Why do family relationships break down? Three women share their stories with Lorraine Wylie

Our daughter resented my advice

Anna*, a 57-year-old schoolteacher from Cork, has been married to solicitor Patrick for 37 years. They haven’t spoken to their 26-year-old daughter in almost four years.

We’d always wanted a family, so when Jon came along we were delighted. We’d hoped to give him a brother or sister but, after nine years without success, we decided we’d been blessed already and accepted we wouldn’t have any more children. As you can imagine, when I discovered Liza was on the way, it was like a miracle!

Growing up, Liza was very shy and seemed to prefer spending time reading with me or drawing by herself. As she got older, we took her to church and I encouraged her to join the youth group, hoping it would help her make friends. She started singing in the choir and was doing well at school. Then she told us she wanted to go to art college in England. I was a little apprehensive, but I remember feeling pleased that she was finally finding her niche in life.

The first time she brought Sean home to meet us, I noticed a big change in Liza. The new bohemian look and several piercings were a shock, but what really worried me was her young man’s domineering attitude and his forthright views on Christianity. He told us he was an atheist and seemed to treat our faith with contempt.

I thought he was rather arrogant and found his behaviour disrespectful, but our daughter didn’t contradict him. I secretly hoped the relationship would run its course but, as time passed, Liza grew more besotted. Within six months, her visits home had stopped completely and when I rang, she always went to another room to talk to me.

I knew Sean was very controlling so three years ago, when she announced they were getting married, I decided to take the bull by the horns and ask her to think again. To say she took my advice badly is an understatement. She told me I was trying to ruin her happiness and my views were narrow and judgemental.

Looking back, maybe I could have handled the situation better, but I was so desperate to stop her making what I knew would be a mistake. We haven’t seen or spoken to Liza since that day. She has cut all contact with our family. I don’t know how this story ends, but I know miracles happen, so I’m waiting for her call.

I betrayed my sister’s trust

Patricia*, a 48-year-old secretary from Manchester, lost touch with her sister four years ago.

"At 42, my sister wasn’t planning on having another baby. With two teenage sons, she thought her family was complete and so the news that she was pregnant was a surprise to say the least.

"My husband and I had married late in life, so having a family of our own was never on our horizon, but we were both youth pastors, so we never lacked the joy of caring for children.

"When my sister confided in me, she asked me not to tell anyone, as it was still quite early in the pregnancy and she wanted to wait until she’d passed the 12-week stage before telling their boys. She didn’t want them hearing second hand and, apart from anything, she and her husband wanted time to come to terms with the news.

"I never intended to betray her, but I’m ashamed to admit I couldn’t stop myself sharing the news with my best friend. I still don’t know what made me do it. Maybe I was excited or perhaps I felt like a bit of attention. I’ll never know. Anyway, within a couple of days, the news was out.

"We were in the local grocery shop when a neighbour came over to congratulate her. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment my sister gave me. I was mortified and furious with myself for indulging in gossip.

"Sadly, a few days shy of her 12-week milestone, my sister lost the baby and from then on things were never the same between us. She and her husband moved house a year later and we drifted further apart.

"Ironically, I’m the one who professes a Christian faith. I should have known better. Doesn’t the Bible warn us about getting involved with tittle-tattle? Oh the trouble and the pain an unguarded tongue can inflict.

"My heart aches with regret and I feel so guilty that I have caused this situation. I’ve kept in touch with my nephews through social media but, so far, my sister keeps her distance. I do miss her, but all I can do is wait, pray and hope that she will eventually forgive me.”

My father was a bully

Pauline*, a 42-year-old physiotherapist from Scotland, severed contact with her dad over 20 years ago.

"After years of allowing my dad to chip away at my self-esteem, I decided, for the sake of my mental wellbeing, I had to cut him out of my life. It sounds harsh, but only someone who has been in my situation could understand.

"I grew up in a working class family in Glasgow and my dad believed sparing the rod would spoil the child. Although he reserved the physical punishments for my brothers, he used an equally painful weapon – words – on me. His sarcasm was lethal and just a few well-chosen comments could strip away every ounce of confidence, filling me with self-doubt and anxiety.

"The worst part was that to the outsider, he appeared to be a devout Christian and a charismatic preacher. But behind closed doors, he was a drunk and a bully. He cheated on my mum, then told us she was making his life a misery by accusing him of having affairs when it was all in her imagination.

"Things came to a head on my 19th birthday when dad and I got into a bit of spat. I’d always been a self-conscious child and, with a skinny frame and red hair, I wasn’t the prettiest youngster in the class and was bullied mercilessly. By 19, I’d grown into my looks and was happier with my appearance. But on the day in question, my dad was teasing me.

"It began light-hearted enough, but it took a cruel twist when, in front of my boyfriend, he said he’d often wondered if I was his because surely he couldn’t have had such an ugly child. It wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever said but, in that moment, I realised that my father was my biggest bully. He had instilled and fed my insecurities. Everything I did was wrong and nothing would ever please him.

"I realised our relationship was toxic, so I decided to walk away. We haven’t spoken since and he has never tried to contact me. I’m now married with children and I’d hate for them to experience what I did. I know that if my dad had been in their life, they too would have been a target for his derision. I don’t know how that sits with my faith, but I believe God is all knowing and infinitely wise. He is also just. So l leave my future with him."

Lorraine Wylie is a freelance writer based in Belfast
*Names have been changed

Can the rift ever be healed?

