What You Don't Know About Family Estrangement
14 stories of mourning, beauty, and power
The vast majority of societies on this planet still understand family as their primary, most cherished bond. Blood relation or not, there is an understanding that forsaking these bonds is a form of unforgivable treachery, understandable only in circumstances of abject trauma. Within this paradigm, all parties should do whatever possible to maintain the bonds of family, even if those bonds require continued suffering.
In some societies, this understanding is changing. There are several, overlapping reasons for this change — related to mobility, LGBTQ rights and visibility, access to therapy, and more — yet for people who are estranged, the experience can still feel incredibly solitary. Most people who aren’t estranged are very, very bad at talking about it; in society at large, estrangement remains something to be “sorry” about: a regret, a sorrow, a throbbing absence.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are so many reasons why people cut off contact with close and distant family. Some are immediately legible in description, others are not, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that contact became unendurable, damaging, or, in my case, brought out the very worst in who I was. As you’ll see in the answers below, it is rarely swift. It is rarely without pain. But that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.
While putting together these responses, I was reading Rin Reczek and Emmy Bosley-Smith’s Families We Keep, forthcoming this May, which surveys the various negotiations of LGBTQ people who’ve chosen to maintain or cut off ties to family members. It’s a difficult book, filled with rejection and compromise intercut by flashes of stability and support. And their conclusions are bracing: they argue that “compulsory kinship,” in which we work to sustain bonds to family irregardless of the harm those bonds have caused, is at once insidious and deeply damaging.
“The compulsory relationship between parents and children might sound like a great deal to some—especially those with healthy parent-child ties,” Reczek and Bosley-Smith write. “Of course, the parent–adult child tie can result in a life full of positivity, love, and kindness. But for many people this is not the case. We believe if parent-adult child relationships aren’t good for everyone, then parents’ primacy in our social structure and in adult children’s social identities must be questioned. Even though there are some “good” parents, the fact that “bad” ones have so much power should provoke us to radically rethink our societal reliance on this kinship institution.”
Reczek and Bosley-Smith invite us to consider what an “ethic of care” might look like, in which all people, no matter their age or their existing family, could experience “a sense of belong and identity, alongside emotional, practical, and financial help.” That sense can come from community, but it should also come from the safety nets we put in place as a society. Put differently, your safety and nourishment as a child, as a young adult, as a parent, as someone with specific medical or emotional needs, as an aging person — none of it should be wholly contingent on the luck (truly!) of being born into a family that is financially or emotionally able to provide them for you.
All of these stories, as one of the respondents put it, are “beautifully complex.” If you’re estranged, I hope they make you feel less alone in some way. If you’re not, I hope they offer some insight into how to talk with and support those who are estranged — but more importantly, that they push you to think about what’s lost when we rely so fully on family as our primary source of support.
Content Warning: The testimonies that follow include reference to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
V, 38, Intermittently estranged from father for many years; fully for the past 14 years
My father left my mother and I when I was two. He started another family immediately after — marrying the woman he had cheated on my mother with — and had very little interest in me.
When I turned 19, he emailed me out of the blue. At first I had no interest in hearing from him, but after a while his claims of having been maligned by my mother and “accidentally” abandoning me were compelling and persistent enough that I became willing to hear him out. His emails increasingly bothered me: the way he questioned me about my likes and dislikes, as if they were a way for me to prove my worth as likeness to him; the adoring way he wrote about his second family; his evasiveness when discussing his role in the past; his increasingly obvious materialism and narcissism (he bragged about gifting all my half sisters breast augmentation surgeries when they turned 18, because his daughters were expected to look a certain way, as just one example)…
Every interaction left me feeling the very weakest, most insecure version of myself. The final straw happened in an email where he made light of another relative’s suicide, at a time when I had written how devastated I was by it. I had a bit of an emotional breakdown, a switch flipped from loss to rage, and I realized our relationship was irredeemable. I cut off all contact from him and haven’t looked back since.
A lot of people who have not been through estrangement treat it as something that’s temporary or decided on a whim. In my experience, older people tend to react negatively, or try to milk it for gossip, or just gloss over it. Younger people offer less prying and more empathy in every setting: personal, professional, or medical.
