What does estranged mean? A guide to the estranged meaning and the many definitions
Updated: Nov 7
Am I estranged? The meaning of being estranged from family
In my coaching practice, I work with people who have extremely challenging relationships with siblings, parents and children. For some it is the whole family. Many people start their sessions by asking me about the word estranged and its meaning. Does it apply to them? Are they really estranged?
I must say, it is a word that really splits opinion. Some find it comforting to know that they are experiencing something in life that is recognised and that has a name. There is a process and support that comes with giving it a label. For others, they don’t feel as if the name truly captures the experience of not having a family member in their life. For many I have coached, they dislike that the term contains the word strange. This can feel stigmatising and as if they are abnormal
Before more awareness was raised around family relationship breakdown, the word estranged was more commonly used in the media to refer to whole nations on the world stage that had icy relationships. We were also familiar with an estranged husband or wife who didn’t have a relationship post-divorce. It has only been more recently that estrangement has been more connected to family relationships. Yet, in whatever context, we can say that estrangement means that some form of rift or disconnect has occurred. Also, just because we have more recently started to talk about it, doesn't mean that it is new. It has been happening in families for decades, but we have only just started to have a language for it.
The term in relation to family has only very recently been developed in the research world and it isn’t present in the DSM or medical register. There is also very little professional training about family estrangement out there. It’s thanks to researchers like Dr Lucy Blake and Dr Kristina Scharp that we have more academic work and recognition around the experience of being estranged from family. I worked extensively with them during my time at Stand Alone. Their projects have built facts, research and more adequately qualified the experience around the term estrangement..
This article will get to the bottom of the two key behaviours that underpin the meaning of estrangement. That being the emotional quality of a relationship between two people, and the physical communication.
When I am interviewed in the media around family estrangement, I often get asked if people cut ties with a family member after a small disagreement or a one-off argument. I reply by talking about the estrangement being present before contact is lost. I often talk about people being estranged before they become estranged.
This refers to periods of emotional estrangement, whereby the quality of the relationship just isn’t there. In some cases it may never have existed between family members. There may be a lack of connection, a lack of love, or a lack of genuine care for one another. The relationship may be estranged because one person was deeply involved in addictions to alcohol or drugs and was unable to be present. They may develop as a result of depression and mental health struggles too. It is also possible that some people simply aren't interested.
The research shows that in many cases, emotional estrangements pre-exist this physical distancing or lack of contact. Many people hang on for years in alienated relationships, where we don’t feel connection, love, care, presence or support. Many do this for the sake of having family relationships to speak of, or for siblings and other family members. Yet people can feel deep levels of disappointment and a very fundamental lack of trust with family member where the loving connection feels missing.
Would this person truly be there for me if I needed them? Why doesn’t my Dad show me love? Why don’t they care? These kinds of searching questions can very easily be turned on our own self-esteem, and we can begin to think that this is about our own worthiness to love. I don’t deserve care, that’s why I am not getting it. For those who are estranged in this way, it’s so important to find support with re-framing that this detachment isn’t about you. You do deserve love and everything a nourishing human relationship can bring you.
It may also be incredibly inconsistent – sometimes close, sometimes alienated. This can also be a challenge to understand and figure out whether this inconsistency is healthy. This can also make it incredibly hard to make a decision about having this person in your life, as we let go of the positive moments as well as the intensely painful moments.
Emotionally estranged family relationships do have a stigma attached. It can be hard to explain to other people and indeed government agencies that I have contact with a family member, but they aren’t that interested in fully being in my life. This is also true not just of young people, but for parents estranged from their children. Although someone might have contact with a child or sibling, they may not show up and be there to give care.
I have spent much of my career over the last decade working with Student Finance agencies, to explain that just because someone receives a very limited amount of contact doesn’t mean that they have anything near what constitutes a supportive family relationship. Or that this relationship will show up for them with the adequate amount of financial and material support needed during Higher Education. The emotional capital in relationships matters, and is often the precursor of whether someone will offer physical and material support.
I am grateful that many agencies now consider emotional estrangement as a risk factor with young people. It would be wonderful if there were more awareness in the medical profession about how to sensitively treat people with fragile and estranged family relationships.
As research suggests, there are many pathways to these kinds of family relationships breaking down completely. That being when people don’t communicate and haven’t for significant period. The research calls this physical estrangement.
For those with an emotionally estranged relationship, then it can be easy to drift into no contact without any kind of crescendo moment occurring. The quality of the relationship simply isn’t there and neither party maintains it. For others, there can be a moment where something is realised, and there’s some kind of psychological permission to step away. There is a clear realisation that this isn’t healthy and something needs to change. It could be therapy (or another support process) that instigates people putting in stronger boundaries, which in turn creates a more conflicting dynamic.
It is interesting that the media often seeks there to be a clear line and decision maker on the estrangement process. In most fictional narratives there is a villain and a victim, and storytelling in the media is no different. Yet most research shows that estranged relationships aren’t as clear-cut as this. There is so much more nuance. For most, no big notices of severance are served. When people feel rejected, they often then start rejecting the other person too. The rifts then start to widen as people start to protect themselves.
What does it feel like to be physically estranged? There are all the impacts of emotional estrangement and more. There is stigma and it is hard to explain that key family member isn’t in your life at all, yet is still living. The absence of communication at key moments in ones life serves as a painful reminder of the lack of relationship. Comparisons to others can be brutal, and spending time with other families and friends can remind us of what we don’t have. For many, we choose to lie to conceal this truth. We can feel that it is simply too complex to handle in the moment with new friends, colleagues or strangers. Yet, it is very common. 1 in 5 people in the UK and up to 25% of people in the USA are said to experience this kind of estrangement from a close family member. The reality is that it is still hard to talk about.
Is estrangement forever?
The interesting aspect of the meaning of estrangement is that we often assume that it is permanent. Also it is an assumption that once a person is out of contact, they will feel that person to be out of their lives. The reality is that an estranged relative, can take up a huge amount of space in someone’s life and thought processes, particularly in the early stages of estrangement.
We must also remember that estrangement isn’t the same as loss to death. There is the availability of reconciliation, which is something that many people who are estranged will ruminate over at key moments in life. Should I reach out? It can be hard to understand if the estrangement is the right thing to maintain.
The research I carried out with others around estrangement and the COVID-19 crisis showed that people did a lot of thinking, but the crisis didn’t change their view on the family relationship. People needed much more than a global epidemic to feel safe in family relationships again, if they had chosen physical estrangement. And if people are unconvinced that something has fundamentally moved or changed, then reconciliation may not feel safe. Even then, trust that these movements and changes are real and sincere can be thin on the ground.
One best-case scenario for estranged family relationships, I feel, is that the time and space apart allows both parties to gain perspective and healing. This could mean that after time to process and heal people may be open to creating a new dynamic. It might not be for everyone, but time and space are incredible healers and powerful medicine.
It is much simpler to remedy physical estrangement than the emotional estrangement. Regaining contact can feel like a win. But how do people change the fundamentals that led to the development of emotional estrangement? The truth is that every family is different and the dynamics in families are rarely the same. How we re-build trust and confidence can't always be predicted, but the one thing that we can be assured of is that it can take a lot of time to add layers of new experience onto old.