Whether you’re fully estranged from your family or just maintain a little more distance with them than your friends do with their families, one of the hardest aspects of a strained familial relationship is dealing with other people’s opinions about it. Well-meaning friends, partners, uninvolved family members, co-workers, and loose acquaintances can make you feel like the situation is all your fault—that the responsibility to mend everything sits squarely on your shoulders, and that something is wrong with you for not having a functional family.
Even if you know, logically, that you’re estranged for good reason, that you’ve tried to work things out with your family many times before to no avail, and that your boundaries allow you to actually live your life, you might still be on the receiving end of bad—and painfully obtuse—advice from people who either haven’t experienced such dysfunction, or are unaware of it in their own families. As the holidays approach, you might be steeling yourself for the usual remarks: “Why don’t you just give them a call?” “Nothing’s more important than family” “Is it that hard to just let it go?”
“I think [it is] a misunderstanding where people think ‘Oh, [the] snowflake generation, people are just getting so sensitive and fragile,’” said Lucy Blake, a family researcher who studies estrangement, “My experience of speaking to people who are estranged is it's not a decision that's ever taken lightly, or done quickly.”
Luckily, you don’t have to get people to understand or sympathize with your decision; you just need them to leave you alone about it. With the right emotional prepwork, you can navigate even the holidays (as tough as they are) without fielding as many “blood is thicker than water” comments. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Know that your situation isn’t as uncommon or shocking as you might think it is.
“Sometimes when we think about relationships between parents and children in adulthood, we might think that the norm is the kind of close one—the giving and receiving of support, people being in touch often—but that actually isn't what surveys find,” Blake said. One study of college students found that 17 percent of them were estranged from an immediate family member; another survey of older adults found that 12 percent were estranged from their children.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re not the only person you know who has zero plans to go home or host a Zoom family Christmas. It can especially be tough to see a friend’s Instagram stories of their dad being a fun-loving goofball when you haven’t spoken to yours in years.
That’s why it can be a really good idea to seek out community beyond your direct circle, Andrea Bonior, therapist and author of Detox Your Thoughts, told VICE. “Join a group online or look around for resources that will help connect you with other people who are going through this—because you can feel a lot worse when you feel like nobody else gets it,” she said. Subreddits like r/EstrangedAdultChild or r/raisedbynarcissists may be a good place to start, and books like Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents can help offer guidance while also making you feel less alone.
Figure out who gets to know the whole truth about your family situation, and who doesn’t.
While estrangement might—rightfully!—feel like a big part of your life, it doesn’t mean everyone has a right to the details. Estrangement is vastly complicated, and not everyone has the emotional bandwidth or experience to react with empathy. “I think we really misunderstand forgiveness, and [it] just gets reduced to a soundbite of ‘Let bygones be bygones,’” Blake said. “But actually, forgiveness is an incredibly difficult thing to do.” Forgiveness is especially complicated when it comes to other, less-immediate family members who might hear about what happened second-hand. “Forgiveness in families is complicated because families are like a web,” added Blake. “So even if you forgive someone, it doesn't mean your sibling will forgive them or your parent will forgive them.”
When it comes to friends, Bonior strongly suggested “choosing who you’re going to talk to you about this wisely, because not all friends are going to be capable of just listening and giving support.” Your close friend who generally has a great track record of hearing other friends or partners out: sure. A friend who tends to be reactionary or prone to gossip… eh, skip.
Obviously, it can be harder to hide the fact that you don’t speak to your family when the subject of the holidays comes up. That’s why Bonior recommended planning a response—one that “closes the door in a respectful way”—for less-close friends or coworkers. She suggested saying something like “Yeah, our family's different from a lot of families” or “Yeah, that's hard for me to talk about.” If that still feels too firm, the high risk of traveling and seeing family during this pandemic can work to your advantage. All you have to say (to either your family or those who ask) is that you don’t feel comfortable going home right now.
Go ahead and ask for the emotional support you need from the people you trust.
Even your most empathetic friends can occasionally automatically launch into advice-giving or fact-gathering mode, and though the behavior likely comes from a good place, sometimes you don’t actually want to keep talking about your family.
Bonior said it’s a good idea to use moments like this to ask for exactly what you want from your friends and loved ones. Maybe it’s just to have the space to vent without hearing what they would do if they were you. Or it could be to chat about literally anything else because you feel extra lonely right now. It’s hard for people to know exactly what you need, especially since your needs can change from moment to moment as you deal with this. Being up front with those you’re closest to gives them the chance to really be there for you.
If someone isn’t taking the hint, be more direct.
Of course, there may be times where people you’re less close to (like an aunt or nosy co-worker) will offer up their unsolicited opinion on your estrangement or keep asking nosy questions, even after you’ve politely tried to change the subject. That’s where you’ll need to be more direct and firm, according to Bonior.
“Find a way to set a boundary and really establish that at some point, it's not welcome for them to be giving you advice on this and that it's actually hurtful,” she said. “You can use the classic ‘I statement’ and say ‘I feel frustrated because it's very complicated, and it's hard for me to convey the whole story to you’ [or] ‘I feel strongly that this is the right way of handling it.’” You can explain that this is your conflict to deal with, that it’s more convoluted and long-standing than they could personally understand, and that, if they keep bringing it up, you just won’t talk to them. And then stay true to your word.
Remember to take care of yourself—especially around the holidays.
Even if you had a close relationship with your family, you’d still need to take care of yourself now, during a global pandemic, more than ever. But it’s all the more important if you’re combatting pandemic-related loneliness and estrangement-related loneliness, on top of other issues like job loss or burnout.
One thing that might help: volunteering in some way. “I know it's a cliche, but helping other people can help us feel better, especially during the holidays,” said Bonior. “It's an opportunity to try to do something for others and we get a boost when we do [it].” Some virtual or socially-distant ideas: calling or writing to seniors, joining a mentoring group, delivering groceries, or donating to mutual aid funds.
Aside from that, it’s all about trying to find as much balance as possible. “We need to protect our sleep, we need to move our bodies, we need to get outside, we need time each day just to pause and enjoy what is in front of us, all those little things can matter even more so when you're stressed during the holidays,” added Bonior. Anticipating loneliness and making (safe) holiday plans with friends can be a great way to care for yourself, too.
Ultimately, you can’t change your family members any more than you can dictate people’s responses to your estrangement. But you can connect with friends who are committed to understanding you, set boundaries around anyone who isn’t, and, ultimately, choose who deserves to know you.
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