Togetherness and estrangement in family life

Auld Lang Syne…Togetherness, absence, and estrangement in family life.

When to raise the cup of kindness, and when to put it aside? When to prune and cut away, and when and how to approach and reconnect?
In wishing you all a very happy New Year and many better things for 2022, the end of 2021 found me in reflective mode about beginnings, endings, and re-unitings…

The end of the year, and the start of a new one, are so often times for taking stock. As we look around the dining table, feelings of love and appreciation for those we hold close are present. As life unfurls, feelings of loss of those who are now absent crowd in. The metaphorical gaps at the table: those we wish were here, and sometimes also, those people in our family who we wish weren’t: who are the source of discord and disconnect.

When you finally had the Christmas and New Year that had been so lacking at the end of 2020, who and what did you see and feel at your gatherings? Estrangements are all too common in family life. Whether this is an adult child choosing to distance themselves from a parent, or very commonly a teenager or young adult kicking against ties with parents. But they are only spoken of in hushed tones, which makes it hard to process. Easy to look on with shame rather than self-compassion or realistic clear-sightedness.

OF course, we only have to look at our own royal family and the fall-out from ‘Megxit’ to see estrangement is in the news. Whether it’s the couple’s estrangement from ‘the firm’ or the Duchess of Sussex’s estrangement fro mher father… Not sure how Prince Andrew’s Christmas went this year and how many cups of kindness Auld friends and acquaintances wanted to share with him…

Look at one of the biggest shows to hit the screens in the recent dark months of 2021 – Succession. Now there’s a fabulously dysfunctional family tied together only by money – lots of money! Although if the patriarch – fabulously played by Brian Cox, had a swear jar, there wouldn’t be so much of it floating around. I joked when watching it that we should have a drink every time he said the immortal line ‘F-ck off!’ to his children…but we wouldn’t have lasted an episode.

If actual or potential estrangement is something affecting you and your family at this time, for sure, you are not alone.

Mental illness and addiction are the spur for many estrangements, with the distortion of the personality that accompanies these factors also bringing in distortions to core relationships – withdrawing from connection, or behaviour that is both self-sabotaging and damaging to relationship. Here there can be a sliding scale of estrangement as the illness and compulsive elements of it gradually shows its hand.

Estrangement usually refers to a physical removal from relationship – though of course we can feel estranged even when we are present and in relationship of sorts with those where there is profound difficulty and disconnect. Over the teenage years there can be lengthy periods of time where child and parent feel locked in rejecting dynamics, distanced from each other – lost and even trapped in the familial space. indeed D.H. Lawrence spoke of adolescence as being ‘the hour of the stranger’. 

Abusive, violent, or neglectful behaviour by parents can result in estrangement as the child comes to adulthood, and the balance of power shifts – here the need for distance for self-preservation is more straightforwardly justifiable and even healthy. But in many cases the situation is highly charged, emotionally entangled, making extrication far from an easy step to take.

Sibling estrangements are also common – notably in the aftermath of the death of a parent. As many as one in four families experience estrangement of one kind or another. And of course then there are the estrangements caused by divorce and separation – particularly loss of relationship with fathers.

Although death and bereavement have stalked families as a result of the pandemic over the past 2 years, grief for those still living is particularly difficult. We feel the presence of that absence in a different way. Death is painful, grief is painful – but at least it is a definitive ending.

Estrangement, by contrast, incorporates mourning, grief, and grudge – sometimes grievances on both sides. And it is a struggle to feel completion with estrangement, even if you are the one making the decision to separate, there is still that sense of unfinished business, a love, a behaviour-change, a rapprochement denied.

My own family is no stranger to estrangement. Both my parents had siblings who had severed contact, to the extent that neither parent knew whether their sisters were still alive or dead. As a teen with siblings of my own, I looked on this situation with a certain amount of bafflement, and vowed, together with my brother and sister, that this would never happen to us. Scroll forward a few decades, and without knowing why definitively, my brother has cut contact since my father’s death in January 2018. And it is with great sadness, that I note that I have no real confirmation of his circumstances -how he is, whether he still lives where he did, or whether indeed he is still living. 

In my coaching work, this unworded family conflict, this scism of discontent, has resonated. Over the past couple of years, I have supported numerous parents who have felt estranged from defiant and rejecting teens, also parents who are wrestling with the impact their relationship with toxic parents has had on them and their painful need to protect their own children from the fallout of those relationships.

Indeed the enforced separations between the generations have created grievances as the wellspring of childcare support that freely flowed from grandparents has dried up never to return…And on the other hand, parents in the ‘sandwich generation’ at the point of burnout in trying to balance out their responsibility to care for elderly parents, with pressing needs to tend to challenges and fraught relationships with their own children.

