How to Deal with Estrangement
Important Note: If you were abandoned with no explanation by your parent(s), this article doesn’t apply to you.
Parents of estranged adult children: Please see my book, Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child.
Estrangement from important others is a sad fact of life for many people. One of the most painful experiences a parent can have 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 for estrangement 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’re estranged from an adult child, a sibling or someone in your social circle, and the estrangement is their choice rather than yours, you’re probably feeling rejected.
What NOT to Do
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’ll avoid 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 really 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 truly 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.
When someone won’t talk to you…
1. How they feel is the most important “fact.”
Understand, acknowledge, empathize, and apologize. Any attempt to excuse or explain your behavior will make things worse between you.
2. Curiosity is seen as caring.
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.
4. Validate their feelings.
5. This is not about you.
Since it was they who initiated the estrangement, your only remaining option 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.”
6. Accept their decision.
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. Practice constructive wallowing.
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.