Lets talk stigma – How do people experience family relationship breakdown?

This post is based upon a survey ‘Hidden Voices. Family estrangement in adulthood’(2015) and if you missed part one, you can read it here. It explains what estrangement is and it gives facts and figures about it. I discuss abuse in today’s post, if that is something you don’t want to read about (now), you’re welcome to check my other posts out. I just want to be upfront about it.

We know that opening up about estrangement helps. It helps to share your story, your burden if you will.

Photo credits click here.

What happens when people open up about their experiences?

According to the survey quite a few people found it very helpful to talk with close friends or their partner. 96% of people in a relationship opened up to their partner. I myself found it very difficult to open up about it to Pierre because I’ve lost people in the past ‘due to my story’. I was very afraid to be considered ‘too damaged’ and not ‘normal enough’ to be viewed as a woman worthy of love and a relationship. I waited ‘till the time was there and we spend all evening around a bonfire talking about my childhood and teenage years. He listened the whole time without interrupting me and finally said that he was happy with whatever I decided to do. Now he does notice sometimes ‘strange’ behaviors on my side but is lovingly enough to let them be.

“I am lucky that I have people in my life who will listen and support me and help me reaffirm that I am an OK person. At times, I have experienced profound depression around this situation; it is so nice to know that I am loved and valued.”

“They listen, they care, they love me. I am seen as a normal wonderful human being. They tell me none of it was my fault, they try to help me get rid of the guilt.”

When you find people who accept you as you are, it can counteract past experiences. I am accepted into my family-in-law. It took me years to ‘trust’ them enough to let them into my heart. I could not stand the thought to trust and love someone again, just to be discarded. So it took me time but now I see proof that I am an ok person to be around without going the extra mile to people please.

Sometimes people were met with not very helpful reactions. Let’s see what respondents[1] had to say:

Sometimes people avoid me because I have so many problems.

Tension, awkwardness, distance—treating me as though I’m odd or broken, and should be kept at arm’s length.

The majority of respondents (68%) felt that there is stigma surrounding estrangement. Perceptions of stigma were similar across genders, ages and the nature of estrangement experienced (from parents, siblings and children).

Source: Hidden Voices. (2015.)

When asked why there is stigma around estrangement, some key components came to light.

  1. Judgement and the assumptions of fault/ blame

“That I must be an awful person to not talk to my family, or to be rejected by my family or be rejecting of my family.”

I’ve met this one and it can be so very subtle. I had a colleague who I really liked. She was friendly, funny and we get along quite well. We had similar views on the work we did and sometimes we could laugh-cry like there was no tomorrow. One time after work we went for dinner, to chat, and parts of my story about going no-contact with my mom came out. I just remember that strange look in her eyes. I don’t blame her, it was her natural response. She didn’t ask too much questions but the very next day our friendship sunk below zero. No hard words or anything. Just no words. No contact. After those experiences you can feel very strange and weird about yourself. Like you’re stained or cursed. Of course the words of my mom echoed in my head: ‘Once they get to know the real you, no-one will like you.’ I often thought I was to blame for the mess I got myself in. To not experience more loss of friends or being ‘looked at’ I kept my story to me. When it was important to share I shared pieces but never not the whole story. It was too much. 

2. A contradiction of expectations of family life

“Honor your mother and father,” in one phrase. People tend to minimize things, too, “all families have difficulties.” Yes and I understand that reaction. People are willing to help, they want to mend things and make it better. Only, emotional abuse is so discrete I may say, it can be so silent. It plays out in your own mind. When you don’t know who you are, how can you tell your story? Reactions as ‘all families have difficulties’ can be true but what measuring stick is used to define ‘difficulties?’

‘Honor your mother and father’, is one that is maybe not heard out loud from other people but this one is felt beneath your skin. It crawls there, it eats away at your conscience. From my mom I heard that loud and clear. After she beat me, she demanded that I would kiss her hands, ‘the hands that fed me’. She was also deeply religious (?) so I heard the 10 commandments more than enough. But I think that most people like to have their view of families left intact. Imagine the picket white fence with 2.4 children, a dog and good neighbors. There are many ‘new’ families now, blended ones and people adapt to that. Describing your own mother as not loving or caring, can be a step too much for someone. In my experience at least.

3. A lack of understanding or experience

“If I had been seriously physically or sexually abused by my family, I feel people would be more accepting of the estrangement. But emotional abuse and neglect is more ambiguous. I feel that in the opinion of others, this is not a valid reason to cut contact with parents.”

This quote is quite rough. By putting it here I do not want to minimize suffering that people endured. In any form. Abuse is wrong. In the past, in the present and in the future. That is my personal view on it. The point I’m trying to make is that emotional scars are not visible but there are there. Some forms of abuse or more talked about than others. People can grasp the wrongdoing in regards to sexual or physical abuse more clearly. It is clearly not acceptable.

So now over to you in the comments. Do you experience(d) estrangement and the stigma that can come along? How do you deal with that?


Notes, references and sources.

[1] All quotes are taken from the ‘Hidden Voices.

30 thoughts on “Lets talk stigma – How do people experience family relationship breakdown?

  1. Great article!

    I did not know there was so much stigma around family estrangement and honestly, this has shocked me. I too am pretty much estranged from my father but as most of the people around me do not know much about my relationship with him, I haven’t really received any reactions to be honest.

