JENNIFER BALLERINI

Therapist Blog

Family Estrangement Resources

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This is the week our culture celebrates moms — which is awesome! …unless you're among the 20% or so of people estranged from a family member (like your mom). Shame about having a dysfunctional relationship with a family member leads many people to suffer the pain of that disconnection in silence, especially on family-focused holidays like Mother's Day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Dysfunction among family members is not rare — it's very common. And just as romantic relationships sometimes don't work out despite our best efforts, family relationships, too, can become so toxic the healthiest solution is to end the relationship.

Interestingly, while most of us would celebrate the ending of a toxic romantic relationship, there is a surprising (and enduring) cultural pressure around keeping parents and children together at all costs. Just as there once was a significant cultural taboo against divorce, our culture puts a premium on keeping blood relations in contact. Even after experiencing severe mistreatment, people who are estranged from family members often report being scolded to forgive and forget, that nothing is more important and family, as if their decision were a whim, or coming after years of a basically close and happy relationship with their family member. In fact, for those who choose to step back from dysfunctional family relationships, the decision is often a gradual, years-in-the-making, heart-rending process. Estranged people typically have endured histories of abuse, neglect, betrayal, abandonment, and criticism/contempt — and have gone through years of attempting to work through the conflict — before electing to disengage. Pressure to reunite with family members can feel very shaming. Most estranged children of toxic parents report that the most painful part of estrangement is not the loss of their family member, but the sense of judgment from others and the grief of never having the mother-father-sister-brother they needed.

If you are estranged, know you're not alone. Oprah Winfrey, Matthew McConaughey, Brie Larson, Aaron Rodgers, Adele, Mariah Carey, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, and members of a certain royal family (ahem) all have distanced themselves from toxic family relationships to take care of themselves. In fact, the emerging research suggests that, for most estranged people, leaving the dysfunctional family relationship was a good decision that created a sense of relief and peace. If you have a loved one who's estranged from a family member, be mindful of the shame they may feel around making this hard decision and avoid counseling them to repair things at all costs. As always, validate them and accompany them in their pain and affirm their right to take care of themselves.

If you'd like more information, here are a few helpful resources on family estrangement:

New York Times: When an Estranged Relative Dies, Some Face Grief, Regret and Relief

GOOP: How Do You Handle Being Estranged from Family?

Good Housekeeping: What Is Estrangement — And Should You Consider It?

Inc.: Estranged from Your Family? Here's Why You Should Stop Feeling Guilty

University of Cambridge: Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood Survey Results

What's Behind Your Anger?

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You guys, I could write SO MUCH about this topic. But here's the TL: DR version — anger is often just a surface emotion for us, a shell we use to protect our tender hearts. In EFT couple therapy we call that a secondary emotion, a feeling that shows up to cover up a more vulnerable primary emotion, like feeling hurt, alone, sad, scared, or ashamed.

To clarify, anger is a very legitimate and important feeling. Angry feelings (like being frustrated, annoyed, irritated, enraged, etc.) set boundaries on behalf of the self, push back against injustice, and assert, "This isn't right!" We wouldn't be complete as people without access to our angry feelings. For some of us, feeling angry is REALLY hard, and being angry IS the vulnerable feeling we don't want to share.

For many of us, however, feeling injured or threatened emotionally tends to put us into "fight mode." In that mode, we shield our deep-down vulnerable feelings of hurt, sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame behind an angry wall, where no one can see how much pain we're really in. Although vulnerability is really scary to share, vulnerability has a tremendously positive impact on connection and communication. When someone shares their vulnerable truth with us, we tend to melt. By contrast, when someone comes at us in an angry, scolding, or defensive way, we tend to…not melt.

For a relationship/communication boost, try slowing down when you're angry and taking a look at what else you might be feeling. Ask yourself, what was the tender, primary emotion that happened in the nanosecond before the anger? Were you sad? Were you scared? Were you ashamed? Be brave and share that core feeling with your partner in a soft way and see how it goes — you might be pleasantly surprised.

