Exploring family estrangement

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Mental Health

Reuniting with a brother or sister is usually expected to lead to a happy ever after – but what happens when it’s not the fairytale ending you wished for?

“You don’t get to pick your family,” goes the saying. But while breakups, bereavement, and divorce elicit much-needed sympathy, and an outpouring of support, family estrangement appears to still be taboo.

While the media likes to raise eyebrows over family disagreements and distance with those in the public eye, family estrangement is not all that unusual in the UK. A 2014 survey, for estrangement support charity Stand Alone, revealed that 27% of respondents knew somebody who was no longer in contact with a family member, with 8% saying they were estranged from a family member themselves.

It’s something I’ve experienced first-hand: I spent years keeping my decades-long estrangement from my older sister a secret. Since she moved out at 19, bar an occasional face-to-face meeting, our relationship amounted to sporadic WhatsApp conversations, and I longed to rectify that.

It wasn’t always like this thought: in our pre-teen years, my older sister, my twin, and I, were inseparable, having the kind of sibling relationship that mutual friends yearned for and strangers admired, asking if we were triplets.

My twin sister and I were closer than ever in our mid-20s, while my older sister and I talked every so often, I couldn’t shake off a sense of shame that our relationship didn’t resemble those in films or TV.

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I felt as if I was contradicting societal expectations of what normal sibling relationships should be like, despite the reality being that, for many, family relationships can be a struggle.

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, agrees that this pressure to have a perfect family stems in part from unrealistic media depictions. “The image we see on social media is that everything is great in families unless there’s some big blow up, and then it’s treated almost as if it’s amusing or used for sensationalist purposes, so it looks like a rarity. So, we assume if everyone is having a perfect family, then we must, too.”

It’s a familiar feeling for those in the same boat; according to a 2015 study, Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood, by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with Stand Alone, 68% of people felt there was stigma around family estrangement, and described feeling judged.

It’s no wonder then, that the study found those who wished their estranged relationships could be different, wanted a relationship that was more emotionally close. After all, reconnecting with an estranged family member is often framed as a joyful experience.

This was something I can relate to. When I was invited to my older sister’s wedding during January 2018, I hoped that this could be the chance for us to reconnect at long last. And for the most part, in the months leading up to her wedding, it was.

I’d assumed that the wedding would continue to strengthen our relationship, and there was no indication that things would go downhill. But what I didn’t bank on was the disappointment that I would feel over the week-long celebrations. It was clear my sister had built a whole different life, with a new circle of people.

While it’s only natural to feel disappointed if reconnecting is proving harder than it seems – particularly if you have high expectations that the relationship would automatically resume where it was pre-estrangement – Dr Rachel Davies, a senior practice consultant with Relate, says that it’s crucial to be aware that there may be more work needed to rebuild the relationship. “Be prepared to listen as much as to talk. You want to convey to them that you genuinely want to be there.” If things get tough, she advises to remember what you love about them, and things you have enjoyed together.

But when we later landed back on home turf in London, relations became re-estranged once again as resentments on either side continued to grow. My older sister would vent her frustrations at me having ‘left’ her for years, while my anger grew as she stayed stuck in the past, lamenting about my absence, not realising the efforts I was making to reconnect and create new memories.

This situation isn’t entirely unusual. According to Dr Davies, sometimes people need to talk about things that happened in the past in order to feel they can ‘move on’. “If this is you, then let your sibling know. But understand that they may not want or need to do this.”

If you find broaching tough conversations in real life difficult, Linda Blair advises writing them in a letter first, if only to give you time to reflect on what to say.

“When emotions are involved, the childishness in us comes out, and we say things we might often regret,” she says. “Writing an email or letter will give you a chance to carefully craft your thoughts, explaining the situation as best as you can, and giving them time to respond. If they’re open to discussing things, meet in a public place as you’re more likely to stay calm and rational if you’re around other people. That way, you have the very best chance of coming to a compromise.”

“Once you’ve expressed regret to your sibling, you’ve done all that you can. Continuing to feel guilty just wastes your energy”

But if a compromise is unlikely, and the relationship appears unsalvageable, or you feel you might actually be in danger, Linda Blair recommends limiting your contact to remote methods. “Reduce the relationship to formal communications, such as sending birthday and Christmas cards, to maintain some kind of connection, but in between don’t make contact,” she advises. “If there’s potential for physical or emotional harm, ignore any contact they initiate.”

Dr Davies recommends reducing the amount of contact, or agree to time out, if something difficult has happened. But she advises against all severing: “Dramatic words and gestures may feel cathartic at the time, but can make it more difficult to reconnect if your feelings change over time. It may not feel like this in the heat of the moment but the future is a big place, and you may want contact at some point.”

But what happens when you’re overcome with guilt – whether that’s having not been present earlier on, or because of cutting off communication? When I made the difficult decision to stop meeting my sister face-to-face, meaning our relationship resumed talking occasionally via WhatsApp, becoming re-estranged proved tougher than the first time, after I’d invested so much in reconnecting.

This guilt can be compounded during birthdays and Christmas holidays, where family is the most important part. But Linda says guilt is a limiting emotion.

“Once you’ve expressed regret to your sibling, you’ve done all that you can. Continuing to feel guilty just wastes your energy,” she says.

Similarly, Dr Davies advises forgiving yourself if you’ve not been as good a sibling as you could have been, so you stop it impacting your relationship now. “We can’t change past behaviours, but we can try to do the best we can in the future. Putting your energy into this is much healthier than ruminating about the past.”

It’s been a few months since I last spoke to my older sister, and even now I wish reconnecting had gone differently. But I hope in time we can sort things out – and you can, too.


Dr Rachel Davies is a senior practice consultant and counsellor at relationship support service Relate.

Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and author of ‘Siblings: How to Handle Sibling Rivalry to Create Lifelong, Loving Bonds’.

To connect with a counsellor to discuss your emotions, or to learn more about family therapy, visit www.counselling-directory.org.uk

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