The Difficult Reality Of Being Estranged From Your Family

Warning: This article includes references to sexual and physical abuse as well as suicide, which some readers may find distressing.
Until recently, family estrangement didn’t make the news in Britain. And then Meghan Markle married into the royal family, becoming the Duchess of Sussex. The fact that she didn’t have a relationship with her father was pored over by millions. Holes were picked in her character; she was accused of being cold and uncaring. 
However, Meghan’s situation is not quite as unusual as the red-tops have led us to believe. The latest statistics suggest that over a quarter of people in the UK know someone who is experiencing or has experienced estrangement. The research, conducted by Ipsos Mori for estrangement support charity Stand Alone, also showed that this is an issue that affects people of all genders, from all walks of life. 
Stand Alone also carried out Freedom of Information requests (FOI) which showed that 7,480 students aged 18-25 in England were estranged from their family in 2018. 
The coverage of Meghan's situation revealed a grave lack of understanding about the complexities of estrangement and compassion towards anyone who is no longer in contact with their family. We end relationships all the time, but when it comes to family – no matter how difficult things might be – cutting contact is still a huge taboo. 

Over a quarter of people in the UK know someone who is experiencing or has experienced estrangement.

Becca Bland, chief executive of Stand Alone, says that part of the reason for this stigma is that "British society idealises family relationships which are close, loving and supportive," which means that "it can be intimidating to talk about a family experience which isn't close for fear of judgment." 
But, she adds, "the more we conceal the reality of our family lives from others, the more this stigma builds, and the more alone people may feel. That’s why it is so important to speak openly about how family estrangement does happen and that not having contact with a family member is sometimes a healthy response to very unhealthy and abusive circumstances."
Here, five young women tell us about their experiences of estrangement and explain why they think it’s important to be open about it. 
Stephanie, 32, from London 
Photo courtesy of Stephanie.
Estrangement is highly sensitive and emotional. It’s also deeply personal and private. It rarely happens overnight. The reasons run deep and have usually been building for a long time. 
I had a very traumatic upbringing. My dad has schizophrenia and he has been in and out of mental institutions for most of his adult life. I lost contact with him and my paternal grandparents because of a feud they had with my mum over his treatment. 
Being forcibly alienated from my dad and his side of the family took a huge toll on me. I think my dad’s family felt that my mum had a bad effect on his mental health and, eventually, I began to realise that my mum’s family was a very toxic environment for me to be in too.
They were not supportive, they would belittle me at any opportunity and I felt like they were actively making me feel worse about myself. 
I've now been in therapy and come to understand coming from a traumatic parental background. I was traumatically 'silenced' and intimidated into silence by my grandparents on both sides because they didn’t want to talk about anything. 
We – myself and my mum's family – are not compatible and we never were. They have their own issues and it’s not a happy or healthy environment for me to be in or around. 
Last Christmas, I took a big step forward. It was the first year that I did not spend with my mum’s family. She stayed with her brothers and I went to Amsterdam with a group of people, organised via a travel company. We went to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day and visited an ice rink. We did touristy stuff, but it was great. 
I would go as far as to say that leaning into spending Christmas away from family was the best thing that I had ever done in my life. 

I know estrangement is highly sensitive. It goes to the root of any relationship and I think that this is probably why it’s a big taboo.