To Calm Big Feelings, Validate Them

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It was a Sunday afternoon when my then 5-year-old son first asked to go out into the front yard to have a go at his new tee-ball set. I imagine, as he drew the bat back and blasted away, he expected a pretty spectacular hit. If not exactly the kind of dinger that is only possible with the help of metabolic steroids, then at least something better than the unimpressive, well, flop that the little plastic ball did just a few feet from the tee. My son howled in anger and disappointment. In a nanosecond, my brain had produced a few possible responses: I could tell him that his body hadn't been lined up right, that his grip was off, and, in short, that he should cool it, it wasn't a big deal — we could just try again.

Fortunately, that weekend I had been at a family therapy training, and that very day my teacher reminded us that parents should always "validate before you educate." In seconds, I shifted from wanting to fix or control his reaction to just seeing my son was angry and disappointed. Of course he was! Who isn't frustrated when they want to do something and it doesn't go right? So I said, "You're mad! You wanted the ball to go far, and it didn't, and you're really frustrated! That makes sense. I'd be frustrated, too!" He looked at me as my words slowly percolated down. In about ten seconds, the wave of emotion had passed and he was ready to come back to the ball and bat, ready for my basic pointers about his at-bat form. He got the basics of baseball that day, but I was the one that learned the lesson.

This memory comes back to me often when I talk to my clients about the importance of validating emotions — for themselves, for their partners, for their children. Not because I've since been perfect in my validation as a partner and parent — sadly, my validation batting average is…not exactly 1.000. No, this is the memory that epitomizes how magical validation is, how deeply important and, well, efficient it is. A new study out of Ohio State University affirms what my family therapy teacher was saying that day: invalidating feelings makes them worse and makes it harder to feel better. In the study, only participants who were validated reported their mood went back to normal after recalling an event that made them angry. Invalidated participants found that their moods continued to decline.

Many of us are uncomfortable with core feelings like sadness, anger, fear, and even joy — often because our caregivers were similarly uncomfortable with them or because someone's out of control anger, fear, or sadness created a dangerous climate for us in the past. So, naturally, when faced with our partner's anger or our sister's sadness in the present day, we try to move away from it. Afraid it'll get bigger, grow out of control if we give it attention or imagine ourselves in their shoes. This was what fueled my (wrong) instinct to tell my son how to fix it, or try to talk him out of his angry feelings. The science is clear that if I'd done that, I would have made him angrier for longer and caused damage both to our relationship and his trust in his own feelings. I don't want that for my son or anyone I care about — and I'm sure you don't want it for your loved ones, either.

So, what is validation and what does it look like? Let's start with what it isn't. Invalidation is judging, rejecting, or ignoring another person's emotional experience. As vulnerability researcher Brene Brown says, empathic, validating statements never begin with "at least" or trying to find the silver lining. If I'd told my son "at least you hit the ball" or some version of the old classic "big kids don't cry," I would have been covertly telling my child, "your feelings are not ok." Validation is recognizing and accepting another person's emotional experience, connecting with them on a human level and undoing their aloneness. Validating statements sound like:

  • "Of course you feel like that."
  • "That makes sense."
  • "I'd feel like that, too! Anyone would in that situation."
  • "You're not crazy/wrong. That wasn't ok."
  • "I can see why you'd feel scared."
  • "That's totally normal/understandable."
  • "I've been there, too."
  • "Ugh! That's awful!"

Validation not only helps regulate emotions, it builds connection and fosters resilience. It tells people they are important, that they are accepted and cared about, that they are understood. Paradoxically, honoring their difficulty helps your loved one persevere. In my son's case, it allowed him to be open to trying again and to receiving my coaching. In contrast, invalidation fosters shame, rigidity, and toxic aloneness. So, the next time your loved one is angry, sad, or scared, try validating that it makes sense they feel bad. Counterintuitive as it may seem, it really will help them feel better faster.

