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  • Writer's pictureDr. D


I just read an interesting book, Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, by Harriet Brown.

Ms. Brown presents individuals who have had significant difficulty with family. The subjects in Ms Brown’s book fall into two camps: those who embrace estrangement from their families as a way of saving themselves, and those who have been estranged by family member(s) but don’t understand why.

The author herself was estranged from her mother. The woman belittled her from the

author’s earliest childhood. Ms. Brown knew that keeping her mother in her life was only going to undermine her happiness. Therefore, she distanced herself from the woman to the point of no contact, sometimes for years.

Family as a source of support and pain

Everyone recalls at least some painful experiences related to a parent or other family member. Human interactions are messy.

However, not all negative memories reach the level of pushing us to rid our lives of that person completely.

While something monumental may occur to cause us to remove ourselves from family, more likely it’s the “death by a thousand cuts.” The person doing the estranging has felt the hurt of many things building up over time. Finally, the resentment boils over and the person opts to leave.

Try an emotional divorce

There are many people who find that family is a huge source of emotional stress and pain. Yet they feel that they can’t just cut off contact. For some it’s the belief that to honor their mother and father means keeping them in their lives no matter what.

They still feel the slights, the put downs. They become anxious or depressed at the prospect of seeing family members. They dread the holidays where they will have to be around them.

But even though they know they would be better off abandoning these hurtful people, they simply can’t or won’t do it. For these individuals, I suggest an “emotional divorce.” By this I mean, not permitting the contact to cause pain.

What it takes to have an emotional divorce.

Sometimes patients tell me their mother “shouldn’t” say the things she does or that it’s wrong for their fathers to act like they do. They constantly hope that family will act differently and are disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

To these people I point out that their family isn’t likely to change. That means, either the person avoids the family, the source of their hurt and disappointment, or they themselves will have to change how they feel and act.

But I’m not the one doing the hurtful things

It doesn’t matter that you did nothing wrong. You’re the one who’s hurting. So if you’re going to be around the people who cause you pain, you must develop strategies so that their behavior doesn’t harm you.

I had a patient, I’ll call her Sally. She was constantly disappointed that her parents expected her to be supportive of them and her younger siblings, yet never acknowledged her accomplishments or needs. She was sad for days after an interaction with them.

She needed an emotional divorce.

We discussed that she could not change her parents. And, it was unlikely they would do so on their own as they didn’t appear to see or care that there was a problem.

If she was going to continue to be around them, she had to accept her parents as they were. She was simply not going to get her needs met by them no matter how much she wished otherwise. Sally had to go somewhere else to get the emotional support she needed.

She passed the test.

We worked on this for quite a while. Sally slowly let go of the disappointment. Her parents would not act the way she thought they should. She would continue to see and be around them because she couldn’t accept doing otherwise. That acceptance made the hurt go away.

Finally a huge event occurred. Sally received a promotion to a top level position. It carried a substantial boost in pay and prestige in her company. She was rightfully proud and wanted to share the good news.

By now, she knew she would let her parents know, but not expect them to share her enthusiasm. She would accept that this was who they were and how they acted, but not let it hurt her.

Sally called her mother and told her about the promotion. True to form, her mother said “that’s nice,” Then she changed the subject, complaining about something Sally had said many years before. After listening briefly, Sally signed off.

She called her father. His response was “It’s about time. You’ve been there so long you must have been passed over a lot.“ Sally listened politely for a few minutes about her father’s concern that her brother wasn’t being treated well in his job and how lucky she was to have more understanding employers. Then, saying she had to go, Sally hung up.

Her next calls were to three friends who had encouraged her to apply for the job and were rooting for her. An hour later, two of the three were on her doorstep with champagne and an invitation to dinner. The third friend would meet them at the restaurant once she got off work.

In other words, Sally got the positive strokes she wanted and earned. But it didn’t come from her biological family.

And she knew it wouldn’t.

She felt the need to include them because she couldn’t accept doing otherwise . Instead, the support came from the “family” of people who were able to give her what she needed.

What to do if you can’t or won’t leave.

Ms. Brown presented that estrangement from family can be a good and necessary thing. I agree with her. I also realize, though, that not everyone is able or willing to do this. For these people an emotional divorce is necessary.

If you’re one of these latter people, below are some DO's and DON'Ts:


1. Expect that the family member(s) will change

2. Keep hoping that the situation will improve on its own.

3. Use the lack of support from family as an excuse for not achieving what you want in



  1. Accept the family for who they are

  2. Accept that you have made a choice to keep family in your life. Other choices are possible as well

  3. Find other people or groups that can give you the support and connectedness you want and need.

  4. Choose to be happy without expecting anyone else, especially family, to make it happen. It's up to you.

Image of people divided by: © Can Stock Photo Inc. /michaeldb

Image of hand and wedding ring by: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / xilius


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