Deciding when to call time on a toxic relationship is not an easy call – the tentacular pull of one’s sense of identity as a friend and a person, is often entangled with patterns and ways of being around one another that are hard to break.

Painful though they are, or can be, an estrangement can be the right and healthy choice to make. It is a decision that can have huge and unforeseen ramifications – impacting not only on the relationship between the two individuals, but in the wider family system also.

My topic today is focusing on how to defend your boundaries in relationships – and make as good a decision as possible about how and when to draw that final line in the sand.

Learning from and listening to ‘magic’ moments in family life…

There are patterns of behaviour in our relationships that can emerge – not by design, but by the drip, drip, drip of default, suppression, minimizations, low expectations…‘Well that’s just old Uncle Bill’s way…they did things differently in his generation…’ When we put this into a framework where as parents we are shaping the lives of our own children – what we put up with can shift and change dramatically.

Suddenly it’s not sufficient to not be racist. Your action or inaction around a parent or family member’s behaviour is borne witness to by your child. You might have been at peace(ish) at having been criticised for your body shape / size / eating habits by your mother, but when you catch her fat-shaming your daughter…a different kind of tiger mom comes into play.

Brexit nearly broke my relationship with my father, whose penchant for debate and provocation meant he would try to crowbar it into every Skype call. He would be personally critical of the opposing viewpoint, ‘Use your loaf!’ and we’d get locked into conflict cycles of criticism and defensiveness. An exaggerated representation of some extravagant claim of Peter Oborne’s converted my liberal, remainer’s torch into a flame-thrower. I lost it. And there it was – right there in front of our very eyes – the fourth horseman of the relationship apocalypse: contempt.

Swearing in front of my father has never been a problem. Swearing AT my father, however, was a bit of a watershed moment. Leaving the call, for the umpteenth time feeling riled, angry, resentful that what was meant to be a time of connection within my busy working week had once again been hijacked by politics. I felt no remorse – but I did feel an oceanic disconnect.

The lack of interest in what was actually going on in my life, with my husband, with our daughter, their grandchild, was starkly felt. I felt angry, disappointed, hurt, and trapped in a cycle that was manifestly damaging my relationship with him: time to step away and give things a break.

This break in our relationship could very easily have taken numerous different turns. It could have resulted in a permanent distancing. Certainly, my angry mind creatively came forward with numerous corroborating memories of various relational misdemeanours over time that continued to pour fuel on my flamethrower mindset…

How can we use these magic moments, where relational dynamics push us into explosive contempt, silent grudge, or overwhelm that results in stonewalling…?

We bandy around the term ‘toxic’ when we talk about controlling, depleting, undermining, and enraging relationships. How can we draw on a framework so that we can move towards balancing our responsibilities within that relationship in order to protect ourselves, and others in the fall-out from these patterns? And when can we, or should we forgive?

It is a big step to take – to decide to place distance between yourself and a close family member like a parent. Research into the impact of parents who were estranged from their adult children reflects on the pain and traumatic sense of loss and social stigma – especially for women whose parenting was regarded as tainted or devalued. It can be life-changing – resulting in social isolation in order to avoid discussing family. The impact on the wider family – grandchildren etc can be profound. 

This is a complicated, multi-faceted topic, and there are several different permutations to potential estrangement situations. For the purposes of focus and clarity, I am primarily thinking about relationship problems between adults – eg between and adult child and their parent, between adult siblings, and between adult friends. Clearly the steps below can resonate and be applied to other contexts – eg a parent supporting a child in difficult relationship dynamics, and helping them find their voice.

To an extent they can apply to a parent / child relationship fracture (something that is not uncommon when parenting teens and adolescents– although the consequences in extremis are different. An adult can walk away from most other inter-personal obligations, with the exception of the obligation a parent has to their child up to the age of 18. 

