation of views and values between younger and older generations seems to be a driving force behind these estrangements.

For many families, this has been heightened, or even brought to light by recent major political events like Brexit and the pandemic. During the height of lockdown in New York, Sean, who’s in his late 20s, found that his family had started buying into Covid conspiracy theories. “They’d occasionally call to check in, but only offered their wishful thinking or complete disregard for the seriousness of the virus,” he says. “The lowest moment for me was when my aunt expressed that the Covid stats the state provided were fraudulent.”

Sean, meanwhile, was regularly witnessing people being taken away in ambulances; their families watching on, distraught. Faced with the disconnect between reality and his family, Sean decided to limit contact. In the years since, he’s “gone back and forth many times”, and is still considering becoming fully estranged. “The only thing keeping me tied to that family are my cousins because I care for them,” he continues. “I care for the rest of [my family] too, but they’re too conceited to have an honest relationship with.”

Certain issues have long polarised families, though. Queer people have historically faced denunciation and rejection by relatives who refuse to embrace their sexuality or identity. Though there doesn’t seem to be concrete statistics into the prevalence of estrangement in the LGBTQ+ community, a recent YouGov survey shows that one in 10 adults would feel uncomfortable living at home with their child if they identified as LGBTQ+. A Unite Foundation report also found that estranged students are five times more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than their non-estranged counterparts.

32-year-old Sophie became estranged from her parents and older sister last year, having come out to them as trans. “They rejected me out of hand,” she recalls. “I was told that I’d never pass as my identified gender, that I was ruining my own life, and that they weren’t going to support me because they didn’t want to help me transition. They treated it as something that I was inflicting on them.” As well as outing her to her sister before she was ready, Sophie says her parents never asked her name or pronouns, and “made a point” of calling her ‘son’ and using her dead name. She also found her dad’s Twitter account, where he’d liked and retweeted “endless transphobic hate posts”.

how to navigate estrangement
Maskot - Getty Images

After months of transphobia and gaslighting, Sophie stopped replying to her parents’ texts and calls. They didn’t take it well – she received endless texts, late night phone calls, and letters (though her parents refused to put a name on them) – but Sophie feels like she made the right decision. “When it sank in that I could now live as myself without having to compromise, I felt relief,” she said. “It’s deeply sad that I don’t have a family, but living as myself brings me joy I can’t put into words.” Sophie, like many queer folk, has found family in her friends.

As family estrangement remains so stigmatised, it can feel like a very lonesome minefield trying to figure out whether it’s the right path for you – let alone how to go about doing it. For those, like Sean, who are teetering on the edge of estrangement, Bland suggests contemplating the following questions: “Have I done everything I can to let them know how I feel? Have I given them a fair enough amount of time to work on things and make things better? Have I tried getting a professional involved to improve the relationship? Can we break for a month or so, and then reconsider what’s best?”

If you’re on the receiving end, however, Bland recommends you resist reacting quickly and expressing anger directly, as this can serve to push people further away. “Honour people’s need for space and time, as respect is at the heart of healthy relationships,” she says. Both parties can also call on friends for support, find solace in online communities, or, most importantly, seek professional advice.

None of this is to say that it’s easy to estrange yourself from your family. Quite the opposite – it’s often a long, drawn-out process, and one that results in a lot of trauma and grief. But, for many, it’s not only worth it, it’s essential to their happiness. “You owe it to yourself to live the truest and most authentic existence you can,” concludes Sophie. “Focus on being who you are and loving who you love. If your family doesn’t want to come along for the ride, they’re the ones who lose out."

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