Estrangement from important others is a sad fact of life for many people. One of the most painful experiences a parent can have, for example, is to be rejected by an adult child who appears to want nothing to do with them. Estrangement between siblings, in-laws, neighbors, even coworkers, is also common.
The reasons this happens are as diverse as the parties involved. Sometimes there was a very close relationship in the past, and something happened that created distance. This may have happened either slowly over time or rather suddenly, but once that distance was created, it solidified into estrangement. Or, the relationship was never as close as it could have been, and the gap just kept getting wider, until there was no relationship at all.
If you are estranged from someone in your family or social circle, and the estrangement is their choice rather than yours, you are probably feeling rejected. Rejection is a powerful emotion that can lead to all sorts of defensive behavior, which in turn can further alienate the rejecting person. If someone has chosen to have little or no contact with you, it's important to acknowledge any softer feelings you may have about that. Often when we're hurt we resort to anger, resentment or vengefulness. But these are indicators of unacknowledged sadness, loss and grief.
There are steps you can take to try to mend fences. It's worth trying to do so, because the other person may be suffering just as you are. If it turns out that you both value the idea of having a relationship again (and that is definitely an if), you will be avoiding an unnecessary loss for both of you by doing what you can to make amends.
No matter what the history, cause or present state of your estrangement from the other person, one thing is certain: Trying to convince them verbally that they're wrong to reject you is a losing strategy. If you've tried anything at all, you've probably tried that. You may have explained your position in full detail, and been annoyed, confused or stymied to find the person unmoved by your compelling argument.
You must understand that the other person has a reason for wanting to reduce contact with you. It hurts to think about being rejected at all, and to accept that there's a reason you were rejected is one of the hardest things any of us can do. However, it's also necessary if you want to have a relationship with the person again.
And, by the way: What do you want? Is it a relationship with this person that you truly desire, or do you simply need them to know that they're wrong to reject you?
If it is really a relationship that you want with this person who doesn't seem to want one with you anymore, your options are limited, but you do have them. There is much you can do to give the relationship a really good shot, but ultimately, you must realize that there's only so much that's within your control. Don't give up prematurely, though! Here's what you need to know...
1. You are wrong and they are right. No qualifiers, no conditions, no compromises. How they feel is the absolute truth of the matter. This must be your attitude and your belief. People don't end important relationships on a whim; at some point they really must have felt hurt/unseen/devalued/attacked/vilified/dismissed/damaged/ignored/betrayed/rejected/disrespected by you enough to build that wall. Of course you never meant to do any such thing, but that's how they took it, and that's how they feel. That's reality. That's a fact. Acknowledge, understand, empathize, and apologize. Any attempt to excuse or explain your behavior will make things worse between you.
2. Curiosity is seen as caring.You can tell someone all day and night how much you care about them, but if you're not the least bit curious about how they feel, how deep can that caring really go? To be genuinely curious about someone else's experience is a gift not commonly given. Now is the time to give the other person the gift of your curiosity about them. You might send a letter or an email acknowledging their rejection of you, taking a guess as to the cause if appropriate, and asking for details of their experience. Finish by asking what you can do to make amends. Make suggestions you know they will appreciate, if appropriate.
3. Make an effort on their behalf. Think of how you might set things right between the two of you, in a way that speaks to the other person. What do they want? What might they need? How can you selflessly be of assistance to them right now? Actions do speak louder than words, so you'll need to balance your curiosity (see #2 above) with a contribution of active energy. Making an effort, going out of your way to say or do something meaningful to the other person (rather than to you), will demonstrate your good intentions.
4. Validate their feelings and their position.You do not have to agree with their view of what happened in order to do this. You need only understand how they see things from their point of view.
5. This is not about you. Your story is not interesting right now to the person who rejected you. They are only interested in their story. Since it was they who initiated the estrangement, your job is to be curious about them, to validate their feelings, and to be available to them in a way that they define as positive or useful.
Imagine if you went to a dentist with a sore tooth, and the dentist came into the waiting room and sat down beside you and said, "I know you've got a sore tooth, but I am so upset today I can barely work." Imagine the dentist launching into a story about what's going on at home that's got her so upset. How much do you care, as you sit there with your hand on your cheek and your tooth aching like crazy, about the dentist's problems? When you're hurting, it's hard to be interested in others. Realize that the person who's cut you off has been hurt by you, even if they don't act like it.
6. Accept their decision. For whatever reason, no matter what you do, the other person may decide not to let you back into their life. Let them know that you accept their decision, that you genuinely wish them well, and that the door is always open if they change their mind. Acknowledge to yourself the loss of the relationship, and allow yourself to mourn. Accept the new reality of your life without that person in it. You will survive without them. Your life may look and feel different to you, but it will be yours to do with as you please. If they ever do change their mind and come knocking on your door, decide right now to let them find a peaceful, whole person on the other side.