I know estrangement is highly sensitive. It goes to the root of any relationship and I think that this is probably why it’s a big taboo. People don’t feel comfortable hearing about it. But for me it felt liberating to make an active decision to distance myself from my family. 
I think I experienced a lot of trauma from a young age because of my dad’s illness and the way it was handled and in the end I just realised that, as a family, we weren’t very compatible at all. 
When you’re a child and you’re growing up, you don’t realise this stuff. The abnormalities within the family, which might be unhealthy, just become your norm. 
There’s a lot of judgment about family estrangement. People ask, "Why don’t you talk to your dad? Why don’t you want to be friends with your family? Why do you not want to see them?" If you haven’t come from a traumatic environment I know it’s difficult to understand but, for me, it’s better this way.
I’m an active Christian. I go to church every week so I’ve got a lot of church friends. I haven’t told all of them about my situation because it’s quite complicated and I don’t want to burden people with it. But everyone I have told has been really understanding. 
I went through so much agony being alienated from my dad because of differences between his family and my mum’s that I feel the best thing I can do now is look after myself. 
It’s a new beginning. I’ve just moved to a new house. I was given a council flat in Islington and it’s a new build. I love it. This Christmas I’m actually going to do the same thing. I’ve booked tickets to Amsterdam again with the same travel company. Perhaps that can be my new tradition. 
Some people can experience a crisis of identity with family estrangement. They think, Who am I if I don't have a family? But nothing's going to change the family you came from. It’s just sometimes it's not healthy to be in a relationship with those people. So it's better to distance yourself from them and live your life with people who make you happy.
Brogen, 25, from Manchester 
Photo Courtesy of Brogen.
I was disowned by my parents in 2016 – exiled from a family of 13. The circumstances were exhaustingly convoluted. Most if not all families have relationship difficulties but mine was incredibly overbearing and, in the end, it was not possible for me to remain part of my family. 
In the end, it came down to control. My parents also disowned my elder brother and sister when I was 15 or 16 – I remember that I was preparing for or sitting my GCSEs at the time. I guess I always knew at some point it would happen to me.
The issues began when I reached an age where I wanted more independence and when I started to date boys. I would have to do it in secret because it wasn’t allowed. It was the same with socialising, my parents were really particular about the company I kept. Almost everything I did had to be approved by them. They were so overprotective it felt hard to breathe at times.
And then my parents did all they could to stop me from going to university. They all but forbade it and I ended up not going at 18 with everyone else. 
The breakdown of our relationship took place gradually over several years. As I got older, I craved more independence. I wanted the freedom to make choices over my own life. To cut the apron strings must be tough for any parent, but my parents point-blank refused to let go. 
My therapist has recently described my upbringing as being almost cult-like. When I think back to my elder brother and sister being disowned, they got us all together in a room and said it was for "the good of the family". I think they feared us growing up. If Neverland was a real place I think they would move there with all of us in tow. 
From 2016 to 2017 I tried to negotiate, to compromise. I tried to find a happy medium between my parents' wants and my own. But I couldn’t. It was their way or no way. So they disowned me, too.
To be rejected by your own parents – the people who society suggests should love and respect you no matter what – toys with your self-worth immeasurably. 
Afterwards, I refused to give up. I tried to reach out in every way possible to get them to see that I was still their little girl. The same little girl they used to tuck into bed at night, who loved to play with her Barbies and who would sneak extra biscuits from the biscuit tin when she thought there was nobody watching. I was just older now, a woman. I became so consumed in chasing their acceptance that I didn’t notice the deterioration of myself. 
I remember knocking on the front door and hearing everyone inside. The door went unanswered. I remember calling, texting, emailing, leaving voicemails and voice notes. All unanswered. To grow up in a family of 13 and to now have nobody... I had never felt so alone. 
Over the course of that year my mental health spiralled. The strain of the grieving process challenged me. I was exhausted. I had been walking down a long dark tunnel, enduring grief and pain. I was lost and crumbling. That was when I knew it was time to let go. 
In April 2017, in the face of homelessness, I had my life in a suitcase and was sofa surfing from friend's house to friend's house. I wrote a letter to my parents explaining that I would be estranging myself from them. It was the only option left for me. I still didn’t want to say goodbye forever, but I knew I couldn’t hold on. My parents forced me out their door, all I did was close that door behind me. 

To be rejected by your own parents – the people who society suggests should love and respect you no matter what – toys with your self-worth immeasurably. 

Disownment felt like a punishment; estrangement felt like a choice. And yet I think estrangement is heavily stigmatised. People pass judgment over the choice I have made at times but I would go as far as to say estrangement saved my life. 
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy. Staying away from my family is an ongoing battle with my emotions. My heart wants to go home but my head knows I cannot. I still write them letters and birthday cards but I put them in a box. I hope one day that I will be able to send them. 
It’s painful to grieve for people who are still alive. Just because I chose estrangement does not mean I don’t miss my family or long for things to be different. There's a hole in my heart that can only be filled by them.
I have a completely different outlook on my life due to my experiences. I have grown and learned that there is room in every story for a better ending. 
No longer do I feel like a nodding dog. Yes, sir. No, sir. Three bags full, sir. No longer do I feel unheard. I’ve found my voice. No longer do I think I cannot do things on my own or go through life alone. 
I’ve gone to university, to study counselling and psychotherapy. I am chasing goals and smashing them. Graduation is now in sight, something I never believed I was capable of achieving. I am driven and passionate about my future career in counselling and psychotherapy, I have a strong vision and a plan to help impact the lives of others. I will continue to share my story to help raise both awareness and understanding of estrangement – something I believe is almost a silent epidemic.
I have reached a place of healing and acceptance. I have an appreciation for the friends and loved ones I do have in my life who love and support me unconditionally – that to me is family. The one that I have chosen. 
Libby*, 19, from Yorkshire
Photo courtesy of Libby*.
I was adopted when I was 5 years old but I have now been estranged from almost all of my adoptive family for a few years. 
My adoptive mother is the main reason for my estrangement as she was my abuser. I tend to refer to her as my abuser because calling her my mother seems so horribly wrong. 
Throughout my teens, I lived with my heavily abusive adoptive mother. I was sexually, financially, physically, emotionally and psychologically abused by her. She had a huge temper and no rationality. Over the past five years, with support from regular therapy, local domestic abuse charities, my GP, my university, friends and the police, I have been able to put the label of 'abuse' on what happened to me. It wasn’t easy, these things never are. Especially not when it’s happening within your family. 
The smallest thing – such as leaving a tiny bit of dust on a windowsill when I was doing the weekly house clean – could end up with me being thrown out of the house. I could be welcomed back the next morning or three weeks later. There was no way of telling how long it would last.  
My adoptive mother is a strict evangelical Catholic and there was a lot of Catholic shame in my household growing up. This is a term I came across in Facebook estrangement forums; I hadn’t heard it before. Everything from masturbation to not praying, from failing to go to church to wearing skirts shorter than knee-length, from wearing makeup to almost anything she deemed 'not sufficiently proper' in a twisted 'religious' sense would get me punished. And by punished I mean that I would be beaten and have all methods of outside communication revoked. I was trapped. 
I remember reading an article in a tabloid paper which said that abusers often took away a victim’s bank account access and identity documents. So I would keep my passport, schoolbooks and a few other valuables that I could hide easily on my person with me 24/7, in case being thrown out was permanent or going to last more than a month. 

