The longer you live, and/or the longer you are a genealogist, the more likely you are to encounter an individual who has become estranged from their family of origin. How we think about estrangement impacts how we proceed. The difference we can make in the lives of others and/or their descendants can be profound, for better, or for worse. I want to challenge your ideas about estrangement and ways to move forward, not only for the benefit of those you encounter in your genealogy work, but also through your extended families, your friends or colleagues, and possibly for your family of origin and yourself.
Note: This article combines the scores (surely a hundred and more) of examples which I have experienced mostly in my professional and genealogical lives with a smattering of personal experiences. If you think you specifically recognize my examples, I think you do not, and I would refer you to the song “You’re So Vain…You Probably Think This Song Is About You,” Carly Simon, 1971. It’s worth a listen, anyway!
After walking alongside many, many individuals on all sides of estrangement, I feel I have been given a perspective that is worth sharing. Still, I certainly do not know everything. As we talk about estrangement, I will not address the issue of abduction or kidnapping followed by indoctrination, which would be a more specific sort of estrangement by individuals experiencing a unique form of victimization. Rather this article is to address estrangements by individuals who act of their own volition, although it is possible that there is a gray area that blurs the two distinctions. This is particularly true in cultures in which there is limited free press and there are fascistic elements meant to divide communities and families for political or economic benefit of those in power, or cultures that practice significant oppression of women or minorities as a matter of course.
Additionally, there are aspects, causes, and impacts of estrangement that others have experienced that I have not addressed in this piece. The fact that I have not addressed all types and circumstances is testament to my point that the issue of estrangement is quite broad, with many unique circumstances and factors, yet issues and perspectives for coping, approaching, and addressing can be useful across the variants.
In this first in a series of 4 installments, I will talk about the concepts of estrangement vs. boundaries and the different ways people may experience them. In subsequent installments, we will look at how we address estrangements, based upon our situation; the concept of multigenerational trauma and its impacts; and genealogists as potential agents of change and healing.
As a child, my parents told me that I had a cousin, with whom my older cousins, aunts, and uncles had at one point been very close, who had married in another state hundreds of miles away; and who had basically ceased contact with his parents. “It was because his wife did not like…” something, I was told. I was too young to remember this older cousin, but I still felt impact of the break. I loved my aunt, and I could not imagine her pain of being separated from her son. My family was close, I thought.
My family was so close that later when my brother was overseas on peacetime duty in the military, I imagined that he was very lonely all the time, so much did I miss him. How could he stand being away from all of us who love him, especially during holiday celebrations? I later came to understand that his overseas experience, for him, was fun, liberating, and an adventure. But, of course, he was not estranged; rather, he was still connected to the family by phone and letter, and many years later he would return to live near his family of origin. I underscore that the notion of true estrangement from family seemed rare and almost unexplainable to me for many years.
Now, as an adult, I have an expanded view of estrangement. Work experiences and connections, family experiences, and dealing with my personal reactions to estrangement inform my perspectives. My writing is to encourage readers to open their hearts and perspectives in their understanding of individuals and/or families experiencing estrangement. Almost assuredly, in the course of genealogy one will come across individuals impacted in some way by estrangement, either directly or indirectly, from prior generations Your sensitivity to these individuals and their imminent or remnant pain and loss can prove validating, affirming, and possibly healing in ways you may never know.
Estrangement is defined as alienation, or a separation from family or social contact and affection. Typically, estrangement is unexpected and unwanted by those from whom an individual becomes estranged. The estrangement also can be unexpected and unwanted by those estranging themselves from their loved ones. While there can be similarities and generalities across cases, there are many individual, unique situations. Others have written extensively about estrangement, so I do not present a scientific or complete analysis of the phenomenon here, but underscore from a personal perspective the wide array of individuals’ experiences, viewpoints, and responses and ways we can respond appropriately.