Estranged Parents - Adult Children Who Stop Talking to Mom or Dad By Christina Gregoire, www.Suite101.com
Grown kids cut off communication with parents when there are problems about money, new boyfriends/girlfriends, or mom or dad remarrying. It's quite common.
Since the time of Freud, many psychiatrists have analyzed adult patients' problems, and they have tried to decipher how those problems were caused by parents. But, now it’s time to see things from the parent’s perspective. This article is about “parental estrangement." It's a phrase meaning that a child has stopped talking to his or her parents for no compelling reason.
Some parents make such terrible mistakes that adult children should cut off communication. However, other mothers and fathers have lost contact with their children for lesser offenses.
How many parents have lost contact with their adult children and don't know why? No one knows. But, any parent who has been cut off by his or her child should not feel alone. Just take a look at celebrity families:
Angelina Jolie stopped talking to her father, actor Jon Voight, for 8 years.
Tori Spelling cut off contact with her mother. Candy Spelling has never seen her grandchildren.
Jennifer Aniston stopped talking to her mother in 1996 when her mother wrote a tell-all book about Jennifer. (This mother was in the wrong.)
Lindsay Lohan has gotten a restraining order from her father, Michael Lohan.
Who is in the right? Who cares? These are celebrities, not friends or family. However, in three cases, the celebrities (and the journalists) mentioned the celebrity’s broken home.
Angelina Jolie sounded bitter about her father leaving when she was 4 years old.
Aniston’s parents divorced when she was 9, and Nancy Aniston may have written the book out of financial need, because most women take a big financial hit when they divorce.
Lindsay Lohan once twittered about her father, “He's never been around in my life other than when he’d threaten me and my family.” Her parents are divorced.
Parental Estrangement is a Silent Epidemic
While it can be interesting to see that even the rich and famous have problems, what is happening with the rest of society that prompted Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist, to write the book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along? (Collins Living, 2007).
Dr. Coleman believes that parental estrangement is growing more common, even in situations where there have been no obvious signs of cruelty or trauma (such as abuse or addiction). He has heard many parents complain that their once-close relationship with their children has fallen apart over money issues, a child’s girlfriend or boyfriend, or the parent’s remarriage.
In the article, “Helping Parents Heal: A Telewebinar for Parents Who are Estranged From Their Grown Children,” Dr. Coleman reveals some common feelings of parents:
Parents feel rejected and afraid they’ll never see their children or their grandchildren again.
They feel that their ex-spouses have turned their children against them.
They don’t know if they should reach out to their adult children or pull away.
Parents feel anger about being disrespected.
They feel tormented about things they may have done wrong, but don’t know if those things are really the problem.
They feel manipulated by their kids’ requests for money.
Dr. Coleman's Own Estrangement
In the NYtimes.com article, “When the Ties That Bind Unravel,” Dr. Coleman explains that, “We live in a culture that assumes if there is an estrangement, the parents must have done something really terrible…But (his book) is not a story of adult children cutting off parents who made egregious mistakes. It’s about parents who were good parents, who made mistakes that were certainly within normal limits.”
Dr. Coleman probably became an expert on this subject when he experienced several years of estrangement from his own adult daughter. He got back together with his daughter with:
Time and a persistent effort on his part.
Listening to his daughter’s complaints.
Accepting responsibility for his mistakes.
Trying to understand his daughter's feelings.
Attempting to make amends.
Does This Work?
Many parents have done everything possible to raise their kids in what they perceive to have been the right manner, but they still face excommunication from children and grandchildren. Here are possible issues involved:
Parents took an action “out of love” for the child, but it was the wrong action or the child perceives it as being wrong.
Some ex-wives or ex-husbands poison the child about the other parent. Sometimes, the child's new girlfriend or boyfriend uses similar tactics.
Some parents feel that they have spent years of their lives taking care of their children, and feel no further financial obligation. This common cause of family discord is multiplied when a child also hears that the money issue is somehow related to the parent's divorce.
Sometimes there is no obvious reason for a son or daughter to break off communication, but it would be helpful to many families if a social scientist would study this subject. It seems that one of the risk factors is divorce. Another factor is having daughters.
More with Dr. Joshua Coleman, the author of "When Parents Hurt," with tips to reconnect
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Coping with a Family Rift By Mark Sichel, LCSW, About.com
We read so much about family estrangement, about mothers and fathers and their grown children who simply enter a cold war of ceased communication: Eminem and his mother, Jennifer Aniston, Kim Basinger, Jenna Malone, and their mothers, Gerard Depardieu and his son, the Reagans, whose estrangement from their children even merited prominence in the TV special about the former First Family. The list goes on and on.
