Estrangements… What Do We Do About Them? Barriers or Gates? 2/4

Earlier we looked at the concept of estrangement, particularly a separation from family or person with whom one has a close, familial connection and affection. We discussed the jarring nature of an estrangement, both from the perspective of one who separates themselves, but also particularly the perspective of the person who has been estranged. We also acknowledged the importance of boundaries in considering the nature of the estrangement how we should approach it.

Additionally, my caveat stands that the concept of estrangement is complex, with many causes, contributing elements, and cultural considerations that I will not pretend to fully address. My focus is upon the individuals, families, and genealogists who find themselves in the middle of an estrangement situation, either their own; of their extended family or friends; or of family or strangers we encounter in our research. There are considerations that apply across situations.

What would be the goal in approaching an estrangement? The actual, considered answer to this requires an expanded perspective and a lot of nuance, rather than a quick, easy answer. In fact, how each of us might answer this question, if we personally are in the middle of a current estrangement, would likely include a quick take, intense emotion, and potentially quite a lot of our personal perspective informed by our personal experience and our likely highly emotional reaction to our particular situation or set of circumstances.

Think about it. Would you think that two individuals who are estranged from each other would be in agreement about the cause and particular account of their estrangement? Or that it would be easy for them to sit down and hear the other’s side?

Wait, why am I even bothering with writing this? Maybe this is foolish. People should just remain mad, upset, and estranged, and forget about it. Move on. Writing about this is ridiculous.

But NO. It is NOT ridiculous. Estrangement hurts, and healing is important, even if it is just YOUR healing. We do live in community, and the more each of us can be open to others’ estrangement and be a voice of healing and comfort, the more the community can heal. The more the world can heal. Skills we learn in dealing with estrangement can help us resolve differences and conflicts, support each others’ boundaries, and help each of us to become healthy individuals living within healthy families and communities.

What follows are some considerations for approaching estrangement, either to heal, or to avoid furthering or continuing fracture.

We are humans, and humans are made to live in community. It should be generally considered that our families, for all their faults, love us and want the best for us.

If someone you respect and who cares about you has said something or done something you find hurtful, try to consider if there is some piece of information that you or they do not have. Why, possibly, could they have said or done what they did? More likely than not, one of you does not have all the data, or has misunderstood some of the data at hand to cause the miscommunication. It is always worth your while to go the extra mile to discover where the miscommunication may have occurred.

Be open to communication.

Be a good listener when the opportunity arises. This can be hard, because you may be in a position that you are being told things with which you do not agree, and which may sound false or outlandish to you. Fight the temptation to reflexively argue and express outrage, but rather, take a deep breath, take notes, listen. Try to find the grains of truth that may be in the statements you are being told.

Consider mediators or utilizing the assistance of a psychologist trained in conflict resolution or family dynamics and communication, especially if the other party reaches out to you.

Consider that you may be wrong, mistaken, or not hearing/understanding a very real issue being brought up by the other party. It may take a while to admit, address, or rectify, but it will be well worth the work. This is true of EITHER and/or ALL parties. Research and utilization of true experts can be helpful, as long as the parties are not just seeking confirmation of their opinions or biases.

It can be possible to hold more than one truth and find a way forward through compromise and collaboration. In other words, you may be right, and I may be right, at the same time.

Sometimes situations escalate to legal action by one or both parties Generally, it is better if the parties can avoid that step, since doing so can lead to decreased communication, and involvement of attorneys can increase likelihood of contentiousness. Still, legal action does not have to end badly, and one hopes mediation could be an alternate process to reach a resolution that would provide a path forward for the relationship.

I ascribe to a reformed Christian perspective, which, while affirming that boundaries and safety are important, strives for reconciliation where at all safely possible. Praying for the health, happiness, and healing of all parties, including those with whom you are feeling the most hurt and/or anger, is often hard, but an important step, not just for them, but for yourself. This active, prayerful perspective and practice is a PROCESS across time, and seeking spiritual support and encouragement can be helpful in accomplishing the practice. For those who are not Christian or even particularly religious, the concept is still viable and important, thinking of positive energy or healing, or good will and peace for all involved. The practice activates neural activity within us that we know will activate peaceful attitude, behavior, and communication with and from those around us, which can have an impact far beyond our immediate environment. Further, our more calm stance can allow a cognitive readiness for creative problem-solving that can help us find resolutions or difficulties, or at least openness to possibilities of healing. Research regarding mirror neurons affirms that how we activate and respond can impact reactions of others to us, and can help to keep us from negatively reacting internally to individuals engaging in dismissiveness or anger toward us. The power is undeniable, and it is within our reach, with practice!

From my experience, a hard stop or absolute decision to maintain estrangement forever should be an exceedingly rare decision or stance. It can be necessary if there is active, substantial, and dangerous abuse or evil intent, with no effort by the other party to seek help or respect reasonable boundaries. If the other person loves you, the motivation to change, listen, or move forward in growth can be high, assuming the individual has the ability to do so. Sometimes change takes a long time; sometimes hurt takes a long time to process; sometimes pride is a difficult thing to address and swallow, especially to try to see the other’s point of view/hurt/need for individuation, or working out previously unknown or unseen information. When we give the other person the time and space, it can be hard for us to not be impatient and judgmental about our perception that they should already accept/understand/get with the program.

Acceptance? What does that even mean? In the context, acceptance is a deep breath, a being okay that things are where they are, for now. If an estrangement is a new occurrence, we may find ourselves working diligently for estrangement to end. When efforts are blocked or ineffective, for our own health we can move to a cognitive balancing point, that while estrangement is not what we want, neither is resolution immediately possible or within our control. Rather than actively fighting against or railing against the estrangement, the state of acceptance is a place holder that things are the way they need to be for now, even if we do not like it. Coming to acceptance is not an easy journey, but the destination is worth it.

Recently, I had an opportunity to hear Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow speak about his book In Defense of Kindness. He addressed estrangement and boundaries, and until he spoke, I did not realize that my default view of estrangements was a focus upon the hurt the estrangement causes those from whom one is estranged, not giving enough weight, perhaps, to those who make the choice to distance themselves. Bruce spoke of honoring the boundaries another may set, even if we do not understand or agree with with the boundary. He also referred to the fluidity of the state of estrangement. Estrangement may be the current status, but it might change or resolve later, or move in phases. The same fluidity applies to boundaries we set with others. Depending upon our growth, situation, needs, and perceptions of others’ behavior and our ability or energy to deal with it, we may change how firmly we hold our boundaries or where we choose to place them.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see estrangement and acceptance as a process. People are complicated, life is complicated, and we can only deal with what we are handed. That is, by ourselves, we can only do so much to impact an estrangement. Yet our action and inaction are not unimportant. As we will see in our next segment, harmony vs disharmony as stances have a ripple effect, potentially for generations to come.

–William Williams 2023

Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Dr. Jon, The Healing Power of Mindfulness. Hachette Books, 2018.

Reyes-Chow, Rev. Bruce, In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How It Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save The World. Chalice Press, 2021.

Siegel,M.D. Dan, Intraconnected: MWe (Me + We) as the Integration of Self, Identity, and Belonging (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W Norton & Co., 2022.