Before we talk about estrangement, it is important to say a word about boundaries. We should all have boundaries, which we might define as spaces to give ourselves authority over our choices, beliefs, whom we marry, career choices, money and living choices, and how we rear our children. Cultures vary in terms of how, when, and how much independence we give our children and family members. It is typical that adolescent transition to adulthood is fraught with tension with parents regarding setting these boundaries, discussing them, and respect for them. We always hope that children and their adults work their way through these tensions. Sometimes they do not, or sometimes they do not until later in life. Happily, most families develop an ability to set boundaries effectively, parents with children and adult children, and siblings with each other. Not having a large immediate family of origin, I was always amazed watching friends who would spar with their siblings, particularly in large families; declare they were *done* with them; then a few months later or less, have worked out their differences, carrying on as best friends. Sometimes this meant not discussing certain topics, or agreeing to disagree, but they seemed to find areas of commonality and community to continue the relationships. Finding ways to set boundaries and make them work across time is an ongoing process of families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
A recent observation regarding boundaries is the importance of being allowed to grow and change one’s mind, goals, and opinions. There is a remarkable tendency, perhaps especially in today’s era of online presence, to assess others and hold them *accountable* for their actions, statements, and even identity, chastising any change in position. As an example, I have known individuals who decide to become physically fit; modify to a healthful diet; and implement an active lifestyle, receive huge negative blowback and obstacles from their family members and friends. Derision at family meals; accusations (unfounded) of having an eating disorder; and harsh, critical statements can be crushing, as though designed to force the individual back into the depressed, ill, unhealthful state where they began.
If you are the one setting boundaries for yourself, especially if you are striking a position that may be different from what others expect, it is good to know that there is a somewhat normal, though often frustrating, societal pressure to keep you where folks are accustomed to experiencing you. Seek support, as you need, from those who will give you positive support, even seeking professional help as an option. If, on the other hand, you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, possibly envious, that someone in your sphere is seeking to set a path that is different from your expectations and is setting boundaries to achieve their goal, avoid criticism. Recognize that seeking to give others the space to change and grow is not always easy…partly because their changes probably cause us uncomfortable re-evaluation of our beliefs and actions?
Individuals whose loved one has become estranged–
A fairly total block of communication and connection was my first exposure or experience to estrangement, as I mentioned in my opening, with my beloved family member in pain due to distance from a beloved son. Across time, I became aware of many complex situations that cause fractures in relationships.
- An adult child with severe mental illness, off medication, who suddenly disappears from the community and discontinues contact for months at a time
- A divorced parent being (in this case) almost certainly falsely accused of child abuse by an avenging and unstable ex-spouse involved in a custody dispute, resulting in the child being restricted from seeing the parent, sometimes for years
- Siblings experiencing anger and disagreements resulting from parental divorce, death, remarriage, or addiction
- Individuals whose child, sibling, or parent marries an individual with significant mental health issues, diagnosed or undiagnosed
In the listed situations, disagreements, misunderstandings, differences of opinion may be magnified to the point of rupture. In other cases, actual or perceived acts of injustice, uncaring, or breaches of trust have occurred. In some situations, distorted thinking such as paranoia or thoughts of persecution are part of the picture, negatively impacting the ability to deal with others in a reality-based, rational manner.
Individuals who feel a need to set a boundary so firm as to estrange themselves from one or more family members or friends–
When one attempts to set a boundary, but their boundary is not respected or is continually breached, one may, in fact, need to establish a boundary that is so firm it is or becomes an estrangement. Here are examples of dire situations that would constitute a need for a break in a relationship:
- Ceasing contact with a recurrently abusive relationship, with a spouse, parent, sibling, child, or other individual
- Dealing with a parent who repeatedly inappropriately injects themselves into an adult child’s parenting, marital relationship, or career (even inappropriately calling the child’s boss to correct or advocate for the adult child)
- Disconnecting from monetary influence of a parent or ex-spouse who is using money or control of trust fund to influence career, marital choice, or education plans, either to protect self or the interests of oneself or one’s dependent children
- Needing protection from family members engaging in behavior considered harmful to the individual and the individual’s children, such as drug abuse; criminal behavior; argumentative, abusive and/or aggressive physical outbursts
Note that in some families, teenagers and even adult children may lack the ability to set an effective “normal” boundary with a parent, due to family dynamic; culture; or individual personality. In those cases, sometimes people feel a need to estrange themselves from their family in order to effectively individuate. One hopes that in time there will be a path forward to re-engagement with the family when newfound assertiveness and self-confidence, along with respect of the family members, can allow for reconciliation with appropriate boundaries set and enacted.
Bystanders, friends, and family members, many who know the individuals on both sides of the estrangement–
It is painful to watch and experience an unfolding or ongoing estrangement as a family member or friend of someone involved in a direct case of estrangement. Knowing how to react is tricky…there are potential repercussions that can negatively impact the situation. Here are some of the considerations:
- Whether there is potential danger to you as a bystander, either emotionally or physically
- How closely connected or related you are to either party
- Likelihood that your emotional response to the situation, angry/hurt, and degree of reaction, could impact your judgement in responding effectively and with measure
- Balancing your ability to be a conduit for reconnection vs. the risk of being a conduit of hurt or disinformation
- A stance of either side accusing you of “taking sides” with the other… “either you are with me, or you are against me.