Penelope Wilcock, who has experienced family estrangements herself, offers a way forward for anyone struggling with difficult relationships

The bond between parent and child is arguably the deepest and most abiding of human relationships. A young child’s irrational devotion to father or mother is the purest form of unconditional love you will ever see. And a parent may become like a tiger in defending a child under perceived threat. A parent may count it no loss to sacrifice anything — even life itself — for the child’s wellbeing. When we hear the story Jesus told of the Prodigal Son, and picture the father watching and waiting, running down the road to embrace his errant child, it isn’t hard to imagine.

So, why do things go wrong? How do parents and their children become estranged? It often happens either when a change takes place within the family, when the roles and relationships are freighted with strong expectations, or when it proves impossible to achieve recognition of serious ongoing problems. There can often be a triggering event, which pushes a relationship, teetering on the brink, over the edge into estrangement. Let’s explore examples of some of those issues.

The sort of change that can end in family members becoming estranged might be when either a parent or an adult child finds a new partner. If the new step-parent and adult child cannot get on and serious hostility develops, a rift can easily result — between child and parent as well as the step-relations. If a child comes out as homosexual or transgender, and introduces a same-sex partner, this can be unacceptable to the family, resulting in estrangement.

Examples of strong expectations bringing about estrangement may include parents who require levels of academic attainment or business success, or when a sense of shame and failure end in distancing. It’s important to realise that the expectations may not be at all unreasonable. If your child is a heavy drinker, an extreme hoarder, a gambler, or involved in a criminal lifestyle, parental disapproval may be justifiable. Is it that, or the unacceptable behaviour, causing the estrangement?

Ongoing problems that go unrecognised could include sexual abuse by a family member, that the parent refuses to acknowledge — and the abused child may feel there is no choice but to sever all connection, hurt by the parent’s refusal to listen as well as by the abuse.

And triggering events might include a difficult family Christmas, or the death of the one family member who held everyone together.

What should you do if this happens to you? It easily might; family estrangements are very common. If you are the one rejected, the first step is to allow the other person both space and agency. Many people estranged from their families feel vilified, and feel their voice was unheard or denied within their family. They often feel that they have tried hard to make things work, but been rebuffed. Or they may feel overwhelmed by their family’s attitudes and expectations, and find it easier to distance themselves than try to meet what is required of them. So someone choosing estrangement often feels emotionally battered and exhausted. Insistence on seeing them, pursuing them, or telling them they are wrong for severing the relationship, or blaming them for causing hurt, will only deepen the rift.

The attempts at reconciliation with the best chance of long-lasting success are those characterised by respect for the other person’s viewpoint and reality, even if you feel it is wrong or comes from someone else’s influence. Acknowledging the other person’s perspective, and respecting their boundaries, will be essential in rebuilding healthy communication.

The wisest thing may be to keep links of communication open yet not demanding — perhaps send a friendly (but not strongly emotional) greetings card and gift on their birthday or at Christmas, so they know they are thought of kindly.

If it was you who sought estrangement and now want to be reconciled, choose a time when people are more likely to approach the matter calmly (not late at night, or on Christmas Day, or at a funeral). It’s important to ensure everyone involved is willing to redraw the lines of engagement, or — if they seem incapable of doing so — you must carefully think through how to establish and maintain your boundaries.

If the estrangement persists — or even if you are hopeful of reconciliation — you will need to have some strategies to help you cope with this most painful and distressing set of circumstances.

To help you refrain from pressuring or overwhelming someone who would rather not see you, or equally to help you if you feel bruised by persistent rejection, try not to let yourself become too isolated. Solitude tends to make people obsessive, and brooding alone on problems won’t help you achieve a balanced perspective.

It’s a good idea to nurture your friendship links, taking opportunities to widen your circle of friends and deepen existing friendships. Talk through your feelings about the estrangement with those you trust. As you do so, try to make sure you include positive and kind observations about the one from whom you are estranged — don’t make it a character assassination or push others in your close circle into taking sides. If you can, find the courage to stay open to different viewpoints, even if they are hard to understand.

Though other family members can be supportive, they can also exacerbate the problems. You (or they) may feel that this is like walking on eggshells, constantly afraid of giving offence. If you decide you don’t want connection even with the wider family, be kind about this, but be clear.

Keeping physically active lifts the mood — walking in the fresh air, or gardening. Sometimes watching a cheerful TV programme (a quiz, or about cooking or the countryside, not a Swedish Noir murder) can take your mind off unhappy situations. Quietly laying your troubles before God in prayer always helps. Blessing the one from whom you are estranged (“I bless you [name] with the love of the Lord”), in the quietness of your heart, is powerful medicine.

But what if you’ve done everything you can think of and still aren’t coping, or you just want someone to help you understand the situation better?

The organisation Stand Alone offers support services for people experiencing family estrangement. Their advice pages online are informative, and may help you come to terms with what has happened and find a way forward. If you’d like to find a counsellor or therapist experienced in family estrangement, Stand Alone has a list of recommended professionals to whom you can turn.

You can find them online at www.standalone.org.uk, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/standaloneworldwide. If the internet is difficult for you, you can write
to them at 34B York Way, London N1 9AB.

If you feel depressed or suicidal about your estrangement, can’t manage the internet and don’t want to wait for an exchange of letters, you can call the Samaritans, free, any time, on any phone, on 116 123. Or you could talk to your GP or your minister.

Whatever the outcome, remember the net of heaven is wide — the love of God has room for us all. He holds you and your estranged family member in that healing love.