How to Be a Better Ally

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This is a really powerful article on being a better white ally to people of color. I appreciate it because it matches my experience as a relationship expert. Both in the absolute necessity of undoing the aloneness of our fellow Americans who are traumatized and suffering, and in the clarity that using shame to "call out" racism will likely shut people down and keep them from learning. While we want to avoid "tone policing" marginalized groups, we who are privileged need to speak up in a way that cultivates understanding and openness. As satisfying as it might be to lash out at your racist aunt or co-worker, you're not doing the work of opening minds and changing behaviors. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "You have little persuasive power over people who can feel your contempt." Staying regulated, curious, empathic, and humble in the face of racist speech is a much more effective approach—not unlike "deep canvassing." This article clearly and eloquently outlines the work white people have in communicating with fellow white people about racism…and I see no reason it couldn't apply to allies in tackling sexism, homophobia, or any other civil rights issue.

How to Not Ruin Your Relationship in Quarantine

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I remember reading a headline a few weeks (years??) ago that the divorce rate was increasing for Chinese couples post-coronavirus quarantine. And boy, do I get it. While some of us are cooped up alone and dealing with incredible loneliness (which is traumatic in itself), many of us are sequestered with our partners…all the time, every day, in a small space, during a time of incredible change, uncertainty, and anxiety. Gee, whatever could go wrong?

As I sit with my clients this week, I find myself often reviewing basic relationship skills, like how to communicate hurt, how to respond to a loved one's pain, and how to receive comfort. I'd like to share those tips with you now, in the hopes they will help your relationship be a source of strength and security in these troubled times. (And BTW, these tips apply to just about any important relationship — parent-child, close friend, or even your relationship with yourself!) An effective repair conversation with your partner is as easy* as 1-2-3:

Step 1. Notice what you're feeling and communicate it — vulnerably — to your partner. When something happens that makes you want to react — get critical, get defensive, pull away, shut down, nag, etc. — take a moment to slow down, check in, and ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" Anger can often be a cover for more vulnerable emotions. Honor that the anger is real and valid, but also ask yourself if you might be feeling a more tender emotion — are you feeling sad? Scared? Lonely? Inadequate? When you know what you're feeling and you can say it softly and vulnerably, it's time to share that with your person.

Step 2. When you receive your partner's feelings, your presence and care are the solution. So many of us respond to pain in our loved ones by inadvertently dismissing, minimizing, or intellectualizing. While we may have truly excellent advice to offer, it's important to remember that an activated brain can't take in any such guidance. We must first come alongside our loved ones and meet them at the emotional level vs. offering suggestions for change. In short, we must connect before we correct. We do this in 3 key ways:

a) Validation. I can totally see why that made you scared. I get it. I would feel that way, too, in your shoes.
b) Empathy. I'm so sad to know you're going through this. I feel such a pain in my heart hearing how alone you're feeling.
c) Undoing Aloneness. I'm here with you. We'll get through this together.

So, let's say your husband has just told you he felt really lonely this week when you were working a lot to keep your small business afloat. Instead of getting defensive or making suggestions for what he could do to manage the lonely feelings, try validating, empathizing, and undoing his aloneness. "Oh, sweetie, I can totally see why you've been feeling alone. I have been so busy and overwhelmed. I feel so sad knowing you're feeling like that. I'm so glad you're telling me. I'm here and I love you."

Step 3. Receive your partner's care. It's an often overlooked step, but a really important one. You're hurt, your partner is trying to repair with you — allow the repair! Notice any parts of you that want you to keep your guard up. Honor their fear that you'll be hurt again, but try to be open to a genuine effort at reconnecting. All relationships have bumps, especially when partners are stressed out (like, say, during a global pandemic). Offer as much grace as you possibly can to each other. As Maya Angelou once said, “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”

* Please-Don't-Sue-Me-Disclaimer: This is, in fact, not at all easy! It takes a lot of practice. Be sweet to yourself as you try to get better at this. I also highly recommend Ron Frederick's book, "Loving Like You Mean It." And of course, if you're continually struggling with any of these steps, please reach out to a therapist for help.

The Negative Cycle

Sharon Mead, an EFT therapist in the South Bay created this helpful video about the negative cycle for her clients. Check it out!

Love

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LOVE is a sculpture by Alexandr Milov that was displayed at the Burning Man festival. According to Milov, "It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature. The figures of the protagonists are made in the form of big metal cages, where their inner selves are held captivate. Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives."