There are many issues, seen and unseen, that can impact or contribute to a stance of estrangement.
- Trauma and loss, especially at an early age, particularly of a parent/sibling/child
- Verbal, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, either recognized or hidden, by anyone within or outside the sphere of the family or community
- Differences in life circumstances including educational paths, economic opportunities
- Decisions or experiences which lead to taking a different cultural path of the family of origin
- Experiencing a reality that places one at odds with culture of origin, including sexual identity or orientation, career path, religious affiliation, and/or marital partner choice
- Health issues across all spectrums, diagnosed and undiagnosed, resulting in a variety of needs and expectations, sometimes limiting abilities to respond and engage
Each of the above issues can be looked at through the additional lens of trauma. Consider that trauma is a unique event or series of events perceived by an individual as significantly threatening their lives or safety. Traumas have real, neurobiological impact, and the traumas are not always easy for others to see. As a consequence of trauma, victims may respond to situations or people in ways that are different from how they would normally respond. Trauma can affect victims in many ways, including how they respond to future events, physically and behaviorally. If you do not know that the other person with whom you share an estrangement divide is a trauma victim, regardless of where you sit on the estrangement divide, you will not understand how the trauma victim sees the situation in question. In other words, the person who initiated the estrangement may not know that the person from whom they are estranging is a victim of trauma; conversely, the family member or friend from whom the individual has estranged themselves may have an unseen or unrecognized trauma. Actually, both can be true simultaneously!
As Whitney Marris, Director of Practice and System Transformation at Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice1, has said, rather than wondering about the other person, “What is wrong with them?” consider thinking “I wonder what happened to them?” The latter perspective allows curiosity and an open stance to communicate rather than a closed or defensive stance.
I want to add another category– disconnection from family. It helps to see disconnection through the lens of genealogy. If you do DNA genealogy, you find that you have cousin “matches,” that is, people with whom you share DNA inheritance, many of whom you do not know, and many you do not even know yet how you are related– that is, which ancestral couples you share with each of these DNA-found cousins. As an example, let us say that a third cousin in my matches shares with me an ancestral couple who are 2nd great-grandparents to each of us. That means that our great-grandparents were siblings. Maybe those siblings were great buddies… so how in the world did this cousin and I become disconnected? Siblings may more away from each other, or their children may move away from the community or state, possibly moving across country. Kids often lose contact with their parents’ friends or cousins after the elders die, unless that family is in close proximity and the relationships are nurtured. Marriages, early deaths, remarriages, lack of things in common… lots of things can fracture the close bond of families, without their being an estrangement.
Adoption of a baby, of course, is a special case, but it also clearly is an example of how a person can lose all connection with biological family immediately, in most cases, historically. Early deaths of a parent and the family changes that follow also frequently can increase the likelihood of relatively early disconnection from extended family, such as first cousins. As generations move along, it becomes more typical to be disconnected from our 2nd and 3rd cousins. In many cases there are so many of them, and they have become much more geographically scattered.
Of course, any estrangement along the way most certainly will cause a disconnection of offspring of one family from the family of the other.
Through genealogy, reconnecting with a cousin who may be totally disconnected from any family, or from your line of the family, is an opportunity to proceed to reconnect. In these cases of disconnection, it is always good to be cautious that there could be an estrangement somewhere in the family tree that may need to be recognized and addressed in some way. In later blog installments, we will circle back around to genealogical disconnections and estrangements.
Truthfully, we may never know the cause of some estrangements, especially when the break is sudden, and the estranging individual does not share their concerns or reasons. It is a terribly hard place to sit, with huge emotional reactions, not knowing why, and not knowing what comes next.
In the next installment, we will talk about next steps… The main thing at this stage is not to give up hope, but also avoid doing anything, from your perspective, that would make a break. We cannot know the future. But a hopeful thought– it is true that estrangements sometimes do become resolved. A wise person recently reminded me that it takes two to reconcile… but in the meanwhile, as you wait and consider next steps, it is prudent to avoid making statements or engaging in activities that would drive a wider wedge or cause an irreparable break, if that is possible… see the boundary section above as you also protect yourself.
1ctipp.org accessed 3/2023