For many people, the idea of voluntarily cutting off contact from a family member is unimaginable – especially during the holidays.
In this way of thinking, blood ties are immutable and sacred, so making such a decision at this time of year feels doubly taboo. No matter how toxic the home environment, there is pressure to remain in it because ‘it’s family’.
I once wrote a proposal for a non-fiction book about people who estrange from their parents. It was going to have interviews, case histories, advice and self help. I pitched it to several agents – and received bemusement and confusion in response. One sent me a very strongly worded letter telling me that, as a parent herself, she was horrified and could not think why anyone would want to read such a book. (She actually rang me up the next morning to apologise – the subject had clearly affected her very deeply.)
I experienced similar elsewhere. Another agent said that it might help the book if I spent some time with ‘the perfect family’. Apparently, if only the misguided folks I wanted to write about could see that no family is perfect, everything would miraculously be okay again. I had a very strong sense of othering – that this topic really should not be aired publicly and was best quietly put away.
Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement was published in 2018. (I’ve linked to Amazon because of the Kindle edition – there seems to be no paperback available in UK.) It’s well worth a read.
Update on 1/12/20: I wrote this piece long before the Covid-19 pandemic happened. It has changed the rules of how we live. During the holiday season it is creating increased pressure, but it can also be a protective factor in how we choose whether to spend time with people. Due to the many social changes and confusing public messages, some may become estranged against their will, and others may find it harder to get away.
An increasing reality for many
In fact, as I have noted before on this blog, you only have to read the comments below a problem page about going no contact from family to know that there are a number of people who actively want to do this or – especially heartbreaking from older commenters – wish they had but felt it was too late.
While writing this, I felt an increasing sense of taboo, and a strong temptation not to continue. Generally when I feel this, I know something needs to be spoken aloud.
I also found this post getting longer and longer, so now’s the time to make a cup of tea.
Standalone charity survey of estranged adults
The charity Standalone, set up several years ago to offer support to adults who are estranged from their families, in 2015 published a report Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. Carried out in collaboration with the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge, Hidden Voices is a survey of the estrangement experiences of just over 800 people. Three things stand out from the results:
- Emotional abuse, clashes of personality and mismatched expectations were particularly common reasons for going no contact.
- Most of those who were estranged from a parent felt strongly that they could never have a functional relationship again.
- 90 percent of respondents found the Christmas period ‘challenging’.
Standalone have published their own very thorough festive survival guide which is available here. For more on how to stand back and figure out Christmas the way you want it, try Rewriting the rules of the festive season.
You’ve gone no contact – what now?
What if it’s your first holiday period since the estrangement started? The particular pressures during this time (I’ve written more about this here) mean that you may need to do some extra self care.
Deciding to go no contact is never taken lightly, and may only happen after years of putting up with, but the decision itself can be made in an instant. And now it’s the holidays, and unless you live without an internet connection at all, you will be in some way exposed to advertising that encourages you to connect with people at all cost, especially ‘loved ones’ which generally, in media-speak, means blood family.
The social nature of holiday periods means that unless you spend time in communities who are sensitive to this, you may well have to give an account of yourself. There are a number of issues to reflect on:
Who to tell? Are you prepared for when someone offers you the usual invitation to join them for the festivities, or expects you to offer yours? Are you prepared for the response, and sides being taken?
How to tell them? Are you telling people in person, or by some other means which allows for more distance? (Bearing in mind your own safety when doing so.) Are you taking people aside individually, or contacting them as a group?
How will you deal with questions from others about where/how you are spending the holidays? If a friend has taken you in for the holidays, you may find their relatives (if they have a more traditional mindset) genuinely curious as to why you are there: ‘Why aren’t you with your own family?’ Do you have a story prepared which, while not factually true, may be enough to get you through the day? Do you feel safe enough testify and tell your truth, no matter what the response? I’ve written more here about strategies for getting through this time.
If you are alone, have you got a plan for the day itself? Solo Christmas day can be wonderful if that is what you want. If you’re not sure about that, see who you can round up to share the day with you. Or make plans for the day before and the day after. It’s amazing how many people you will find in a similar situation.
The period after going no contact can be heady, as if a cork has popped, but there can also be a hangover, an exhaustion that may lead to self-questioning and wondering if you did the right thing.
There are a number of stories you might be telling yourself:
‘Should I have waited a bit longer? This time of year is supposed to be about love and closeness, isn’t it?’
Such is the frog-in-a-pot nature of harmful family relationships, it’s far easier to put up with another year of difficult interactions than rock the boat. Perhaps you are wavering about things you have said, and wondering if it would be better if you just shut up and let everything go back to normal for a while. There are many ways to defer a decision like this, all of which can be made to sound entirely legitimate. Maybe you’ve been wondering whether it would be better to apologise to everyone and wait until:
- After the summer / new year
- After term starts / ends
- After you’ve lost weight / given up smoking / had surgery
- After you’ve moved house
- After you’ve been in the new job for a while / left the old one
- After you’ve paid off your debts
- After the kids (if you have them) are older
- You’re single / you’re in a stable relationship
A million time markers – like Christmas – can be enlisted in the cause of preventing us being true to ourselves.