I am a far better (more emotionally healthy, present, centered) partner without my father’s voice in my life and in my head. I parent in a way that values presence, connection, and unconditional love and I know that’s in direct opposition to large parts of my childhood experience. I am decisive at protecting myself and my family from potentially dangerous, toxic people. I am no longer willing to give out undeserved second chances. I am averse to dysfunction in all relationships. I’m extra empathetic. I am a good judge of character by reading people in contrast to a spectrum of my father.
You don’t owe anyone your mental health as some sacrifice or proof of family. Save yourself. Run your life and your family differently. And get help from a therapist if you need support.
Rourke, 26, Estranged from mother for 5+ years, father for 2+ years
People and media representations assume that estrangement is about a single disagreement or argument, rather than the culmination of decades of strain or stress. They also assume that nothing else was attempted, and that if both parties simply talked it through, it wouldn't be necessary. But I tried using many different conflict resolution methods with both of my parents, and I explained to them the pain they were causing me, and then tried to mend our bridges again, and it just didn't work. Some people will not take a step towards you, even when you've taken nine steps towards them.
I became estranged from my father after he revealed to me that he had been lying to me when he called me his son, and that he honestly felt he could never see me as anyone but his daughter. I became estranged with my mother after she threatened to crash the car my sister and I were passengers in because she was angry. This was, again, part of a larger practice of threats and mistreatment from childhood.
People think it's about personal dislike, or about being an ungrateful child that doesn't want to give back to your parents. My aunt admitted that she saw things my mother did and said to us and didn't think they were right, but then continued to ask me to try to speak with her again since “she was my only mother, after all.” People generally understand my estrangement when I bring it up in terms of abuse, but it isn't until I open up those painful memories before they stop trying to awkwardly convince me to forgive her.
I don't field much bullshit anymore, now that I'm out as a transgender man. When people hear I'm estranged from my parents, they assume it's because I'm trans. Since they're halfway right, I just talk about my estrangement from my father, and let my more complicated estrangement with my mother go unaddressed. I also avoid saying anything about my parents. If someone else brings up what their parents are doing for the holidays, I'll say something to direct the conversation towards the holidays and away from talking about parents. It's a dark blessing, being able to ward off questions because people assume both of my parents rejected my existence.
I mourn the loss of so many things. All the questions I wanted to ask my father about being a man. Help learning how to shave. The experiences I hoped I would have with him during my transition. I wish I could have the feeling of security, of knowing there were people out there who were older and wiser than I am, and that knew and cared about me enough to share some of that wisdom and experience. Being able to turn to them to learn about the history of my family, where we've been, who we've been.
But I have a sense of well-being — and a weight lifted off my shoulders. Estrangement has changed my relationship with my friends, who stepped up to volunteer to be a chosen family for me, and to involve me as an honorary uncle if/when they have kids. It helped me get closer to my middle sister, who had become estranged with my mother for years before I took that leap, and she showed me ways to set those boundaries and maintain them, and gave us both an opportunity to speak about painful memories we hadn't had anyplace to talk about before.
Most of the people in my life understand or have some level of estrangement themselves. When you look back at the decisions you've made, you know that you have done all that you could to change this relationship to one that is supportive, kind, and welcoming. There is nothing we can do to change people; we can only offer them a safe place to change themselves. We were just unlucky that our parents chose not to change with us.
No one becomes estranged with their family because their dad ate the pudding they were saving for the party next week. But they can become estranged with their family because their father has been disrespecting them — occasionally, maybe in ways that seem minor on the surface — for years. Estrangement is a permanent solution to a permanent problem.
Bea, 40s, Estranged from her father for 20+ years
Estrangement does not have to be the result of some explosive, easily pinpointed traumatic event — it can be a slow accumulation of factors. And the estrangement itself can manifest organically, with no fireworks or slamming doors, just the eventual realization that you haven’t spoken in a few years. It’s not like a divorce; no paperwork is involved.
