“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
― Toni Morrison
During the process of moving my website and blog over to a new host, I've had the opportunity to spend time thinking about how people who are estranged define the experience for themselves. Part of this has been carefully looking at the search terms people use to find my work. Biggest surprise?
People who are estranged often don't use the term "estrangement".
So how do they think about or describe what is happening in their families? Well, if search terms can be relied upon to tell us anything, these are a few my readers have used:
"Is it ok to hate my sister?"
"Disconnected from my whole family."
"No communication with family."
"Haven't seen father for twelve years."
"Adult children who don't speak to their family"
You get the picture. People somehow, luckily find E-stranged, not because the name clearly indicates what I write about and who I see in my clinical work, but because the content I write about fits the broad search terms. I wrote a post called Estrangement is not a Dirty Secret (even if it feels like it is), and spoke about some of the reasons it's important to talk about estrangement and call it what it is. I won't recap those reasons here, other than to say, its super hard to create or have a sense of community, if we don't have a way of finding each other, or speaking to our collective experience.
A little background of terms
I don't have a particular investment in calling the wilful disconnection between family members "estrangement". It's been called other things like "family cuts-off" and "family rifts". Murray Bowen’s work, for example, speaks about "family cutoffs", a term he used to describe people who manage unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them.
Other social science frameworks talk about families who “quarrel” that is to say, two or more family members (most often immediate family) who disagree about something where compromise does not feel possible, core values for instance, and as a result, distancing occurs, which may or may not be permanent.
Cognitive-behavioural models emphasize “schemas” , organized patterns of thoughts or behaviour; mental structures of preconceived ideas which represent some aspect of the world (including people and relationships) that develops into a system of organizing and perceiving old and new information. Schemas are said to drive understandings and actions and elicit responses from other family members which in turn create a foundation of interaction and set the stage for family functioning.
Bowen pointed out that a family quarrel becomes a family feud when animosity sets and hardens in a schema of bitterness and blame. Family members become alienated and stop speaking to each other. Bowen made a distinction between a cutoff, where there is distance without open hostility and are usually slow in the making and a "family feud" which are triggered by a sudden feeling of betrayal.
Bowen believed that people who cut off emotionally cultivate a protective indifference. They avoid each other, but if they had to be in the same room, could probably go through the motions. In a family feud however, wounds are too raw and emotions run too high to pretend that things are okay. Bowen suggested that people who are cut off from their families don’t tend to think about each other; while feuding families can think of nothing but each other.
What does current research say about the words "family estrangement"?
More recently, academic researchers have been trying to nut out what exactly is being meant by the term "family estrangement. The thoughts of these researchers are certainly more similar than they are different. My take on current academic definitions (and the definition I accept and use in my thinking/research/writing) is this:
Are there other considerations to the words we use to speak our experience?
Whilst I think having a definition of estrangement is very useful, there are some other things to think about. For instance, one of the first things I notice when I speak to people about estrangement, the word means different things to different people. This difference is not only related to meaning, but also to how estrangement looks and feels in context to people’s experience of it.
For some, estrangement can happen while sitting in the same room with a ‘disconnected’ family member. For others, estrangement can occur as a result of divorce and involves the removal of relationship, as well as increased physical separation. Family estrangement may be physical (actual distance) as well as emotional, or both. For many people, estrangement is a complete break of relationship, akin to a living death with a family member(s). “My mother is out there. I have her address. Her phone number. But she is dead as dead to me.”
Other people speak of the estrangement, which occurred in their families as a result of issues such as mental health problems, addiction, abuse or crises of tolerance. They talk about or are focused on the "cause" (ie. addiction) rather than the outcome (ie. estrangement). There are also many ways family can become separated, and yet not be considered "estrangement", for instance adoption is viewed by some as a profound source of family estrangement. In my work, child protection interventions may contribute to estrangements, yet never be labeled "estrangement".
How I see it
The objective of E-stranged has always been to explore collective understanding of family estrangement: As such, I have felt a strong commitment to accept a range of definitions and experiences of the word ‘estrangement’ and understand they will be perceived differently from person to person. Rather than choosing to see this variation as a communication ‘problem’ – I have viewed it as a tremendous opportunity to consider the various definitions and experiences of estrangement as others understand them. Taking this step clarifies and creates space for ‘personal location’ (what the issue looks like from where we sit) and is also a means to understanding how it may look from someone else’s perspective. So whilst I have a definition of family estrangement that works for me (see above) its an inclusive definition that invites difference.
To my mind, all definitions (and experiences) of family estrangement are legitimate taken within their individual contexts and experience
We don’t need to limit our use of the word ‘estrangement’ to dictionary or research definitions. "Family estrangement" as a term doesn't need to be the definitive end point to discussing the impact of "breaking up" with your family. However, I think it is both helpful and powerful to have a jumping in point, a set of words that sketch a quick idea of what it means to have the experience of estrangement. If not "family estrangement", then what?