Approximately six or seven years ago, my adult stepdaughter decided to completely cut me out of her life. It was a package deal. She stopped talking to my husband (her father) and our children as well (her two half-siblings). She has continued to talk to my mother, sister and other family members within my extended family and remains close to everyone else…but us.
The following article is NOT about throwing my stepdaughter (or myself) under the bus nor is it about making her into a bad person.
My intention is to bring light to the unfortunate impact of estrangement and how this is not an uncommon scenario in our modern day world. I have chosen not to write about the reality of our family situation these past years and it is not something I talk about often because…well…it’s embarrassing. Actually embarrassing is too light of a word. It’s actually deeply enshrouded in shame. And each time I do talk about it or address it, the shame demons take over yanking at my joy.
Many of us have heard, “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Being the grandchild of an alcoholic and secrets being the glue that keeps addiction alive and well, secrets are part of my DNA. Secret keeping literally makes me sick to my core. And yet this was such a big part of my growing up years. “As long as you pretend, act and look pretty no one will know the messy truth of imperfection that lies behind these walls.” Children of alcoholics, due to the complete and utter messiness of their addicted parents are often perfectionists. Working overtime to hide the fact that there is a huge out of control internal storm going on within their entire being. I was disciplined by shame.
It is an unfortunate familiar feeling that arises when a secret is in the field. My sick stomach is my indicator and my radar even amazes me. My kids know my blood actually boils if I but smell a secret or an untruth.
When I was in Leadership training, one of our amazing instructors frequently chanted, “YOUR MESS IS YOUR MESSAGE.” Well, my friends, this one has been and continues to be a big ole mess. And from what I hear from other family members this is a mess that will never go away. A big statement from an optimist. So my work has been…and continues to be…how to live and thrive and be okay within the mess. Since I have been frequented by obsessive thoughts throughout the years about my stepdaughter, I thought that coming out of the closet with this dirty little secret (actually….not so little!) might help myself and perhaps let others know that if this is happening to you too, you are not alone.
Estrangement is defined as “the fact of no longer being on friendly terms or part of a social group.” To me, the word feels sad and heavy.
Even the word estrangement carries that flavor of “hush, hush (think Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter). Other words that come to mind…isolation, disconnection, dirty, and shame. It is a message that says, “you are not enough, that there is something intrinsically wrong with you, and I will shun you and collude with others to shun you as well.” The act of estrangement is the ultimate act of shaming. It reaffirms the cultural samskara that I am not worthy. Estrangement embodies loss of control. There is no resolution. There is no happy ending. One or both parties have chosen to give up.
Nothing irks me more when I go to see a movie where the ending is left with complete ambiguity. And there is no concrete resolution. Friendly or unfriendly, my mind thinks in systems and I will be up for hours at night frantically trying to connect the dots. My brain is like a computer and will recalculate and strategize until I feel somewhat resolved. And so you can imagine the hours spent within my mind these years trying to figure out what happened to lead to THIS estrangement.
Because there was/is no party on the other line. There has been a complete refusal to engage or explain. The cut off has been clean.
There are lots of reasons for estrangement. Sometimes it is a survival tool. A certain person has done the unthinkable. And the other party has no remorse. No desire to work on themselves. Or they simply don’t have the ability to change their toxic behavior. And to be in contact with this person is incredibly dangerous to your mental and perhaps physical well-being.
However, there is a whole other level of breed with estrangement that is becoming more commonplace. There is a level of anonymity and structure in our technological world that allows us to bully on the internet without getting caught. If we don’t like a post, we “unfriend” the person. We are learning it seems that we can say or do anything these days without the recognition that we might actually get caught and experience consequences. As we step away from the traditional nuclear family and often live far away, we don’t have to see “dad” or “mom” or “sibling” at the same family gathering and so it is a lot easier to move in to the space of “out of sight, out of mind.” We are not nudged to work out our differences. I just witnessed the quickest divorce recently, despite the fact that this couple was seriously getting ready to start a family a few months ago. They are both in new relationships already! In our case, my husband’s ex-wife is still so filled with resentment that she actually encourages the estrangement. She has always shunned me (no…I was not the other woman) and our children. Ummm…who does that to kids? In psychological terms, we call this splitting.
Many who initiate estrangement have the gift of compartmentalization.
In the news, we are hearing about decades-old cold cases where murderers are being found left and right, many who have seemed to be leading a typical life. Priests and nuns who preached the word of god and on the side sexually abused the most vulnerable. How is that possible? Because of their uncanny ability to compartmentalize. They are able to store that memory or wrongdoing into boxes that are locked deep inside the recesses of their brain. And literally, they don’t think about it. Or they somehow justify their actions. They may even have the ability to forget. The mind is an amazing thing and there is so little that we know about. So much left to discover!
I knew my stepdaughter to be incredibly kind and giving (and I suspect she still is) however, I am clear that she is not thinking about me, my husband, or her brother and sister. I know she will not read this article or look me up on Facebook or Instagram. Before our split, I watched her “cut off” others. She, although good, has that uncanny ability to compartmentalize. She is deeply engaged in her new life. Which is incredibly different from how she was raised. She comes from a family where estrangement is no stranger. When we look at family systems, just like an alcoholic family can be traced back for generations, estrangement too can be a family norm.