My father is an archetypal baby boomer with a myopic kind of misogyny that that often entails. He was very much "head of the household" of our Evangelical Southern Baptist family. His priorities seemed to be his career and his image and then perhaps his sons, and from a time when I became aware of the double standards for myself and my mother in our home and in our church, I began to resent his dismissiveness toward women specifically, and lack of evident empathy in general. I think our lack of consistent contact since I left home after becoming an adult has been a mutual source of relief.
It can sound like a bigger deal to outsiders than it is to me. It’s not an absence that looms large in my life, because that’s all it is: an absence. It only becomes awkward when people make assumptions in conversation: most people my age still have a parent or two in their lives, and I have one that’s dead and one that I don’t keep in my life, and that’s a casual-conversation-killer.
I appreciate my partner so much. I hope he knows that, but I’m also going to show him this just to make sure. He is a kind, warm, and loving person, and I know that he finds it difficult to navigate through the expected social norms and niceties when we do have occasional contact with my estranged parent, and there’s no easy model for him to follow. He didn’t grow up in my household, and I wouldn’t expect him to have the same kind of relationship in that regard that I do. But he has borne witness to the reasons why I am estranged from a parent, and he has never made me feel like it was an unreasonable direction for our relationship, even if it’s not the exact path he might have taken himself.
People sometimes think that an estrangement is like putting a relationship on “pause” in the hopes that that person will one day change, apologize, extend an olive branch, and set things right again. But this is not something I’ve ever wanted. I know what it is like to have that person in my life and find that their absence is much more beneficial to me than their presence was or could be.
Anna, 29, Estranged from Her Father Her Entire Life
When my mom became pregnant with me, her and my dad were not ready to be in a serious relationship, so my mom decided to raise me on her own.
People treat my estrangement from my dad as a tragedy, as if not having a father is a traumatic loss. My mixed race identity further complicates the estrangement—my mom is white and my dad is Korean. People expect that I identify with my Korean heritage or that I can teach them something about Korean culture even after I explain that I've never met my Korean father and grew up with a white mom.
Because I look more Korean than white, I don't feel like I need to work harder to prove my "whiteness" in white spaces. But because of my estrangement from my Korean side, I feel imposter syndrome whenever I'm in Korean spaces too. This leaves me forever floating in a liminal space, unable to identify with either side.
Being an only child raised by a single mom also disrupted the traditional mother-daughter roles—we were more like best friends or sisters. Even though she's since passed away, I wouldn't trade our relationship for having two parents. I'd rather have struggled with my single mom than had two parents who constantly fought because they were only together because of me.
The holidays have become the hardest for me since my mom died. I wish people in my life could be supportive by recognizing me as an orphan, since this is how I identify, and offering their support in the form of invites to their own gatherings or simply asking me what I need. Sometimes even just recognizing my loneliness and grief is enough.
Kirsten, 41, Estranged from mother for 20+ years before her death in 2020.
People always want to apologize. I don’t need people to be sorry. I just need people to understand that I made a conscious choice that was right for me to end an abusive relationship. It’s also a myth that estrangement cancels out good memories. My love of musicals comes directly from my mother, and I sing songs to my godson that my mother sang to me. When I was younger, and people asked me about my parents, I would always reply with, “My dad…” and people would ask me about my mother immediately. Now that I’m of an age where more people have a deceased parent, I can claim membership in the Dead Moms Club without getting into all that.
Since abolishing Mother’s Day isn’t an option, I would say to use more inclusive language around who your primary caretaker is. Saying “Your mother must be so proud” or “You can invite your mother and father” elides so many other caretaking scenarios, not just mine.
For people considering estrangement, I would say that it can be the right decision. Mine was. At some point, having someone in your life that is going to hurt you over and over again is much worse that having the ache that comes with their absence, because the agency of taking control of your situation is powerful.
David, 43, Estranged from both parents and youngest brother
I have four kids, three of them are LGBTQ. My parents have made it very clear through their words and actions that my kids are lesser than. They aren’t quite qanon or anti-vaxxers but they keep flirting with them both.
