Estrangement refers to a broken or disrupted family relationship in which family members have reduced or stopped communicating and interacting with each other. Usually a gradual process rather than a single event, estrangement often involves periods of distance mixed with times of reconciliation. Estrangement can impact mental health and well-being, but therapy can help you cope and, if desired, reconnect with family members.
What Does Estranged Mean?
To be estranged means to experience distance or separation from others, such as family members, with notable diminish in or even complete loss of contact with people with whom you once had close relationships.1 Estrangement is considered to be a loss of a family relationship that was originally at least somewhat nurturing.2
Estrangement is typically a process rather than a single event.3 When at least one family member desires to separate themselves from another, usually because of a prolonged negative relationship or pattern of problematic interactions, they begin to distance themselves physically and emotionally, withdrawing from support and interdependence.
A schism between family members is complex and often cyclical, with periods of separation and reconciliation.2,4 This can be incredibly difficult, causing added confusion, stress, anxiety, and disenfranchised grief.3,4 Estrangement can vary in length. Reported lengths of separation range from less than six months to more than 30 years.2
Estrangement is considered by some experts to be more complicated than divorce because of its lack of finality and closure.5 Accordingly, being estranged from one or more family members can substantially affect someone’s mental health and well-being.
Impacts of Estrangement
Humans depend on family relationships for support, security, and stability; estrangement disrupts this and impacts mental health.4 Estrangement of a parent and child, even an adult child, involves a loss of the original attachment system, the process that creates emotional bonding and a secure base.4
Some research suggests that estrangement destroys the original attachment system, causes pain of rejection, triggers chronic stress, and creates a sense of uncertainty.4Together, these feelings can decrease self-esteem and cause a sense of worthlessness, make coping difficult, decrease resilience in the face of other challenges, contribute to anxiety and depression, and damage physical health. The breakage of this secure, once-predictable family bond brings numerous challenges to someone’s overall well-being.
Estrangement can cause:2,3,4,5,6
- A sense of grief and loss
- Anxiety, including separation anxiety
- Pervasive sadness
- Ambiguous loss
- Feelings of being left out or even vilified by other family members
- Negative emotions and mood
- A decreased ability to self-regulate
- Ongoing trust issues in other relationships
- Impacts on other family members, like taking sides or feeling awkward, especially around family events
- A tendency to ruminate about problems in all relationships rather than enjoying positive, nurturing aspects of relationships
One reason estrangement is often so problematic and difficult is that family relationships, especially a parent-child bond, is expected to be permanent with no real option to end it like one might end a friendship, romantic relationship, or marriage.3
It’s important to note that estrangement doesn’t always have an exclusively negative impact on those involved. For some, cutting off communication and distancing from a family member perceived to be toxic can bring relief and a welcome sense of freedom and peace.6 Many people report decreased stress, increased insight and self-understanding, and feelings of strength and happiness after severing negative ties.2
Signs of Family Estrangement
The process of family estrangement isn’t always loud, quick, and understood by all involved. It often happens over time and could even be surprising to some involved in the damaged relationship. Even when it seemingly does happen suddenly, it is often a result of tensions and difficulties that have accumulated over time.6
Keep in mind that estrangement isn’t usually a single event but instead is a process that exists on a continuum. People frequently move between separation and reconciliation, making estrangement a fluid process that can be difficult to understand.3
The following signs can help you recognize estrangement in one of your family relationships:3,5
- Decreasing communication (both the frequency and meaningful nature of interactions)
- Physical distancing (moving away or avoiding close proximity)
- Reduction in emotional closeness and feelings of connection, caring, and empathy
- Increasing negative emotions and affect (displays of anger, bitterness, and similar emotions)
- Declining relationship effort (choosing not to be connected in typical ways)
- Ignoring role expectations (not behaving according to expectations, such as failing to nurture and support)
- Delegitimizing (officially, and sometimes legally, breaking all ties)
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Family Estrangement Statistics
These statistics help tell the tale of estrangement. They show that, if you are estranged from one or more family members, you are not alone. They also paint a picture of how long estrangement sometimes lasts and how people feel about reconciliation.
Who Is Affected by Estrangement
Estrangement isn’t a rare situation experienced by just a handful of people. It is surprisingly common, perhaps as common as divorce, and can occur in any family:3,5,6
- Approximately 12% of adults are estranged from their grown children.
- In a survey of young adults, about 17% indicated that they were estranged from at least one parent, usually their father.
- Sibling estrangement isn’t as common as parent-child estrangement, but it does occur. About 5% of Americans report being estranged from one or more siblings.
- In a random sampling of over 550 mothers, 10% indicated estrangement from at least one child.
- In the United Kingdom, about 20% of people report experiencing family estrangement.
A 2015 online survey of estranged individuals with 807 participants, conducted in collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the non-profit organization StandAlone revealed the following:2
- 53% were estranged from their mother (biological or otherwise)
- 43% were estranged from their father (biological or otherwise)
- 34% were estranged from both parents
- 44% were estranged from one or more sisters
- 44% were estranged from one or more brothers
- 14% were estranged from both brothers and sisters
- 80% indicated that being estranged brought positive outcomes like greater independence
How Long Estrangement Lasts
Estrangement varies greatly in length. For some, it can be fairly brief while for other families the rift is permanent. Recall that estrangement is often a process involving periods of complete distancing and periods of reconciliation. This pattern makes the length of estrangement difficult to measure and highly variable.
Still, some surveys have shed light on how long estrangement can last: 5
- In a survey of 354 undergraduate and graduate students, ages 18-56, from four universities in the northeastern United States, 43% reported having experienced estrangement from their nuclear families, and most lasted fewer than four years.
- A different survey revealed that the average length of parent-child estrangement is nine years.
- Estrangement from fathers has been reported to last longer than estrangement from mothers, with the length more than five years from mothers and more than seven years from fathers.
As with length of estrangement, rate of reconciliation is difficult to accurately measure because there are so many individual differences and unique circumstances which are complicated by the tendency of many families to cycle in periods of separation and reconciliation.
Some surveys have attempted to determine how common reconciliation is once family members become estranged from one another:5
- Almost 80% of estranged individuals believe that reconciliation is impossible.
- In a survey, approximately 71% of children who cut ties with parents do end up reconciling.
- The same survey indicated that approximately 30% of estranged parents and children remain distanced.
- A different survey indicated that 46% of estranged families ended up reconciling.
Final Thoughts on Family Estrangement
Family estrangement can be difficult and negatively affect your mental health and wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be permanent, and there are ways to reconcile, if you so desire. Working with a therapist can be highly valuable in either helping you reconcile or cope positively with long-term estrangement.