Our families are supposed to be the ones who love us the most, who will take care of us and support us through difficult times. But what happens when they treat you so badly that you have to walk away?
Estrangement is not a subject that’s spoken about often, but it affects 27 per cent of people – who cut contact with at least one member of their family at some point in their lives. More than 8,000 adults in the UK are estranged from their loved ones at this very moment. The word ‘estrangement’ actually originated from the French ‘estranger’ and then Latin ‘extraneare’, meaning ‘to treat as a stranger’, or ‘not belonging to the family’.
For me, this is the perfect description of a situation that can leave those affected in a profound state of isolation and has a deeply negative impact on mental health and wellbeing.
When I was twelve years old, I was helped to escape the threat of forced marriage and honour abuse. I’d seen it happen to other members of my family and suffered various abuses myself, although I was made to feel like the ‘attitude problem’ was mine. The local police force and social services helped me get away, but that wasn’t the end of my ordeal.
For thirteen years afterwards I struggled to overcome great confusion and emotional turmoil in an effort to maintain some semblance of a relationship with my parents. In this I was unsuccessful: the abuse continued, in less extreme forms that prolonged the psychological damage that had already been wrought.
I had a huge panic attack
When I was twenty-five years old, I finally realised that things were never going to change. I simply could not have a relationship with people who so consistently trampled on my boundaries. Since then, my mother has attempted to contact me only once. When I recognised the number she was calling from, I had a huge panic attack, from which it took me two days to recover. It’s been six years since I exchanged a word with either of my parents. The impact of legal and local authority involvement in my escape tore the family apart, and over the years I stopped speaking to all my relatives, except for one sibling with who I exchange a rare text, or phone call.
Of all the psychological issues associated with escaping from honour abuse, I believe that estrangement poses the most serious challenge to recovery. Since there is usually more than one perpetrator, it’s not just the devastating loss of close family ties that victims have to deal with – they often become estranged from their entire community as well. It’s also likely that they have been raised in an isolated, highly restricted environment at home.
So they often have to learn how to socialise in a culture that feels completely unfamiliar to them, in order to form new friendships with other people. Without the close-knit support network that so many take for granted, it’s impossible to survive. It can be hard enough to lose just one family member. To lose so many made me feel like a ghost.
Estranged people tend to withdraw
Stand Alone is a UK-based charity, founded in 2012 by CEO Becca Bland, who has herself been affected by estrangement. Bland agrees that the experience can often leave people very vulnerable.
“Because of the stigma surrounding estrangement, people tend to withdraw. They feel scared about properly interacting with others and revealing their situation. Abuse survivors and others who have been rejected may have problems trusting others. For students who are estranged there is the added problem of needing to find somewhere to live when the end of term comes. Many spend the summer months sofa surfing, but there are others who run a real risk of homelessness.”
Compounding the pain of estrangement itself is the strong stigma associated with it. There is deep judgement towards those who, for any number of valid reasons, have chosen to cut contact with family. I’ve lived in London for ten years now, but my Scottish accent is still strong. It’s natural for new people I meet to ask questions.
My heart often sinks when, upon hearing that I’m not in contact with my parents, they say, ‘but they’re your parents! How can you just not talk to them?’ Or, ‘you’ll regret it before long – they won’t be around forever you know’.
We need to accept estrangement
There is no consideration of what those parents are sometimes capable of doing to their children. And the stigma doesn’t stop with well-meaning strangers. An old boyfriend of mine was told by his father that he could do better than being with someone from a “broken home”. When new partners, or their families, discover that they can’t meet my family, there is a definite sense of mistrust – as though estrangement indicates ungratefulness, or an inability on my part to do the work it takes to commit to a relationship. Bland says: “There is a strong pressure to reconcile, when in fact what’s needed is acceptance of the reality of estrangement and provision of support to help people deal with the impact of this on their wellbeing.”
Stand Alone provides a range of services for those who are affected by estrangement, from regular therapeutic meetings in a group setting, adult foster care for those aged between 18 and 30 years, and practical support for students experiencing issues with finance and accommodation (as detailed in a 2008 NUS report).
Their work is unique. What’s more, I’m glad to finally hear it said, publicly, that “there are always times when it’s right to walk away”.
I’ve come to realise that, despite the pain of estrangement, I have greater freedom than most to explore and create my own identity, and to enjoy the autonomy previously denied to me. The friends I have now are the family I wish I had. Even through the worst of times, they have loved and supported me unconditionally. I’m also able to offer support to others who have been through similar experiences. Although I still encounter stigma on occasion, I can be confident that my partner will love and respect me for the person I am, rather than judging me by the absence of family I left behind.