This is one of my all-time favorite images. It captures our innate, inborn (literally "wired-in" in this image) longing for connection and depicts the cages our defenses can represent. It's also a perfect encapsulation of what we strive to do in therapy: help the vulnerable parts of us make direct and clear contact with a safe and loving other rather than turning away in pain.

It's Not About the Nail

A couple therapy client of mine just shared this awesome video, sharing a place we so often get stuck as couples — "just listen to me, don't try to fix it!" — with a pretty hilarious twist.


It's Not About the Nail from Jason Headley on Vimeo.

The Pain of Being Shut Out

It is often hard for withdrawers to see how disengaging and shutting down can be so hurtful to their partners. Compared to the angry protests of pursuers, it can seem like a small thing to go quiet and turn away. This wonderful new video from attachment researchers Sue Johnson and Ed Tronick really clearly depicts how that seemingly small move can be quite devastating to the person on the receiving end of that withdrawal.

Dr. Tronick first shares an example of how a mother failing to respond to her baby for just a few minutes (the still face experiment) causes the baby to despair and protest. Next, in a lovely demonstration of how our adult love relationships parallel the parent-child bond, Dr. Johnson's couple session shows the exact same scenario playing out with a husband and wife. Feeling anxious, the husband (the withdrawer in this relationship) shuts down and fails to respond to his wife's bids for reconnection. As she feels more and more panicked and abandoned, she escalates and protests — just like the distressed child — trying to get back into sync with him.

Empathy 101

I assisted the awesome Jennifer Olden with one of her Hold Me Tight couples' workshops this weekend, and she shared this really wonderful video from Brene Brown on empathy. Although research continues to tell us how incredibly important empathy is to successful relationships, many of us have struggled to define what exactly empathy IS.

According to Brene, empathy has four qualities: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in others and then communicating that. "Empathy is feeling WITH people." Someone's in a deep hole, and you say, "hey, I know what it's like down here and you're not alone." An important lesson for all of is that you can't really stop someone's suffering, but you can make sure they don't suffer alone. Empathy, she says, is vulnerable because "in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling."

She also emphasizes how your empathic presence is the antidote to your loved one's emotional pain vs. trying to come up with a solution. "Rarely can a response make something better—what makes something better is connection."

Check out the clip and learn more about the awesome power of empathy…while watching a judgmental antelope eating a sandwich.

Why "Communication Skills" Don't Work

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For so long, behavioral psychologists have told distressed couples that they all they needed was better “communication skills.” The theory was that if people could just use “I” statements and use active listening, that their conflict would stop. According to new research by Ronald Rogge at the University of Rochester, this myth is busted. It’s not that couples don’t have these skills — they do — it’s that they can’t access them when they’re in conflict, when they’re panicking about the security of their attachment to their loved one. Or, as Sue Johnson explained, “distressed partners who constantly break all the rules of good communication in my couple sessions [can] show exquisitely honed listening and empathy skills with my receptionist.” This, of course, can be maddening for partners who wonder, “how come you can be so nice, generous, and emotionally present with this other person, but not me!?”

So, why do skills not work? Sue theorizes that practicing skills requires us to be up in our heads, thinking about the “steps” rather than feeling the beat of the emotional music. A husband may be saying the right things, but the emotional disconnect keeps it from being meaningful, keeps it from really soothing his distressed wife. Without being emotionally present, we might say soft things, but our face, our tone, our body language may still convey distance, anger, or other invulnerability to our partner. As Sue says, “We have to learn, in real interactions, how to send the heart messages that touch our loved one and move them to care.”

I Get Mean Because I Love You

Dr. Sue Johnson shared this fabulous song by Edie Brickell with us when she was in Davis last month. I just love how the song and the great illustrations explain the experience of the angry pursuer in relationships, how behind the anger there is so much sadness, loneliness, and longing for connection. Wanting that closeness but being too afraid to ask vulnerably for your needs to be met is such a painful, hard place to be in ... and such a trap for this little mouse.

Edie Brickell, “I Get Mean.”