I really thought my younger brother was “cool,” that he’d managed to escape the right-wing brainwashing. When it turned out he wasn’t, that hurt. Still does. I wish I could call him up and chat, but I can’t. Before, I would dread every trip home and wonder what was going to go sideways, or what hurtful thing was going to be said. Cutting off contact hurt at first, but all at once. I rarely think of them nowadays and not with any sort of pain.
Norah, 36, Estranged from parents for five years in her 20s
In college, I was sexually active in my long term relationship; my parents found out and cut me off. They are extremely religious. I barely talked to them for about 5 years. And it took another 3-4 years before things felt remotely not fucked up.
The financial and emotional blowback to my early adulthood of that estrangement is vast. I can still see the ripple effects of bad decisions I made then simply because I was *so* hurt and *so* broke. Things are better now, and my parents are even trying to move near me in their retirement. So I now have the perspective of a relationship with them post estrangement, which is….strange. But my parents never, ever apologized. There’s something broken in me in knowing that the people that love you the most can hurt you the most and actually see nothing wrong with that.
Leslie, 31, Estranged from father for 12 Years
Estrangement is beautifully complex. My parents got divorced during my freshman year of college. And it was not a nice or amicable divorce. Both of my parents weren’t great to one another and admittedly, manipulated us — their kids — throughout.
I think the long story short is my parents owned a restaurant together, and my dad was sleeping around. My mom found out and was done with their marriage, which led to an incredibly complex two or so years of paperwork, tax filings, divorce filings, immigration proceedings. Eventually, my dad was arrested when he got in a car accident because he was driving drunk. He isn’t a US citizen and was taken by immigration at booking. He spent three or so months in immigration detention and was ultimately deported to Mexico.
Over those last few months, I got him to sell me the restaurant for $1 so my mom could keep running it and stay employed. He was deported in Aug 2009 or 2010. I never saw him again. He sometimes sent Facebook messages asking for money and blaming us for his predicament. I never replied. Recently, I allowed him to “follow” me on Instagram. I posted a photo on social media celebrating my wedding anniversary and he commented. He said that he was happy to see how happy I was. And I sobbed for almost two hours reading and rereading that sentence. I still don’t know how I feel about it. I just know that I feel something and I feel it very deeply.
Estrangement didn’t feel like a choice to me. It was the first time I realized how important boundaries work. Estrangement sucks, and it’s hard, but it’s like that feeling when you open a fresh Christmas tree and the branches fall into place.
C, 27, Estranged from biological father and his side of the family for ~7 years
My father is a complicated person who has legitimate issues related to his mental health, sexual identity, and addiction. He also, however, abused me throughout my childhood, including sexual abuse from infancy to pre-adolescence. My parents divorced when I was 13 and while my mother received full custody, he was allowed visitation, though he ignored the specific rules set out by the courts for this visitation. His emotional abuse during this period was crushing, specifically in his attempts to assert control over me, my relationships, and my burgeoning adult sexuality. I cut him off first when I went to college and then attempted to create a relationship with appropriate boundaries. He either was unwilling or unable to do so and continued with the same patterns of what could be termed emotional incest.I never received a full, open apology for any behavior from my childhood that acknowledged either the harm he did me or that he had a base responsibility as a parent not to harm a child in his care.
I do not wish him ill at this point in my life in the same way I do not wish ill on a stranger. In my mind, this is essentially what he is to me at this point.
I am gay, “appear gay,” and mostly socialize with other gay and trans people so my experiences with estrangement are shaped by assumptions around those circumstances. My friends and partners are never shocked or appalled as it is fairly standard for us to have at least a difficult relationship with at least one parent. Several even wish they could be estranged, but cannot due to needs related to finances or medical care. This upsets and bothers me much more than estrangement. Parents continue to belittle, abuse, and control even their adult children who cannot run away due to disability, poverty, or obligation to care for these parents or other family members.
