Why do family estrangements happen and can they be fixed?

When Sandra* talks about her eldest daughter, Liz,* it sometimes sounds as though she passed away years ago.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her … I have all these different emotions, but mainly, I think it’s grief,” Sandra says.

But Liz is alive and well.

In 2016, she was suffering from prolonged mental health issues and decided that, to properly recover, it was necessary to cut her mother off.

Sandra admits she made mistakes as a parent and that Liz would have her own side to this story, but questions if the “punishment fits the crime”.

“I have a great deal of respect for my daughter and this may be what she needs to do. I don’t try to push myself on her,” she says.

“But I wish it wasn’t this way.”

After decades of a rocky but close relationship, Sandra has only seen her daughter once in the past six years – a chance glimpse while she was crossing the road.

Sandra is one of many Australians on the receiving end of a family estrangement, where one family member chooses to cut off another, often for the rest of their lives.

Experts say that family estrangement is a broad and complex area, and while sometimes a permanent split is the right thing to do, other times it can be healed.

What causes family estrangement?

There can be many types of ruptures within a family – parent-child fallouts, siblings going their separate ways, rifts with a stepfamily member.

But Tamara Cavenett, president of the Australian Psychological Society and a psychologist with an interest in family conflict, says one type of family estrangement is more common than others.

A blonde woman with glasses against a black background.
Tamara Cavenett says repairing an estrangement is all about redefining the relationship. (Supplied)

“Most commonly, it’s an adult child choosing to become estranged from a parent,” Ms Cavenett tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.

She says there’s usually a big difference “in how both people see what might have caused it.”

“The reasons that the adult child would give … are often that it’s a clash of values, or abuse in the childhood, or feelings of being disrespected and unsupported [over time],” she says.

“When you sit down with the parent, it’s most likely to be blamed on a recent event, or a divorce, or their child’s spouse, or what they perceive as their child’s entitlement. So you’re getting two very different views of what’s happening.”

Ms Cavenett says this type of estrangement sometimes happens when a child has gone on to create their own family.

“Their immediate circle has shifted from the parent to their own children and their partner. Whereas the parent has still got the child in their immediate circle, so there’s a nucleus change that happens on one side, but not the other.”

‘Nipping it in the bud’

Jacqueline McDiarmid is a family therapist who has helped many family members repair their estrangements.

Ms McDiarmid says earlier in her career, family estrangements made up around 10 per cent of her cases, but now account for around 45 per cent.

A woman with short hair and a red top
Almost half of family therapist Jacqueline McDiarmid’s cases involve family estrangement. (Supplied)

She treats different kinds of people in this area: people trying to avoid an estrangement, estranged family members taking steps towards reconciliation, and individuals who remain totally cut off “to help them come to some sort of resolution around what that means for them”.

“There’s a lot of repercussions … [estrangements] really do affect generations to come,” she says.

Because of this, Ms McDiarmid recommends that feuding family members try to take steps to prevent a more permanent schism, either between themselves or through seeking professional help.

Ms McDiarmid says if you sense that an estrangement could happen, “absolutely approach the other person for a conversation, and be willing to really be open to what they say, even if you don’t agree with that perspective”.

“[One way] to nip it in the bud is simply do the opposite of being defensive – listen and validate. You don’t have to agree. But you can validate someone else’s experience,” she says.

“Often just the simple act of validation will prevent an estrangement. But a lot of people find that very difficult to do – parents become defensive or siblings become defensive.”

‘We do not always have to keep relationships’

There’s a “huge spectrum” of family estrangement cases and sometimes the split is for the better, Ms Cavenett says.

“There are some people who are happier without certain people in their lives. They feel like [the other person] has too much of a negative effect, they’re having too large an impact [or] the cost is too great,” she says.

“We do not always have to keep relationships … Certainly there are those moments in time where you have to just say – this isn’t working for me.”

As a result, Ms Cavenett says some of the work she does involves helping parents “letting that child go, letting that child have their own life”.

“But that said, I really encourage people to consider that the relationship you previously had … it actually can be modified,” she says.

Creating a new kind of relationship

As difficult as it may be, Ms McDiarmid says many people who have triggered an estrangement should consider reconciliation.

“I think unless there has been abuse involved – sexual or physical abuse, that level of abuse – I do think that for the majority of estrangements, there should be an attempt at repair,” she says.

But she says this usually requires two important things: the “motivation of the person who’s got the most power in the estrangement” and the use of a family therapist who is trained in this specific area.

“Often it’s about changing the systemic problems … [And] the earlier, the better. The longer the estrangement, the harder it is to repair that relationship,” she says.

For Ms Cavenett, repairing an estrangement is all about redefining what the relationship is.

She says, with the right professional help, “you can have [the person] return to your life in a redefined way” and “it doesn’t necessarily have to be the way it was, or all or nothing”.

“It may be that you just need to put new boundaries in place … That can often mean that you hit a new ground of friendship as opposed to a parent-child relationship,” she says.

“You can keep the good bits, and not be as impacted by the negative.”

‘Too simple a fix?’

Sandra says she considers herself fortunate, as she has loving relationships with many other family members and is slowly negotiating the reality of the estrangement.

“I have a good life, a happy life. I get on with it … I’m always hopeful, but I’m realistic as well.”

She’s found comfort in the resources available for estranged Australians, a community that’s bigger than many would expect.

“[Yes, it’s sometimes] recommended that people cut themselves off from someone toxic – but that might be too simple a fix,” she says.

“It’s just so tragic that there are all these people that are cut off, and there’s no hope of [totally] healing.”

*Names have been changed

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