I am queer. I’m attracted to women and non-binary people. My family were unable to accept my queerness. I was constantly slut-shamed.

While my abusive mother had control of all the money I was earning in my weekend job as a waitress, keeping some cash and a few other things on me seemed like a wise choice and helped a lot when my situation did, one day, become permanent.
I am queer. I’m attracted to women and non-binary people. My family were unable to accept my queerness. I was constantly slut-shamed. On one occasion my adoptive mother found my vibrator. I had hidden it in my wardrobe. She hit me and kicked me out of the house for a few weeks. I can’t remember how I ended up back with her on that occasion but I remember sofa surfing with friends and sleeping rough during that period.
That was when being kicked out became permanent. I had escaped nearly a decade of abuse. At first, I was only estranged from my adoptive mother and some family members who were close to her. But a couple of years ago my adoptive father decided he no longer supported me or believed in the abuse I had experienced so I was essentially disowned by him. Although he has since reached out to me, it was on the terms that I retract all I had said about my abuser and come back to live with her – despite me being an adult – which I am not prepared to do. 
I now live several hundred miles away. While my estranged family know the area, none of them has my contact details or address. My house is flagged by the police for my protection and I have a specified local PC’s contacts saved on my mobile to contact whenever I need more support or advice. 
All my friends know what my abuser looks like and what to do if she turns up locally. My adoptive parents are legally not allowed to contact me. I have experienced gaslighting by members of my adoptive family so, in the end, it was better for my mental health and wellbeing to cut them out. 
But despite everything, I am so excited for the future. I have incredible friends from all over the world (online and offline) who support me and who I can laugh with. I have a wonderful Instagram community where I've shared my story and where I've found others who've experienced similar things. I've got wonderful colleagues and acquaintances from national charities and unions who advocate for domestic abuse survivors, care leavers, estranged people. 
Talking has saved my life. Talking has helped me heal and campaigning has helped me accept my experiences and move on. I've learned that there is NO shame in leaving toxic people. I deserve to flourish and thrive. I'm surviving AND thriving. 
Lauren*, 25, from Wales  
My estrangement journey started when I was in my early teens. My mother has very serious untreated mental health issues which meant that she didn’t quite treat me as a parent should. I also have other siblings, although neither has ever spoken out about my mum’s behaviour – to them it’s "just the way she is". 
Normally, I’d accept the way a person is, but it’s when that person’s 'way' starts to become harmful and toxic to others that I reject that there can ever be an excuse, even if it’s a mental health issue.
When I was in my early teens, my mother and father got divorced. Looking back now, I understand exactly why my father left. He was my mother’s proverbial punching bag for many years, meaning that she'd control, manipulate and accuse him of ludicrous things. My father has moved on and has a new family now, and I am happy for him. Since becoming immersed in another family, I have seen very little of him, but I don’t mind because he’s happy and healthy. 
However, my mother needed a replacement punching bag, and over time it became clear that was to be me. As a result, our relationship deteriorated to the point where it was unhealthy and unsafe for me to stay in the same house as her. I was lucky in some ways, through my mid-teens various family members took me in. Thank goodness! Over those years, I had varying amounts of contact with my mother and siblings. 
I have a younger and an older sibling. I'm very protective over my younger sibling as they have no choice or control over the situation. Not only that, but I'm afraid that they may also have to endure the same treatment as I did.

I would love to reconnect with my siblings is something that I yearn for, but for now, it's just a waiting game.