Outside of “the community,” it is usually assumed I am estranged due to homophobic or transphobic rejection. I am not eager to identify myself as a survivor of incestuous child sexual abuse in casual social situations so I let this assumption pass. Even with such current outsize interest in child sexual abuse, there seems to be no awareness that victims do grow up. We are all around, as adults, and our experiences garner little interest, especially if they point to the family itself as a source for this pain and violence. No one wants to acknowledge that, to be frank, the most dangerous person to a child is their adult caretaker. And why would—or should—the grown up child tolerate this in these people in their adult lives? Around their own children? I am fairly widely read on this subject academically and have created my own community of survivors, but I have never once come across a full and sincere apology from a parent who brutalized, raped, or simply broke their child’s spirit. The humility is just not there. And humility is required for a parent to repair a relationship with their child. I would say, in the end, the biggest issue with understanding estrangement is the baseline assumption that children are the property of their parents. They are not.
My most joyful moments have come from unconventional arrangements. Freedom can be terrifying, crushing. But it can also be almost exhilarating. We get to choose who we love and invest in. Rituals, holidays, leisure—life is short, don’t waste it going through the motions.
T, 40, Estanged from Mother for 4 Years
My mother is a toxic, abusive narcissist. After a lifetime of trying to connect with her in a healthy way — and many years of therapy — I finally decided to cut out of my and my children's life.
No one understands being estranged from your mother. I often feel that people think there's something profoundly wrong with me, or they immediately just feel bad for her that she doesn't have access to her grandchildren. People have no idea how long it took me to come to this conclusion, how hard it was for me to take this step, how much agonizing I did over it, or how much disruption it caused for the rest of my family. It was absolutely awful and people don't seem to really get how dire it must have been for me to be willing to do that.
I mourn the loss of a Mother, which I never really had in the first place, but I also really mourn the loss of the aspects of my mother that I genuinely like. She is not an evil person; she has positive attributes and can be fun, funny, smart and engaging. I miss the good sides of her. I wish I could get those sides without the abuse and manipulation.
But every single thing in my life has improved since I stopped speaking to my mother. My marriage, by leaps and bounds. My work life. My friendships. My parenting. My confidence, my overall contentment. I finally learned to drive. I created my own holidays — and my own traditions — that are so much more positive and meaningful because no one is lying or being forced to be there or manipulating anyone or using anyone to advance some bizarre narcissistic agenda. I have found so much more peace and made so much progress in therapy that I never would have done were I in regular contact with my mother.
My friends are amazingly supportive and they really get it. I am very lucky in that regard. My husband's family doesn't really get it and they view this as a "fight" or a family dispute of some kind. I wish people understood that I am fighting for my life here. Cutting off contact with my mother was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. As sad as it is and was... I'm proud of it.
Jenny, 30, Estranged from mother for 3 Years
I think estrangement narratives often frame estrangement as the result of one directional "straightforward" abuse — the parent who physically abuses their child, for example. In my case, the abuse was complex and endemic. My father was verbally, emotionally, and — in a few moments — physically abusive to my mother. However, my mother was chronically emotionally and verbally abusive to me, while I felt safe around my dad. She also accused my father of abusing my sister and I in ways that weren't true. This is all very confusing given my politics — and my experience as a survivor — that women's stories of abuse should always be believed.
I suspect that complex ecosystems of abuse, like I experienced, are much more common than the easy story we're often told. I wish I could write an elevator pitch for why I don't speak to my mom. But I can't, and I'd bet most estranged children can't.
I increasingly find resonance and hope in abolitionist/transformative justice understandings of harm. Within those philosophies, I'm not required to throw either of my parents away to be whole, and there is the possibility to love both of them without picking sides. And I can hold hope the cycles of violence in my family can shift — whether in this generation or the next.
Sarah, 29, Estranged from parents and partially from siblings for 1.5 years
I was sexually abused by my father as a child, but didn't have the courage to tell the rest of my family until after I moved to another country and started going to therapy. I came to realise that my mother was aware of the abuse and didn't do anything to stop it — I think because she didn't want to admit it was happening.
There’s this assumption out there that family is the most important thing for everyone. I’ve seen a lot of this kind of messaging during the pandemic: that wanting to see family is understandable, for example, but wanting to see friends is frivolous. It might seem like a small thing, but for me, it's a regular reminder that things are different for me/there's something not right in my life — similar to my experience growing up queer while surrounded by heteronormative media/relationships. It feels very lonely.