‘But family’s family. Am I a terrible person?’
We are socially conditioned to put up with behaviours from blood relations that we would rarely tolerate in friends, colleagues, or partners.
You may be telling yourself that whatever happened wasn’t really that bad, and maybe you should just step back into line and apologise to everyone and let things go back to how they were. In all the cultural fog around this, it is easy to forget to give yourself permission not to live under conditions where you are not treated as an equal.
You may have spoken your intentions out loud, or written an email or letter. You might have ghosted (disappeared without warning), which some find to be an immature and selfish way to behave. ‘Can’t you just talk about it?’ they say. Which is, on the surface, a fair question. But if ‘just talking about it’ actually fixed these sorts of situations, they would not happen in the first place. There is a world of communication beyond talking. And all too often equal communication was never part of the relationship’s culture in the first place. With blood family, the problems are far older and run far deeper.
A large proportion of people who answered the Standalone survey were women who were estranged from mothers. These two posts offer validating thoughts on this: 13 Things No Estranged Child Needs To Hear on Mother’s Day / Navigating “No-Contact”: When Estrangement from Your Mother is the Healthiest Choice
‘What about the children?’
This is a good question. If you have young children and are estranging from your own parent/s, it’s important to ask yourself about the impact this will have on them, particularly during the holidays. What are you going to tell them? Do they need to be kept away from their grandparents for their own safety? In the future your child may wish to exercise a choice over whether they see that person. Obvious abuse aside, do you want to deprive them of a grandparent? And you may find yourself doing a balancing act – the more you paint the person as a monster, the more curious your children may become. And obvious family secrets can put heat into a situation which can be carried down through generations.
‘Shouldn’t I have been able to sort this out when I was a teenager?’
It might be helpful to think about this in terms of the Attachment Escalator. I find this analogy incredibly useful. (See more on the Relationship Escalator, and the Sex Escalator on this blog.) It’s a really effective way to critique the supposed gold standard of sex and relationships that causes people to put such pressure on themselves – and each other – in the name of socially sanctioned relating.
So we are put on this attachment escalator when we are born and it becomes our default forward movement with those closest to us. For some, this works out fine. But for others this escalator is poorly constructed and frequently malfunctions. Instead of making changes, or even abandoning it, we instead find ourselves staying on it, blaming ourselves for what just keeps on not working, even if we find the situation intolerable, because it is easier to just let ourselves be carried forwards. The longer we stay on it, the more habituated we become to being undermined, bullied, manipulated or threatened (as, of course, can anyone who is the perpetrator of those things). Eventually this will impact your other relationships and ultimately your enjoyment of life.
But not everyone, for a million reasons, finds themselves able to separate from family when young. It can take years, and sometimes years of therapy, to make the necessary connections, and feel ready to do so. So please don’t blame yourself for not having fixed everything before.
If you’re a young person or student: Standalone has a student section. Albert Kennedy Trust works with homeless LGBT+ youth in the UK. Your Holiday Mom offers online support to LGBT+ youth during the holidays.
‘I’m getting away from a narcissist, so it’s okay isn’t it?’
There is an increasing number of sites devoted to narcissists, or ‘narcs’. Lots of people have apparently become experts at clinical diagnosis and are eager to provide checklists of things to watch out for. I am also wondering about all the personal experiences that get dumped into this category, and about the nature of all the people who are labelled narcissistic.
As a therapist I feel torn here. On one hand, ‘narcissist’ has become a buzzword, a catch-all for anyone who seems to be a bit selfish and self-obsessed. There is a lot of quite objectifying advice on how to spot them, and I wonder how many people suffering from depression or anxiety or another mental illness may have been labelled this way after a difficult interaction.
On the other hand, certain patterns start to emerge in accounts of others’ behaviour, especially lack of empathy and apparently conscience-free cruelty. The Reddit Raised by Narcissists has many powerful stories. There are a number of problem page articles at the Guardian (search for parental or family estrangement) – the articles here tend to have a lot of comments, mostly supportive.
So I would say that you could see the person you have estranged from as a narcissist if it helps you validate your experience. My concern comes when people feel a need to diagnose the person who was abusive to them. Turning detective can sometimes be a way to rationalise someone’s treatment of you. What if you discover they were abused? Does this make their abuse of you less significant? Sometimes it can help, but sometimes you may gaslight yourself to the point of retreating into self-blame and inaction.
Finding your family of choice
I have noticed an increase in people talking about their Chosen Family, whatever their identity and even if their relationship with blood family is okay. (I have written more about creating Chosen Family here.) Queer communities in particular have a strong tradition of creating safe groups when society and/or family have failed. Many people eventually find themselves creating a parallel existence away from family of origin, even if they eventually remain in touch. Now may be your chance to surround yourself with people who want the best for you.
Seeing a therapist may be helpful. Choose carefully – this subject can stir up even an experienced practitioner, (so it’s important you feel able to ask the right questions at the start.
If this is your first holiday season having gone no contact, I applaud your courage and wish you the best at what may be a challenging time.
If you would like to talk further about what’s going on for you, please contact me here.