Estrangement, Abuse and Healthy Relationships

(A collaborative article by Fara Nizamani, Jen Hinkkala and EBR)

Estrangement is when you stop being friends with a person or a group. It’s also when you stop talking to a family member or your entire family. Even though estrangement can be from anyone you know, here we’re mainly talking about estrangement from family. Why does it happen? When is it ok? What kind of relationships are good to keep? Which are better to leave behind?

As we grow up, it’s normal to become more independent from our parents. It’s also normal to have friends that we grow apart from. However, sometimes some people aren’t helpful – or are harmful – for us to be around whether we are related to them or not. By helpful, I mean safe. Safe means on all levels: physically, emotionally and spiritually. It’s always better to make conscious choices about the best way to care for ourselves and keep ourselves safe.

Let’s talk about abuse, types of estrangement and what healthy relationships look like.

ABUSE: Estrangement happens for different reasons for different people. Usually it happens because of some kind of repeating disrespect or abuse. There are the obvious acts, like physical abuse. Slaps, punches and pushing are abuse. If you end up with bruises, broken teeth, broken bones, cuts, or burns, that is abuse. There is also abuse that doesn’t leave physical marks. Emotional abuse is most often verbal. Yelling, swearing, name-calling, mocking, intimidation, ignoring, humiliating, and blaming the victim. This is all emotional abuse. There is also spiritual abuse. If you are required to submit to a specific religious or spiritual authority without any freedom or choice to do something else, that is spiritual abuse. Being forced to conform to someone else’s choice of a spiritual path for you is NOT ok. You have the right to exercise your freewill and your choice about your spirituality and beliefs.

ESTRANGEMENT. There is a range of choices when it comes to being estranged. Three examples are: ‘Partial-contact’, ‘Low-contact’, and ‘No-contact’ types of estrangement. Estrangement is a way of distancing yourself from your family or a family member so that you do not have to experience abuse from them. 

PARTIAL CONTACT: You may choose ‘Partial-contact’ with some people in your life. Partial contact might be a middle-of-the-road choice that suits you best. You might feel that significant events are too important to share with the people who mistreat or abuse you. In this case, you can celebrate special occasions alone or with trusted friends. You may choose to have visits with the estranged people for other times that are not as important to you. You might choose to be around them when you feel you will be less stressed. You might decide to only be with them when you can keep the time that you spend with them short. It is up to you and what you decide your limitations are.

LOW-CONTACT: Some people decide to go low-contact. This means you have occasional, less frequent contact. You can decide in your mind to stop depending on someone by using positive self-talk, and/or therapy. You might use visualization of what life would be like if you were not around the other person/people. Physical separation may cause estrangement, such as when you move to a new place or take a job in another state. You can change a work or school schedule to avoid unnecessary contact. You can wait longer to return phone calls or texts. You can take up new activities to make more frequent contact harder. You might choose to go low-contact by making holidays and milestone events the only times you interact with the people you want to keep a distance from. These events are often filled with larger groups of people, which makes abusers easier to avoid than would be possible in small groups. Sometimes the abusers behave less badly toward you in front of other people.

NO CONTACT: No-Contact’ Estrangement (also called ‘Full Estrangement’) happens for many reasons. This type of estrangement occurs because a person can only withstand so much mistreatment or abuse. When abuse of any kind is at a high level, it sets off an instinct – a natural and often helpful ‘fight-or-flight response’. This means that, with those two options, flight becomes your way out. If you are exhausted from fighting and having to defend yourself from abuse, the answer for you might be ‘No-Contact’ estrangement. This is a complete severing of ties from your abusers and can often be a very healthy choice.

CONTEMPLATING ESTRANGEMENT: Sometimes estrangement comes suddenly and explosively. Your family member might say or do something so offensive or abusive that immediate estrangement is the only way to protect yourself from injury. Other times the estrangement creeps up without anyone making a conscious effort, such as when a teen decides to go off to a college far away. It can be when you routinely put off returning phone calls. Sometimes people make a conscious choice to begin the estrangement process because they know it will be better for their mental and physical health. In this case, you might not want to use an abrupt method that could cause the family member(s) to act aggressively and harmfully toward you. In such a situation, going low-contact may be the best course of action, at least at first.

HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS: A healthy relationship is based on love and mutual respect for people and their boundaries. The atmosphere within this system is one of caring, empathy, kindness and support. In a healthy relationship you are encouraged to express yourself without fear of judgment, ridicule or hostility. Children are encouraged to grow into independent confident adults. When you’re in relationships like this, you have a strong sense of belonging and feel connected to each other emotionally. And you feel safe.

SIGNS OF HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS: Communication, support, acceptance, togetherness, and commitment characterize interactions in healthy relationships.

Cooperation: People in healthy relationships work together to achieve goals that help everyone. You can all work together decluttering or cleaning the house. You can prepare for family gatherings and other holidays together. Each person helps in the way that they can, according to age, ability and interests.

Spending time together: Members in a healthy family spend time together. This helps to build strong bonds and increases connection among them. For example, a family might play in the park, read together, watch a movie or engage in another activity that the majority of members enjoy. Simply, it means having fun together.

Communication: In a healthy relationship, people talk things through. They do this calmly and with respect. Being respectful is important when disagreements happen. In a healthy relationship people work to resolve the conflict. They try to understand each other’s different opinions and points of view. A family like this engages in deep, real conversations without fear of judgment. This also strengthens the bonds between people in the relationship.

Support: Family members celebrate each other’s accomplishments. They enjoy hearing about each other’s lives and feel happy for each other. They also help each other through difficult times. These family members are encouraged as they grow and change. It’s acceptable and even expected that they be themselves. Each family member knows that they will be accepted no matter what. Positive interactions outnumber negative ones. Each person sees the group as a place of consistent support when faced with a challenge.

That’s a lot to think about. What kind of relationships are you involved in? Do they support you and help you grow? Or do they bring you down, make you feel worse about yourself and add frustration and craziness to your life? They’re probably somewhere in between, depending on which one you’re thinking of. But the bottom line is, there are ways out of unhealthy and abusive relationships and it is OKAY to leave them behind.