People are always uncomfortable when I say this, but when my father wasn't abusing me, he was a great dad: funny; fun to hang out with; we cared about a lot of the same things. Now that I'm no longer speaking to him I miss that version of my dad. And people really underestimate how hard it is to actually become estranged. I knew something was really wrong for years and years but I still couldn't cut off contact until I did a lot of therapy and worked out my feelings with professional help.
I truly feel like a weight has been lifted. I'm still struggling with some pretty significant mental health issues as a result of the abuse, but everything just seems more possible now. I can see myself ten, twenty, thirty years in the future — still alive, building a good life and a good home for myself. Before I could never imagine further than a couple years ahead.
Jennifer, 42, Cycles of estrangement from father for many years
My understanding of our estrangement evolves over time, so I answer this differently now than I would have 5 years ago and differently than I will in 5 years time. My father is misogynistic narcissist with borderline tendencies. He doesn't see me, doesn't respect me as an individual, and makes no effort to know me. His preoccupation with his own self-image allows no space for authentic connection or relationship. He has hurt me throughout my life and I refuse to allow him close enough to my children to allow him to do the same to them.
Most people misunderstand my choice to limit communication and contact with my father. They see it as a retaliation for the hurt he has caused me, rather than a healthy choice that is in my best interest and the best interest of my family. People always “say stuff like “Can't you just see him once a year to make an old man happy?" or "Just send him some pictures of your kids, what's the harm?" or "One day he's not going to be here anymore and you won't have the chance to make things right."
People shouldn’t assume that estrangement is always painful, or that if I only worked a little harder it could end, or that I want it to end, or that my children need this person in their lives, or that my fathers actions are anything but self-motivated, or that as his child it it my responsibility to fix it.
I had never used the word estranged to describe my relationship with my father until today. I haven't seen him in years, we don't speak, and only occasionally have intermittent contact by text message. I severely limit contact with him. Yet the word estranged literally never occurred to me. Reading the request for contributions for this piece, it was like a lightbulb went off. It was hugely relieving to recognize this relationship as estranged and helped me feel less isolated in my choice.
Natalie, 35, Cycles of estrangement from mother for ~6 years
People who haven't experienced needing to remove someone from their life for their own safety or well-being often don't understand that this isn't the same as being mad at someone for ruining your 9th birthday party or for showing up drunk at your wedding and pushing the cake on the floor (though I imagine they could be contributing factors). This isn't a mistake someone made one time, and it isn't the same thing as holding a grudge or being too proud to apologize. For me it was an accumulation of moments that led to realizations that my actions to maintain a relationship were being swallowed up by an endless abyss that was never going to reciprocate my sincerity and was never going to respect the boundaries I was trying to put up while maintaining contact.
The worst responses to hearing about estrangement are when people cast the characters in their own lives into the situation I am in. Something like: "Oh I'd be so sad if my daughter didn't include me in her wedding" when they learn my mother isn't invited to my wedding. I want to say: Yes, of course you'd be sad, and honestly, my mother is probably sad. And I am also sad. This is not ideal, and I am making a choice that is not easy, but it is a choice I am making because it is what is best for me.
The effect of cutting off contact is hard to overstate. I had never (knowingly) carried that anger and sense of hopelessness around with me. I used to pretty consistently have dreams where I would be screaming, just a constant sustained full throated angry yell, at my mother. That's all it would be, and I would wake up heart pounding, holding my breath, my head feeling like it was about to burst. Several years ago I realized those dreams had just... stopped.
I really changed from the inside out — and developed a confidence from it. I started thinking "So maybe I do know is best for me. Maybe I can make choices for myself." And that led to rethinking things from the past "Maybe when I was small I needed love and understanding, but what I got was bullying and manipulation. Maybe I wasn't being terrible, maybe I was reacting to someone being terrible to me."
I have grieved for my mother as if she were dead. I know one day she will die, and it will be a new kind of grief that I haven't experienced, and who knows how I will respond to that. But in that process, I was able to understand not what I was losing — but what I had never had in the first place.
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