Reflective steps to take when looking at a relationship fracture – and preparing to have a difficult and vulnerable conversation about it:

  1. What is the problematic behaviour? What are the values in breach when this problematic behaviour emerges?
  2. How is the behaviour affecting you personally? Specifically? How does it feel?
  3. What is the impact of your interactions? What legacy does it leave in your mood, in your thinking? If your mood is like passing weather, how does this relationship affect your internal climate? Do you feel you / your values are cheapened or compromised by this connection?
  4. Be really clear and beyond the minutiae, nutshell what happened – as factually and objectively as you can – and what were the consequences?
  5. How willing do you think they are / will be to take responsibility for their actions? How do they show up around being called out / criticised? What circumstances or contexts might be particularly assisting or obstructive to getting them to listen to you?
  6. What responsibility do you bear here? Will self-advocacy give a realistic chance for any repair – or at least for the air to be cleared somewhat? Visualise – try to picture what if you DO speak out – and what if you DON’T. How can you feel that you have discharged your responsibility around the conflict to the best of your abilities?
  7. What is your bottom line here? What is your walk-away?
  8. Be clear in your mind about what you are seeking, why it is important, and what your options are in order to defend that boundary?
  9. Are they willing to take action and make meaningful change in their behaviour, and within the family system in order to maintain relationship?
  10. Once clear, clean communication has taken place about the situation, it’s impact, your request for change, and the consequences of that change not taking place, then you have given fair warning – and it is for you to take action, and show the importance of the issue by saying what you mean – and then meaning what you say.

How to show up around a serious complaint and potential estrangement…

  1. Listen. No. Really listen. Not at ego-level where you are just thinking about your rebuttal. Really seek to understand as Stephen Covey would say.
  2. Take a hard look at what you contributed to the situation. Whether the actions were unwitting or deliberate, find some middle ground where you can see what you did without minimizing, denying, or defending, or overstating / catastrophising ‘I’m such a bad person!’ ‘I’m so terrible’…this backfires because it’s all about you…not about engaging with them meaningfully.
  3. Step into responsibility – doing what is in your control to approach and seek to repair.
  4. Recognise and acknowledge that there are limits to what you control in this situation and that forgiveness is not a given. IT will need earning over time.

Defining repair & forgiveness…What is it that we are looking for to heal a serious rupture?

  1. Being and feeling heard – engaging with the complaint – accepting that this is a big deal.
  2. An honest acknowledgement that truly engages with the impact and hurt caused by behaviour. Taking responsibility without defending, silverlining or minimising…or clouding the complaint with self-justification.
  3. An apology – a meaningful statement of remorse
  4. Functional, sustained repair– the complaint is held in mind and the pattern of behaviour is changed. THIS IS THE CRUCIAL ASPECT. 
    KINSUGI is the Japanese art of making a broken item whole again, stronger, and more beautiful, by layering enamel, by adorning the point of fracture by using gold or silver to emphasise rather than hide it. And so relationships can heal after hurt – and become more truthful, more cared for. The layers of behaviour that respect the hurt and seek to heal it enable the coming together again. The commitment to move and stay in relationship is the gold – I am willing to change to keep you in my life.

When repair is not forthcoming…
Consider your options…

Defcon 1 – Break all ties. They no longer exist in your life – complete ejection with no turning back. Ideally being at peace with the decision, in the service of your responsibility to your own wellbeing and that of other core relationships in your life. And wishing them well from across that divide.

Defcon 2 – A time limited tactical break of all ties.

Defcon 3 – Functional forgiveness (or not!). Functional forgiveness is extended for your own benefit, not theirs…accompanied by pruning – avoiding or removing the things that cause the most friction and pain. Eg reducing contact frequency, length of time spent, not responding at all to certain topics, removing yourself or your spouse/ partner / children when the behaviour emerges. Only allowing contact with you / your children under specific conditions.

Defcon 4 – Acceptance of the behaviour and lack of repair extended for your own benefit, not for their benefit.

Defcon 5 – Living with the behaviour, not confronting it, but managing your reactions to the behaviour when it emerges.

For those of you where there are relationships in your life which are beset by problematic patterns, grievances that may go unattended, or even unexpressed, I hope this has been helpful for you to find some ways of framing and reframing what is going on, and what you might be able to do about it.NEXT up – another common topic emerging, is how to navigate distance as a parent with a rejecting teen.If this post makes you think you’d like to take a deeper dive – maybe consider contacting me for a ‘Discovery’ session…This issue is complex, and nuanced and entirely individual.As Tolstoy write in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.One truth I always come back to, is that we can only control ourselves. We cannot make others more considerate, more likeable, or rely on them to make us happy.Of course in family life, we have bonds and ties of responsibility for each other. But this also has to be held in balance with the responsibility we have to ourselves, for our own happiness and wellbeing, for maintaining our own fuel-tank.This becomes especially important once we step into parenthood. We have to tend to what nurtures us, what depletes us, what makes us whole and able to show up well for our partners and children, where we are at purpose, and where we are faced with values that are dear to us being cheapened. The way we walk our walk, and the way we carry our baggage matters because those developing eyes are on us, taking it all in, being shaped…Wishing love, happiness, and all the best to you as you step into your power in 2022.Emma.

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