I have come across the most generous, loving, and kind people who were 100% rejected from one or both of their parents and/or siblings because of who they were or how they chose to live their lives. It has always been so difficult to wrap my mind around this. How could a parent or sibling do what I see to be the unthinkable? It would be one thing if these people were addicts, bad people, unwilling to work on themselves. But these people, the victims of estrangement…they are really GOOD people.
No one is perfect. I wish we could ALL really understand that to our core. And sometimes we need to move into agreeing to disagree. Our political climate and moral climate is incredibly divided right now.
There is so much fighting. So much….not talking or respecting one another. It feels like estrangement is becoming a bit of a virus. I don’t like what you stand for, what you say, or who you are…so there…I am not going to talk to you.
I was in the company of someone recently who made it known that they didn’t like me. I kept reviewing in my mind if I might have done or said something wrong that upset them. I came to the conclusion…I don’t think so. After some time this person finally did talk to me and told me that in fact, he didn’t like me. He thought I was a flake. And then followed it up with this… “I make my judgments right away and stick with them.” This seems to be becoming more of a cultural norm.
The impact of estrangement is huge. Very systemic. It impacts family, work environments, cultures. Everything we do has impact. The impact of estrangement is splitting. Lots of people are put into uncomfortable situations to perpetuate the split. My stepdaughter didn’t invite us to her wedding. But she invited my mom and sister.
This put the three of us in a very tense situation that temporarily created problems for us. She didn’t announce that she had two children, but my own family and the people that I used to work with know all the details. Her siblings are constantly put in awkward situations. My step-granddaughter and my daughter (nine and ten years old) are very close and old enough to be aware of what is happening.
My stepdaughter is very close to my step-granddaughter (her niece) but my own daughter has no memory of her own sister. I see how the secret keepers thread their way through this new generation. There is a silent code not to talk about the other. I also see how my stepdaughter’s own internal conflict is projected outward and the waves of distress being created bring relief to her. She holds the title of victor. And victors need victims. It feeds their fragile egos.
Our estrangement story feels so unnecessary. Many of them are. It stemmed from a weekend of miscommunication and I suspect years of her not having the tools or strength to speak her truth. Growing up her divorced parents lived one block away from one another. When one of the kids didn’t like what one parent said, they packed their bags and moved to the other house. My husband’s ex-wife refused co-parenting. Period. And to this day she remains a thorn in my side. Because no matter what age, parenting never stops. My adult stepchildren never practiced the art of navigating hard conversations and learning that with deep personal growth work and brave and honest conversations (thank you Stephanie) resolution is possible. I see how this has played out in all of their adult relationships and it is of no surprise that they all struggle in their relationships…deeply. It feels like with the help of a third party counselor this could be worked out and yet the refusal remains. It’s a pattern that seems destined to be repeated.
And so my work has been how to be with all of this. How to not get swallowed by the shame the enshrouds me.
To be okay when I hear her name and to be happy for her when I learn by my sister, who talks to her regularly and recently visited her, that my step-daughter is incredibly happy, has two beautiful and perfect children, recently moved into a new mansion, and went to the Oscars this year.
To NOT become overwhelmed with shame when it has been made very clear we are not invited to her party. To let go of feeling jealous, angry, vengeful. To move out of victim and victor mode to a place of peace.
To NOT let my heart break witnessing my husbands own heartbreak over this incredible loss….and losses as he has no relationship with his grandsons.
The personal growth and spiritual gifts have been to surrender. Knowing I don’t have control. And to unravel the layers of shame that are only triggered because they were there before she decided to cut me out of my life. She is my spiritual teacher in disguise
Reading my own words I am left contemplating the layers of estrangement. How do I estrange others? Where am I estranged from myself? How am I participating in this new cultural norm? Have I unfriended someone because I didn’t agree with their political views? (I have) I share my wish with my daughter who said to me last year, “I wish life was all unicorns and rainbows and school shootings and guns didn’t exist.” I too desperately wish for peace and yet at fifty-one years old, I am coming to terms with the fact that there has never been peace nor will there be. And life often doesn’t have a happy ending.
However, now more than ever I listen to the calling of being a Peaceful Warrior. To commit myself to find peace within and so that I may spread that peace to everyone and everything. To hold a level of consciousness that I am always having impact…and what kind of impact do I want to have? I have a long road ahead and I am messy and so very imperfect. But step one, which you indulged me in if you are still reading this, is to name my messy truth. As much as I always longed for happy endings, sometimes they are simply sad.
May my heart stay open whether I am happy or sad. And I wish the same for you. Thank you…..thank you…thank you.
Allison’s life experience has paved the way for her to be a Life Coach and therapist. As the youngest of six in an Irish Catholic family, she had an extraordinary amount of time practicing how to survive in the realm of relationships. Her experiences of loss and being part of a family system propelled her on a journey of self-discovery. Her collective experiences have led her to a role as a life coach and therapist. She is incredibly passionate about what she does as she helps her clients move from the life they know to the life they were meant to live and celebrates with them as they align with who they were meant to be. Read more…