• Angela Mutum MBACP

5 Brief Descriptions of Family Estrangement


What is estrangement? The Cambridge Dictionary defines “estranged” as “lacking interest in and no longer close or friendly with someone, esp. a family member or friend”. The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “(of a person) no longer close or affectionate to someone; alienated.”.


These definitions mostly assume prior closeness or affection in relation to the object of the estrangement. The first assumes that a lack of interest is allied to the loss of closeness. To me, neither definition encompasses the reality of family estrangement. Much more helpful to me is Dr Joshua Coleman’s take in a Tweet on 25th April 2021 (Coleman Joshua PHD@drjcoleman): “....instead of asking your adult child "Why are you doing this to me?" better to say, "I know you wouldn't unless it was the healthiest thing for you to do." Since that's what it feels like to them.”.


To me, the most accurate word used in these definitions is “alienated”, For me, estrangement is the product of the realisation of how alienated one is, and how alienated one has always been, from the object of the estrangement. And alienation is the result of a mismatch in values.


Here are 5 ways in which that mismatch can arise.


  1. Where one party does not adhere to the other party’s religious beliefs.

  2. Where one party does not adhere to the other party’s personal norms, eg honesty.

  3. Where one party does not adhere to the societal norms which the other regards as non-negotiable, eg adherence to gender identities or to the criminal law.

  4. Where one party views the concept of family in terms of duty and self-sacrifice, rather than in terms of relationship. This sometimes entails one party having put up with emotional or physical abuse by the other party – or having not perceiving it.

  5. Where one party views their value within the family differently from the other party, eg as a result of expectations by one party of the other party which are doomed to be unmet..


Estrangement is also perhaps a narrative based, to some extent, on a person’s choices about whom they are willing to include within their circle of intimates. And the choices made in this regard by our parents reverberate through the generations. We talk of estrangement when a living parent and child no longer have contact but not so readily, for example, when a parent brings up a child without mentioning the existence of the parent’s living uncle or cousin. Is the child then estranged from it’s relative and their descendants? If the parent’s sibling, aunt, uncle or cousin have pre-deceased the parent and are not mentioned to the child by the parent, is the child estranged their descendants? Estrangement may arise from choice or from ignorance and who we count as family is more of a choice than we might like to think. The choice may be ours or it may have been made for us by others in our family, eg our parents. Healthy choice can only be made by our

selves out of an awareness of ourselves and our values.


If you want to know more about this subject, or are seeking support with it, counselling may help you. The charity Stand Alone (https://www.standalone.org.uk/} is also dedicated to supporting people who are estranged.


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