The holiday season is known for evoking thoughts of family, both good and bad. Although most of us have a complex relationship with our family — including those we enjoy spending time with and those we don’t — there are many people for whom the subject of family evokes more pain than most.
Although we don’t often talk about it, being estranged from a family member is more common than we realise, with an estimated 65 million Americans being estranged from at least one family member. In a survey of mothers between the age of 65 to 75 with at least two children, 11 per cent reported being estranged from at least one child.
As a result, the holiday season, with its strong emphasis on spending time with family, can be especially painful and difficult to navigate for those who fall into this group.
What is family estrangement?
Estrangement is when a family member intentionally decreases contact with someone, either because of a negative relationship or the perception of a negative relationship. Estrangement exists on a continuum, ranging from decreased contact to no contact. Estrangements can also wax and wane, with the relationship shifting between low contact to no contact and back again, depending on the circumstances.
Usually, estrangement happens because of a long history of conflict, although in some cases, it can be very sudden, such as in the cases of parents who disown their children after they come out as LGBTQIA. Research on family estrangement indicates that reasons generally tend to be due to severe issues, such as a lifelong pattern of abuse, neglect or substance abuse.
In the case of some estrangements, if it’s due to a single precipitating event, such as an argument, rather than a lifelong pattern of toxic behaviour, there can be reconciliation, although it’s generally a good idea to put in the work to resolve the underlying issue, so as to avoid old patterns from repeating itself.
“There are so many different reasons for [estrangement] and the reasons mean something,” said Dan Neuharth, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the book If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. “If there is an estrangement because someone betrayed you, stole money, was abusive, or treated you unfairly, one of the ways to take care of yourselves is to have less contact with that person.”
Why the holidays are particularly difficult for people estranged from their family
“Holidays are often times when people not only spend time with their families but also talk about spending time with their families,” said Kristina Scharp, a faculty member at the University of Washington, whose research focuses on parent-child estrangement. “People might not only think about their familial relationships more during the holidays but also have to negotiate difficult conversations.”
If a person is estranged from a family member, holidays can be especially hard, whether it’s trying to make plans that don’t include your family, having to negotiate boundaries if you do spend time with family or having to explain to others why your plans may not include spending time with your family.
“A lot of times people feel ashamed or embarrassed that they are estranged from their family, because that’s not ‘what we’re supposed to do,’” Neuharth said. “Sometimes they don’t talk about it, but it’s very painful, so they sit with the pain alone.”
How to survive the holiday season
Given that the holidays are already an emotionally charged time, Neuharth doesn’t generally suggest trying to reconcile with family. If the estrangement is due to an old argument, rather than a lifelong pattern of toxic behaviour, this can lead to a reconciliation, but only with a lot of hard work.
“Just because it’s the holidays, [reconciliation] isn’t necessarily the right thing to do sometimes,” Neuharth said. “Another time of the year, when there is no holiday pressure, it can maybe go better.” Instead, Neuharth recommends either spending time with people who support and care about you, or to use that time to do something for yourself.
“For some people, their more meaningful family is not the one they were born into, and raised in, but the family they’ve built in their community. That may be who they spend their holidays with, and that’s far more nurturing,” Neuharth said. “For other people, that time that they may have gone to see family, can be like ‘found’ time, for you to relax or pamper yourself, or get some projects done, that would take care of you far more than going to a family situation that wouldn’t.”