For many people, family is the centrepiece of their life. It’s where we gain a huge aspect of our identity, find comfort and support, and a sense of belonging.
But for those who are estranged from their families, bereft of contact and informally ‘separated’, the family unit may not feel as safe or as nurturing.
Social worker and academic, Dr Kylie Agllias, has been researching family estrangements and how they impact us. Her research has revealed that about one in 25 Australian adults has been estranged from their family at some point in their lives.
She says that family estrangements occur when there is a breakdown of trust, emotional intimacy and there are strong, disparate values.
“Estrangement is often fuelled by conflicting perceptions of betrayal, favouritism, family roles, secrets and abuse...”
“My research shows that the decision to estrange is not taken lightly, and it can take years of family stress to manifest,” Dr Agllias, from University of Newcastle, explains. “Estrangement is often fuelled by conflicting perceptions of betrayal, favouritism, family roles, secrets and abuse...”
Prior to Dr Agllias’s work, she says, little research had been done on this hidden social issue. The latest research was in 2003, when Relationships Australia did a survey of 1,215 Australians that revealed that 17 per cent of respondents were estranged from at least one family member, most likely a sister or brother.
Why do families fall apart?
Family estrangements often occur in three ways: when there is a disagreement that can’t be resolved over such things as over someone’s inheritances, choice of partner, addiction issues, illness and divorce, Dr Agllias explains.
“The estrangement might culminate around key stressful periods.”
The second reason is when a family member has been subjected to abuse, and for their own health and safety, they can’t continue a relationship with their family.
Estrangements also happen when family members are forced apart by circumstances beyond their control, such as refugees forced to go to separate countries for their own safety. The United Nations reports that there are more than 22.5 million refugees across the world — many of who will be separated from immediate and extended family.
According to Mission Australia, family dysfunction involving drugs and alcohol can also lead to family estrangements, plus children who are forced into foster care are not guaranteed to have any contact with their families. Some people become estranged for their own safety, such has having been subjected to abuse by their family or because of their sexual orientation, for example.
Family estrangements are often portrayed in the media as being a regretful last resort for people at their wit’s ends. However, for some people, family estrangements are necessary for their own health and happiness, and they have no regrets about no longer having certain family member, like their mother or father, in their lives.
In a Washington Post article, readers shared their experiences, with one “S.W”, saying that she regretted attempting to reconcile with her mother, who told her that she wished that her daughter had never been born.
For some people, family estrangements are necessary for their own health and happiness, and they have no regrets about no longer having certain family member...
What impact does a family break-up have on us?
For people who are estranged, they often experience a sense of “significant, ongoing and traumatic loss”, Dr Agllias says.
“Estrangement can be a very difficult loss to reconcile because it is unexpected — no one expects to estrange or be estranged from a family member. Additionally, closure is difficult because the loss is ambiguous. No one knows what will happen and whether the other party will come back or initiate — sometimes unwanted — contact.”
The impact on someone’s health and wellbeing can be immense, including grief, depression, plus social stigma and isolation.
“Estrangement is also a stigmatised loss and it is not clearly understood or recognised in our society, so people will often minimise or hide the estrangement from others (to avoid judgement, guilt and shame). They might reduce social contact to save face.”
No one knows what will happen and whether the other party will come back or initiate — sometimes unwanted — contact.
However, it’s important to note that this is not a universal experience. Dr Agllias says that some people will feel a sense of relief: the reaction to estrangement will always depend on why the estrangement happened in the first place.
Regardless of what phase of the estrangement someone is going through – whether it has occurred recently, or has been going on for years – the experts from Stand Alone recommend that family members practice self-care. This can include visiting a therapist or support group, and taking the time to process evolving thoughts and feelings.
The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, will debut on SBS on Wednesday 6 September at 8.30pm. Each episode, airing weekly on Wednesdays at 8.30pm, will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.