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Family Estrangement During Coronavirus

Why this crisis is extra difficult for those who are estranged and what you can do to help

When there is a crisis, connecting with family is normal. As a species, humans are biologically wired to reach out, to touch, to talk, and to gather close when there is distress and fear. Although the advice to practice social distancing is warranted during Coronavirus, there remains an inborn desire to connect.

However, for some, reaching out to loved ones during Coronavirus is not an option. Those who are estranged from immediate or extended family may experience this current crisis as extra stressful.

According to Stand Alone, a UK charity dedicated to providing support for those experiencing estranged relationships, estrangement is “the breakdown of a supportive relationship between family members.” Other definitions include an intentional choice to end contact with existing family relationships through physical or emotional distancing.

Estrangement from immediate or extended family members is not uncommon. The Stand Alone websites state that “1 in 5 families in the UK will be affected by estrangement and over 5 million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member.” A 2015 study Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate by Richard P Conti demonstrates the commonality of this familial disconnect. Of 354 respondents, 154 or 43.5% reported estrangement from one or more family members. The study concluded that family estrangement might be as common as divorce.

If family estrangement is as common as research suggests, most people will know of someone in this situation. They are friends, neighbors, colleagues, partners, or perhaps yourself. It is important to acknowledge the unique stressors those in estranged relationships face during Coronavirus and to respond with sensitivity and support. Here are seven simple ways you can help.

Read on the topic

The 2017 New York Times article Debunking Myths About Estrangement sheds light on the commonality and complexity of the issue.

“Estrangement is widely misunderstood, but as more and more people share their experiences publicly, some misconceptions are being overturned. Assuming that every relationship between a parent and child will last a lifetime is as simplistic as assuming every couple will never split up.”

Recognize there are many factors leading to estrangement

The reasons for estrangement are varied, complex, and often a cumulation of issues. Common factors include:

  • Childhood sexual, physical, emotional abuse and/or neglect.
  • Sibling differences
  • Money issues, including inheritance
  • Disagreements about romantic relationships
  • Political differences
  • Personality difference
  • Differences in relationship expectations

In most cases, the person who chooses estrangement does so after a long period of time

To an outsider, the choice of estrangement may seem sudden. In the article Brittle, Broken, Bent: Coping With Family Estrangement, psychotherapist Annie Wright dispels the myth of a sudden break in contact.

“Instead, family estrangements are, in my experience, a relational break that’s a result of strained, unhealthy dynamics that have been building over time.”

Be aware of the stigma of estrangement

Despite its prevalence, stigma and shame is a common experience for those who are estranged. The Psychology Today article Coping with Family Estrangement states: “Those who are estranged from a family member discuss it rarely and with few people.” Furthermore, those who do share often do not feel supported. Awareness of the societal propensity to judge or minimize can help to mitigate stigma and provide opportunities to offer compassionate support.

Resist the urge to suggest Coronavirus (or any time of crisis) is a good time to reconnect

Under normal circumstances, a crises like Coronavirus could be a good opportunity to reconnect. However, there is much more involved. It is important to allow those who choose estrangement to make relationship choices when and if they choose to do so.

Offer the same type of support you would to anyone who is struggling

There is no need to complicate support. Compassion, sensitivity, and listening go a long way. Allow the person you are supporting to lead the discussion. Providing an open invitation for support, especially during Coronavirus, may provide an opportunity for ongoing discussion.

Express concern if someone’s struggle is prolonged

Finally, if you notice the person is showing signs of unremitting anxiety or depression during Coronavirus or anytime, gently suggest they talk with a professional or connect with the support resources of Stand Alone UK.

The additional stress of family estrangement during Coronavirus is a reality for many. Understanding it and responding with sensitivity and support is needed more than ever.

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