Earlier today I was sent a new article written by Terri Apter published on Psychology Today, The Painful Stigma of Family Estrangement. It was a great article that rightly points out that family estrangement is still shrouded in stigma and shame for many people. Articles such as Ms. Apter's, are important as they have the power to open up discussions about estrangement in the public space, and hopefully reduce the negative and equally as problematic, non-existent, perceptions of estrangement.
Yet I cannot help but feel there is a real need to expand the conversation to include different perspectives and experiences of estrangement. I've spoken about this before, but want to share my thoughts again. The majority of academic family estrangement research has been focused on estrangements between adult children (as estrangers predominantly) who have elected to estrange from their parents (often mothers). Again, this is an important group of people who are estranged and their stories and experiences matter, they are worth investigating and learning more about. However, as anthropologist researcher, Dorothy Jerrome rightly points out:
“Families consist of more than parents and children."
There are many permutations of family estrangement - parents sometimes to elect to estrange from their adult children. Adult children may elect to estrange from their fathers. Siblings may choose to estrange from each other. Grandparents may estrange from their grandchildren, and grandchildren may elect to estrange from their grandparents. Estrangements can occur in the extended family system, and be equally as problematic and painful. Estrangements also occur inter-generationally, and exert an impact across family systems. Estrangements occur collaterally - that is to say, people who haven't had anything to do with the actual estrangement end up impacted by estrangements indirectly. People may identify as being both an estranger and an estrangee, and as estrangement researcher Jason Robinson notes,
“Estranger/estrangee positioning is a flexible construct and may change across time and as part of an ongoing reflective process."
Additionally, it has been clear across my own estrangement work and research, many people don't identify with the word "estranged" at all.
We're spending energy to define family estrangement, however, the emphasis seems to be more on describing estrangement, than it is to fully consider the variations of "family". Not nearly enough consideration has been given to exploring the social constructions of family that are a significant part of the stigma and problematizing of estrangement. Family estrangement research is NOT capturing the diversity of family forms; for instance, biological, adopted, fostered, blended, single parent, same sex, multi-generational, kinship, indigenous or tribal and family by choice. Nor is it capturing difference of cultural perspectives..
We have a way to go before can lay any claims about understanding the "experience of estrangement".
The other concern I have is the majority of estrangement research is focused on the negative impact of estrangement - and certainly family estrangement is complex, and painful and we should want to understand it better. All that said, there is an emphasis on the pain, suffering and negative impact of estrangement.
This leaves people who are estranged potentially feeling that estrangement is a life sentence, with no chance of parole or time off for good behaviour.
I'd like to see the conversation scoped out to carefully consider the importance of resilience, personal strength and the power of community to effect recovery and healing. It's concerning to me that so often research is focused upon people who are firmly entrenched in their experience of estrangement, and has yet to be truly inclusive of the stories of people who are estranged who manage, across time, to move themselves and their lives forward and experience health, happiness, recovery and healing.
There's something about our culture that seems invested in the "bad, sad" story. We're not as interested in healing and recovery stories. Go figure.
This healing and recovery process is, of course, the work that I do and am busy with. I have the opportunity every day to connect with people who are estranged who are not hijacked by estrangement and who do have stories of resilience, strength and recovery. I also am surrounded by people who are estranged who are courageously, transparently and authentically discussing their experience of estrangement.
I'm committed to hope. We are committed to hope.
I am so pleased that the Give Hope Project is now in full swing. Over twenty people have come forward to share their stories and to hold a torch of hope for people who haven't quite made it to healing or recovery just yet. I am super excited to share that I have completed the first three podcasts and the first will be released at the end of the month.
By all means we should continue to explore the places where estrangement is difficult and painful. We should also never lose sight of the fact that people who are estranged can and do heal. They go forward to create healthy lives and relationships and they do so even if they never reconcile with their families. There is hope in this realization and when hope is in such short supply, this is a message worth spreading.
Family estrangement does NOT mean a life sentence of stigma, shame and suffering.