The Persistent Pain of Family Estrangement


The subject article that appeared in the online edition of Psychology Today really resonated with me, so if you’ve been following any of my blog posts at all, you can probably empathise with the almost desperate alacrity with which I jumped at the chance to write a bit about something other than farcically dysfunctional politicking (#ThanksObama). The added bonus, of course, was that so (too) many people come from similarly unpleasant backgrounds, so in addition to the evident cathartic aspect, the simple fact of sharing one’s experiences and insights can at the very least foster a sense of solidarity, and at best, help someone else gain a different perspective, and perhaps even some food for thought or techniques for self-help.

To my view, then: my take on parent-child estrangement of the type discussed in this article is that parents are not exempt from being toxic people (whether all-out abusive, narcissistic, manipulative, or anything else along those lines), even towards their own children. I get the sense that much of this estrangement occurs from the point when the child is old enough to have developed a mature sense of self, of boundaries, and of what is acceptable. This often goes hand-in-hand with increasingly deep and complex social bonds (friendship, first romantic attachments, sexual awakening), and the discovery of how an increasing number of other people live. In turn, this provides perspective – a benchmark of sorts – on one’s own family dynamic and relationship with one’s parents.


Attribution: Andrew Mason, London, UK (“Melancholy’s Warm Embrace”)

My impression is that it is the awareness of what constitutes a healthy functioning relationship, as opposed to one’s own dysfunctional one, that makes parent-child estrangement all the more painful. In some respects, it is not unlike cognitive dissonance: the discomfort felt is a result of the clash between assumptions or preconceived notions on the one hand, and reality, on the other. The particular pain of family estrangement is perhaps commensurate with the strength of those assumptions, hardwired into us, that our parents will necessarily be benevolent. We tend to associate cognitive dissonance with people of a narrow-minded disposition, but it’s a fundamentally human attribute, and we can all fall afoul of it. It seems to me that knowing how and when to cut one’s losses (and taking the necessary steps of doing so) is the only option likely to increase one’s psychological and emotional well-being.

My own experience of an abusive upbringing (and its ramifications, which resurfaced with a vengeance some twenty years later) led me to undertake some small studies in both logic and psychology, on the pithy if not naively simplistic assumption that anyone who causes you distress can be analysed logically, psychologically, or both. I did manage to achieve a measure of insight into my malefactors, but even with that, the damage done is an emotional animal, not a rational one, and book learning is only a partial palliative. Still, being able to put a name to certain failures, disorders, or injustices, knowing that the people concerned were likely too far gone in their own dysfunctions to realise the gravity of their actions, and the support and discussion in many an online forum, all of these have brought with them some measure of closure.

I hope the same for anyone else.


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