If You’re in a Painful Relationship and Considering Estrangement…

“I understand the life around me better, not from love, which everyone acknowledges to be a great teacher, but from estrangement, to which nobody has attributed the power of reinforcing insight.” ~Nirad C. Chaudhuri

I was brought up to understand that family is family.  So I have naturally given great weight to the importance of family bonds. However, what happens when a familial bond breaks? Do you commit yourself to holding on despite the cost, or do you acknowledge the damage and take the necessary steps to sever the tie?

Personally, I sit somewhere in the middle. Any important relationship deserves an extended amount of effort, patience, understanding, and forgiveness in rebuilding. However, you can only do so much, and there comes a point when it could be in everyone’s best interests to walk away.

I speak from personal experience. I’ve been estranged twice in my lifetime. Once from my father, which was my choice, and the other time from my sibling, who ultimately made the decision to walk away; I guess I just dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on it.

Let me be clear, neither estrangement was a wonderful experience. The process of severing ties is heartbreaking, regardless of the situation that led to the estrangement. It hurts when you feel you’ve been rejected, and it hurts when you know you’re rejecting someone.

But when it’s the right decision for you, and once the hurt abates somewhat, there is a sense of relief. Although you may never feel happy about it, you’ll feel happier overall for the steps you took in protecting yourself and your well-being.

As with all life events there is opportunity to learn and reflect…

In hindsight, there are certain actions I should have taken before the relationships ended, especially when it came to my sibling. Perhaps taking these actions could have prevented the outcome? Who knows? Regardless, these behaviors would certainly have helped me heal quicker even if the end was inevitable.

If you find yourself struggling in a relationship with a family member—or any type of relationship for that matter—these five suggested actions can help.

1. Be yourself.

This is what I kick myself the most about when I think about my estrangement from my sibling. I was never myself. I was always trying to impress them and seek their approval.

You see, my sibling was a lot older than me; by the time I was two they had already left home. Visits were few and far between, and when my sibling married, there were tensions between my family and their spouse.

Everything had to be done to keep them happy. We had to tread on eggshells around them to maintain the relationship, and that stuck with me well into adulthood. I believed If I stepped out of line then the relationship would end. So I said what I thought they wanted to hear and acted in the way I felt I needed to act.

This led to a lot of resentment on my part. No matter how hard I tried, I never felt fully accepted.

As I saw this would soon impact my own children, I knew things had to change.

I stopped kowtowing, and within a year they had broken away, communication basically stopped. The hardest thing was knowing that all those years I had presented an unauthentic version of me. I felt I had let myself down. What might have happened if I had just been myself?

It can be challenging to be yourself when it’s a family member you want to please, but you can’t let the labels they place on you define you. Be who you really are. Yes, you might be rejected, but being someone you’re not is exhausting and likely to lead to more unhappiness. You’re the one who has to live with yourself after all—it’s better to love the person you are!

If I had my time again, I would just be me, and I encourage everyone to adopt this approach too.

2. Communicate.

Relationships all too easily break down when there is a lack of communication. Good communication builds your connection, helps you deal with potential issues early, and allows both parties to have their needs met.

Too often, we end up shouting, judging, criticizing, or not communicating at all. This isn’t a recipe for a healthy relationship.

In his book Non-violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg sets out a framework he created which allows people to express their needs and make requests without any negative behaviors. Using this method can make it easier to ask for what you want, and it also gives you a better chance of actually getting it. It’s a technique I wish I had known a lot earlier, but one that I use now to great effect.

It’s a four-step process:

Convert judgements to observations.

So rather than saying, “You never listen to me” (quite an emotionally charged statement), you would say, “I see you checking your phone when I try to talk to you,” which is more factual and less likely to trigger a defensive response.

Say how you feel.

Express how you’re feeling without blame or judgment. Instead of saying, “I really needed you and you weren’t there,” express your feelings like this: “I was feeling really alone.” This is a powerful way of expressing ourselves and taking ownership of our feelings.

State your needs as they relate to you and your values.

So rather than saying, “You need to change how you treat me,” you would say, “I have a need to be respected as a human being.”

Ask for what you want.

Start with “Would you be willing/like to…?” For example, “Would you be willing to put your phone down when we have a conversation?” Framing your request in this way gives the other person the freedom to say no, meaning they don’t feel forced or pressured and in turn more likely to say yes.

Here’s an example of the four-step process all put together:

I see you checking your phone when I try to talk to you. I feel frustrated. I value being listened to. Would you be willing to put down your phone when we have a conversation?”

3. Stand strong (even when you’re scared).

As a recovering people-pleaser, I used to shy away from standing up for myself. I would choose to agree rather than confront. Life was more peaceful when I just smiled and nodded. But this is not a healthy strategy.

With my father, I needed him to acknowledge and take responsibility for his actions. With each attempt to broach the subject of his behavior toward my mother and me, there would be denial, false accusations, and even aggression. Fear would make me back down.

But you have to stand strong, even when you’re scared. If an issue is important to you, don’t allow for it to be brushed under the carpet to fester. Facing issues head on allows you the opportunity to resolve them. It provides you (and them) with clear boundaries and makes repeat behaviors less likely.

4. Accept your part.

Nobody is perfect. Relationships are two-person territory. It would be so easy for me to look back and put everything on my sibling or on my father, but that would be inaccurate. I have to accept my share of accountability too. We all do.

I should have spoken up. I should have acted differently in certain circumstances. I should have been honest about how I was feeling. People aren’t mind readers after all. This isn’t about accepting all of the blame; it’s just about acknowledging your part. It helps you grow as a person.

5. Forgive and let go.

Firstly, you need to forgive yourself. You’re a human being after all, we all make mistakes. Show yourself the same compassion you readily show to others.

Secondly, when you’ve had time (which may include therapy) and feel capable, start to forgive the person, even if you’re now estranged. This doesn’t mean you have to forget what happened but more allow the anger, resentment, or any other emotions that don’t serve you to be lifted from your heart.

I find writing a gratitude letter (listing what you found good about them and your time together, plus anything you’re grateful to them for) really helpful in the process of forgiving and letting go. It helps to refocus on the good side of the person (and your relationship) rather than the negative.

Remember, we feel hurt because we loved and cared deeply, two important components of a happy life. Letting go allows us to move forward to what is right for us. Use what happened to personally grow and build a better life.

Every life event, good or bad, has something to teach us…

I’ve grown so much from my own experiences and use those learnings to positively affect all the other relationships in my life. There is always hope for reconciliation, but for now, I’m at peace with where I’m at, and I hope you will be too.

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