JENNIFER BALLERINI

Therapist Blog

Motherless Day



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