While glamorous stars get into the spotlight when there's a rift in their family, the problem afflicts ordinary folk with a surprising frequency as well. There's a shocking lack of statistics available on the subject of family estrangement, but as a psychotherapist in practice for many years, it's my impression that cut-offs have become a lot more common than they used to be. I hear this from other therapists, too. I also teach family counseling to pastors of all faiths and they tell me that family rifts are an increasingly frequent problem brought to the clergy's attention.
In my own practice, I'm reminded of Gail*, a young mother and freelance commercial artist in New York. Gail has two of the most wonderful daughters in the world, but her mother hasn't spoken to her since she married Carlos, her college sweetheart, who's unacceptable to her mother because he's Latino. Janet is a grandmother of four who's got a great relationship with her two sons, but whose daughter Shelly hasn't spoken to her since she divorced Shelly's father.
Why are so many family members not speaking to each other these days? If I had to isolate the common thread in these situations, I'd have to say it's because of intolerance. Certainly that's evident in instances where family members bury each other for lifestyle choices such as homosexuality and choices to marry outside one's religion, race, nationality or ethnicity. But intolerance is also the root cause of family fights that lead to rifts, and by that I mean a prejudice toward differing points of views, small-mindedness when it comes to giving up a grudge, or pettiness and nastiness about forgiveness. It's very similar to the intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice that create rifts between nations and among diverse groups in our cities, states, and nation.
You can divorce an abusive spouse. You can call it quits if your lover mistreats you. But what can you do if the source of your misery is your own parent?
Granted, no parent is perfect. And whining about parental failure, real or not, is practically an American pastime that keeps the therapeutic community dutifully employed.
But just as there are ordinary good-enough parents who mysteriously produce a difficult child, there are some decent people who have the misfortune of having a truly toxic parent.
A patient of mine, a lovely woman in her 60s whom I treated for depression, recently asked my advice about how to deal with her aging mother.
“She’s always been extremely abusive of me and my siblings,” she said, as I recall. “Once, on my birthday, she left me a message wishing that I get a disease. Can you believe it?”
Over the years, she had tried to have a relationship with her mother, but the encounters were always painful and upsetting; her mother remained harshly critical and demeaning.
Whether her mother was mentally ill, just plain mean or both was unclear, but there was no question that my patient had decided long ago that the only way to deal with her mother was to avoid her at all costs.
Now that her mother was approaching death, she was torn about yet another effort at reconciliation. “I feel I should try,” my patient told me, “but I know she’ll be awful to me.”
Should she visit and perhaps forgive her mother, or protect herself and live with a sense of guilt, however unjustified? Tough call, and clearly not mine to make.
But it did make me wonder about how therapists deal with adult patients who have toxic parents.
When the Ties That Bind Unravel By Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times Blog
Therapists for years have listened to patients blame parents for their problems. Now there is growing interest in the other side of the story: What about the suffering of parents who are estranged from their adult children?
While there are no official tallies of parents whose adult children have cut them off, there is no shortage of headlines. The Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn reportedly hasn’t spoken to her father in at least four years. The actor Jon Voight and his daughter, Angelina Jolie, were photographed together in February for the first time since they were estranged in 2002.
A number of Web sites and online chat rooms are devoted to the issue, with heartbreaking tales of children who refuse their parents’ phone calls and e-mail and won’t let them see grandchildren. Some parents seek grief counseling, while others fall into depression and even contemplate suicide.
Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist who is an expert on parental estrangement, says it appears to be growing more and more common, even in families who haven’t experienced obvious cruelty or traumas like abuse and addiction. Instead, parents often report that a once-close relationship has deteriorated after a conflict over money, a boyfriend or built-up resentments about a parent’s divorce or remarriage.
“We live in a culture that assumes if there is an estrangement, the parents must have done something really terrible,” said Dr. Coleman, whose book “When Parents Hurt” (William Morrow, 2007) focuses on estrangement. “But this is not a story of adult children cutting off parents who made egregious mistakes. It’s about parents who were good parents, who made mistakes that were certainly within normal limits.”
Dr. Coleman himself experienced several years of estrangement with his adult daughter, with whom he has reconciled. Mending the relationship took time and a persistent effort by Dr. Coleman to stay in contact. It also meant listening to his daughter’s complaints and accepting responsibility for his mistakes. “I tried to really get what her feelings were and tried to make amends and repair,” he said. “Over the course of several years, it came back slowly.”
Not every parent is so successful. Debby Kintner of Somerville, Tenn., sought grief counseling after her adult daughter, and only child, ended their relationship. “It hit me like a freight train,” she said. “I sit down and comb through my memories and try to figure out which day was it that it went wrong. I don’t know.”