In the course of history there have been a whole lot of intense exchanges that have shaken the foundation of human relationships in our nations, our states, our cities, and even individual friend and family circles. The political climate is hot, there are disagreements over lifestyles and ways of living, and people are simply not as good at communication as we think we are. Being intricate creatures, humans can easily fracture relationships when we don’t see each other eye to eye or when we don’t understand another person’s point of view. Sometimes we find ourselves at different stages of health and self-awareness, and we can become frustrated with other people in our life whom we perceive as not willing to do the same work we’ve done. Other times, we find people to be pretentious because they insist they’ve done more self-work than we have and they like to tell us how “enlightened” they are. Human relationships are notoriously complex. Truthfully, it’s a miracle that humans are able to be in relationship with each other at all! It’s easy enough to avoid people we don’t know very well when we can’t find level ground. But what do we do when we find difficulty navigating differences we experience with members of our own families? Sometimes we are able to put the old adage “blood is thicker than water” to work. Sometimes we’re able to iron things out and to mend injured relationships. Other times, we are not. As complicated as humans are, it really shouldn’t be surprising to learn that about one out of every four Americans is estranged from their families.
Why do family members make the difficult decision to become estranged? Certainly, it can’t be for a silly reason like supporting an opposing political candidate! But as we’ve said, humans are complex creatures. We sometimes like to affix blame to something tangible when something goes wrong. This blame can even be attached to something seemingly benign. In the church setting, for instance, families sometimes blame an uncomfortable sermon for their decision to find a new church home. When this happens, the decision was likely already made long ago. The uncomfortable sermon stands in as a catalyst and it gives the departing family a sense of justification for their decision. While there are plenty of seemingly silly reasons to become estranged from friends or family members, there are also numerous good reasons people use to make the decision. Regardless, when it comes to estrangement there is always a degree of pain involved. Often, there are also swirling components of grief, blame, resentment, frustration, anger, and countless other emotions. When someone becomes estranged from us, and it is not our decision, we sometimes find ourselves wondering why. In many instances, we never truly find any sense of closure. For lack of a better word, estrangement sucks. And sometimes, it is still for the best.
I am estranged from a number of my family members. My estrangement was not my choice. Without getting into too many details, my family members decided without much information that I was a bad person. Although they did not know me well in the first place (each set of cousins on my dad’s side of the family were raised in a different state), they still made many assumptions about me and my character. They made decisions without finding out the information they needed, and they cut me out of their lives completely. Sadly, my sister sided against me and she joined in the estrangement. I have not spoken to her since around 2005. We have been estranged for more than half of her life and nearly half of mine.
At a certain point, however, a question must be asked: Is the catalytic event truly and honestly the real reason for the estrangement? In my case, the answer is very likely no. You see, families operate in systems. Systems function on something called “homeostasis”. This means they like to maintain a status quo. Disruptions to the system cause it to feel out of place. When the system feels out of place, the parts of the system react and respond to create a sense of normalcy. Sometimes this means forcing out the pieces of the system that are causing the disruption. Think of a family system like an immune system. A good, strong immune system notices when an intruder virus or other bug tries to take up shop. When it’s functioning properly, the immune system removes the intruder to keep the system running. But sometimes immune systems don’t work. Sometimes they attack the wrong cells. Sometimes they become infected themselves. Sometimes, “normal” is not synonymous with “healthy.” This is true for our bodies and it’s true for our human relationship systems. If something feels normal, that doesn’t automatically mean it is healthy. Healthy behavior by one part of the system might feel abnormal to the rest of the system. If it feels abnormal, then the system fights it. Quite often an unhealthy system forces out a healthy piece. I believe my role in my family system was healthy but abnormal. For being abnormal and naming dysfunction out loud, I was pushed out.
Am I claiming a monopoly on healthy behavior? No. I certainly played a part in my family’s dysfunction. Every piece of a system has its role. But my behavior was not in line with what the system expected. And now that I have been removed from it for a long time, I can see the system was (and still is) toxic. That side of my family operates on an unhealthy, toxic, alcoholic system that focuses heavily on shame, blame, and secrecy. Fortunately, through therapy and counseling, I have learned that my own behavior, dysfunctional or otherwise, was a coping mechanism. I survived the system only because I bucked it. And by bucking it, it kicked me out. Their loss, not mine.
Sadly, this estrangement has led to even more broken relationships through the years. Unspoken expectations can lead to continued hurt feelings. Established boundaries — essentially defined walls that say where one person begins and another ends — can be a deal breaker for unhealthy people. When boundaries are violated, estrangement can happen. For example, after years of telling my parents that I did not want our relationship to be one way (I was always the one making the effort to call them), and asking them to make an effort to be in my life, we arrived at a stalemate. They refuse to call me and I refuse to make the next move. We have not spoken since before Christmas. If they were to call me, I would answer. If they were to reach out, I would talk to them. So far, they have not. And for my own wellbeing, it is important that I honor the boundary that has been established.
If one in four Americans is estranged, then I’m certain I’m not the only estranged person in our parish community. Perhaps you have made the difficult decision to become estranged. Perhaps someone in your life has become estranged from you. Regardless of the reason, there’s a good chance that the estrangement is not without pain, confusion, anger, hurt, discomfort, or any number of feelings. How can we navigate estrangement in healthy ways? It isn’t easy. When I have tried to contact my estranged family members, I was met with even more resistance. My sister, for instance, will likely never talk to me again. And while I certainly contributed to the estrangement, my willingness to hear her out seems to make her even more angry. During her wedding a number of years ago, her now husband asked who the boy next to her was in a childhood photo. Someone told him, “that’s her brother.” He said, “she has another brother?!?”
Human relationships are not easy. Our spiritual practices can help us to feel more at peace. For me, it’s my faith in Jesus that keeps me going. I know I am a good person, trying to make the best out of a messy situation. I know it is for my own health and wellness that I have left that toxic family system. I also know it is not without pain. And I know it can feel conflicting to be estranged from blood relatives when Jesus calls us to love one another. But he calls us to love, not to like. And sometimes the best way we can love someone is from a distance. Maybe someday, on the other side of the veil, our human understanding will become greater. Maybe in heaven, broken relationships can be healed and reconciled. I have faith that one day through Christ, “that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection” (BCP 280). In the meantime, we can pray for our estranged family members. We can wish them well. We can work on the things we can control. And we can try to stay healthy and avoid harmful or toxic behavior. Life isn’t always easy and it isn’t without pain. But we do our best. And we wouldn’t know pain if we didn’t know love. Whenever we can, let’s always choose love.