But once I got to university, I found my own life. Things grew increasingly sour with my mother, as she had lost control of her punching bag – which she was not happy about. This led to me having to cut off contact with her fully. This was really difficult for me as I lost my siblings in the process, knowing that one of them would probably become her new punching bag and fill the void I had left. But I’ve always maintained that in order to save them (when the time comes), I had to save myself first. That meant protecting my own mental health.  
Dealing with the grief of no longer being in contact with my siblings, as well as my mother, was and still is difficult to deal with. Even so, starting my own life far away from those that could hurt me has brought out the real me. I still learn new things about myself daily. I am a new person, and although losing people is hard, I would not have changed anything about this journey. It has made me who I am.
In my experience, estrangement isn’t spoken about openly enough in society. Just like mental health issues, in order to make people’s experiences easier, we need to make them feel comfortable speaking out. We’re talking about what we’ve been through because it’s part of our lives, and therefore part of us. If we can make it a topic we can speak about, people won’t feel so alone. That is why I’m sharing my story.
I would love to reconnect with my siblings someday, but I can only do this when my mother allows or when they are older and have a little more control over their life to make the choice for themselves. It is something that I yearn for, but for now, it's just a waiting game.
Ashling*, 28, from the southwest of England 
Photo courtesy of Ashling*.
I grew up in a domestically abusive household and it took me quite a long time to realise that. It didn’t happen until my early 20s, when I was at university doing a master’s degree in political theory. 
I remember popping into the campus wellbeing centre for something completely unrelated and, while I was there, mentioning a few of the things I had been through to the counsellor. She was like, "No, that’s not really normal." And slowly, from there I have had to come to terms with what happened to me. 
My mum was physically and mentally abusive when I was growing up. I left home at 17, so I knew that something was off. I was unhappy and I had been hospitalised quite a few times for suicide attempts. 
She would go into rages – punching, kicking and pushing me. Once I was hospitalised and had to have stitches to the side of my face. I was also sexually abused by my older stepbrother and because I feared punishment, I couldn’t say anything, 
I know how this sounds when I say it out loud but as a child, it just didn’t cross my mind that my mum was abusive. I think I had a sort of Stockholm syndrome and it’s taken a lot of therapy to work through. It's still hard today. Even writing this, I get pangs of guilt because I feel like I’m dropping her in it.
As a result of the abusive relationship with my mum, I developed a substance abuse problem and I had a terrible framework for all relationships. I ended up dating quite a lot of abusive people because I didn’t know that this wasn’t how a loving relationship should be. 
It took me a lot of relearning to understand that I deserve to love someone who doesn’t hurt me. When I was 15, I would be in relationships with men who were like 28, 29 – really abusive men. I didn’t have parents stopping these relationships and I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to be treated badly.
When I was 26, I had another suicide attempt. I got sober as a result and it was this that finally enabled me to cut my family off. 
To this day, it’s still difficult. I have to write down all the bad things that happened so that I remember them. Otherwise, I start contextualising it, bringing my emotions into it and then my innate need to feel loved by a parent. I start thinking She’s still your mum and stuff like that. But writing it down enables me to say "No! You cannot have this woman in your life." I know it sounds cutthroat. 

Getting sober taught me the importance of removing toxins from your life. I was using alcohol in a negative way but I wanted something positive from it – I wanted to forget, to feel better but it mirrored my toxic relationship with my mum. 

Before I cut contact with my family, I was diagnosed with so many mental health problems. I was told I was bipolar, I was told I was depressed. But then a psychologist said that he didn’t actually think there is anything wrong with me. My problems revolved around being brought up in a traumatic environment. 
Getting sober taught me the importance of removing toxins from your life. I was using alcohol in a negative way but I wanted something positive from it – I wanted to forget, to feel better but it mirrored my toxic relationship with my mum. 
Since I made the decision, I’m no longer wanting to end my life. I’m holding down a 9-5 job and I’m in a stable, kind and loving relationship. I work for a students' union and I’ve actually set up an initiative for estranged students. One of the things that I found really hard when I started at university was the Christmas period. I would not go home and that was quite difficult, especially with services closing. So when I finished my master's I ran as a sabbatical officer and got elected because I wanted to help others. 
If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and take away the domestic structure we have in society, where everyone is limited to the one household, where whatever goes on in that household is somehow the norm. I’m not saying that the state should go into people’s homes and monitor our lives Big Brother style, but I think that as a society we need to stop thinking that whatever happens behind closed doors is none of our business, because that is what caused me to experience more trauma than I needed to for years. 
Now I have a really safe home and I have a safe life, everything is safe. Sometimes I just sit on my sofa, stroking my cat, and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me. I go home every night, I make dinner – it’s such a normal thing but I get these waves of euphoria because it’s so nice.
*Some names and locations have been changed to protect identities.
If you have been affected by family estrangement you can visit Stand Alone’s website. If you need information about family counselling and mediation you can visit the charity Relate. And if you need to talk about something urgently, ring The Samaritans for free on 116 123. 

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