    And the fact that you have lost people because of your story is also shocking to me – like, I do know that everyone is different but I just cannot understand why some people judge others for living the lives they want to – and in most of the cases, the judgment comes from people who do not even know the entire story. Anyways, I do not want to be hypocritical because I might look as if I was judging the people who judge others but…really..I hope that one day, our societies will be much more open-minded and accepting.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It isn’t fun to deal with it, I can tell you that. But I genuinely feel that it stems from not being in touch with those kind of stories combined with a persistent view of a happy family, the cornerstone of our society.
      I feel that people shy away from the subject because of these believes. People like some kind of happy ending.
      I hope I can break a bit of the stigma surrounding it, simply by writing about it.
      So thank you for reading and commenting, it does help the case 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m in a different place, one that I chose, due to general family toxicity. It’s me basically, saying goodbye to pretty much all of my family. I don’t need them. They’ve done nothing but provide terrible examples of humanity for me. Unfortunately, that’s how things are. And, this is all new to me to boot, but so am adjusting pretty well. I will also say that verbal abuse and neglect, are very damaging (along with other forms of abuse), and we are no strangers to stigma. Be well, my friend!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Yup, I’ve still got a close person in my life pressuring me to resume contact with the parent who threw me under the bus for personal gain both before and after several CSA events. People always want to tell you that you have family, but when they support the rancid toxicity in your nuclear unit, that family is worse than a set of clear enemies, because they are the hidden enemy that no one wants to acknowledge.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes that is nicely worded about toxicity in a nuclear unit. I can agree with that.

      It is difficult when someone tries to tell you what to do, because it is what – maybe is most fitted for the broader public – but it isn’t necessarily true for one individual.

      Thank you for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly: what most individuals assume to be the case for all/the vast majority does not fit in this particular case, and I think that most of us are not trained to look for variances in the norm. Take care, and stay safe.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I wrote a long comment here but deleted it because it got too rambling. In summary:
    I think that you are right and we do perform a risk assessment on potential partners. Selt preservation. Well, we perform a risk assessment on everybody, but with a partner, the damage will be greater. In Pierre’s case, he obviously saw enough potential in you to be worth the risk. Sorry, not very flattering, but it resolves to that. (Let’s hope he still feels that way 😆).
    Your ex-colleague – does not make sense, for that same-ish reason.
    I am interested in your mother – how important did she view overall family links? You know, as in blood is thicker than water etc. etc.? Was she maybe a disappointment because you were not so? I thought my mum was a bit like that, although we never fell out to the same extent as you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think Pierre still feels that way as living together goes very well and we do get along great. Even as we are together 24/7 because of Corona.
      As for my mum, she never like the fact that I got along great with my aunt. We used to talk and enjoy each others company.
      My mum used to gossip quite a lot about all family members and she didn’t show them a lot of compassion. She *says* she does care a lot and she does but it needs to be like she thinks it needs to be.
      For example, she really encouraged my uncle to taste Belgian beer even he kicked the habit of drinking years ago. She couldn’t understand that that wasn’t appropriate.
      I think she can hold on to family relationship because we all live in different countries and everybody has his own life.
      I have no idea what she tells my family about me.
      I think when it’s possible to let each other be and maybe not having a great bond but still be in touch can count for something, like you did with your mum.
      Thank you for commenting! I’m glad I can write about it and that I’m not judged while telling my story. In person it’s much more difficult for me but blogging feels fine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. probably because ultimately, on here, you are anonymous. I am the same, I would not have ever been comfortable posting about my daughter, for example, without anonymity.
        It was a very deliberate decision for me to start the blog anonymously, just because it would give me more freedom to be “me”. Although at that time I never anticipated that I would ever post about my daughter.
        At least this way, people might think I am a bastard and leave a nasty comment (although nobody ever did) but at least I am safe from people tracking me down.

        Do you mind if I ask, by the way? Pierre is obviously a French name. Is he a Walloon originally or do people’s names there tend to propagate across to Flanders. I am guessing he is Belgian by birth.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Anonymity plays a huge role in it. I still have some fear one day someone will find out who I am. I try to be careful about the information I give but that’s sometimes difficult because my blog is so personal. On the other hand, it strengthens me to open up on my blog first. I feel it can support me to express myself better in real life too because I had an elaborate chance to think it all through and to select carefully the right words.
        People don’t leave me nasty comments either, which was a big surprise. I guess the written language has some benefits to it as you need to think a little more before you type while a facial expression goes much quicker.
        As for the names here, some are used in both parts. We do have French names like Christophe, Dominique, etc. Sometimes the style of writing them can differ, some people prefer ‘Kristof’ to ‘Christophe’ but both are very common.
        Till May ’68 the leading language was French here. Even at uni all the courses were given in French. Then there were riots and Dutch or Flemish are used now primarily.
        French was the language for more wealthy people and still has traces here ’till this day. For example, a popular drink from Antwerp is called ‘Elexir d’Anvers’.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Gosh, I never realised that as recently as 1968 was the turning point. I see places like LKuxembourg still have French as the “official” language, despite nobody ever using it, and I never dremed that Be comes from that same stable.
        You’re right about the blog helping your thoughts to be more coherent, by the way. I have found that too. My raw thoughts are always there as the basis, but presenting them helps them to be coherent.
        Not that politicians use blogs, but one might imagine a politician rehearsing their argument thousands of times, going up all sorts of blind alleys etc. before they settle on the most convincing way of putting an argument across. Okay, maybe not any more 😆. But we bloggers are the same, our blog often serves as a braindump.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It would help them be coherent, at least.
        Actually, you remind me, when I was young and ideallistic I had an idea of giving my children (for I would have 2.4!) French names. I think what put me off was that I had a French friend called Agnes (a lovely name), and I saw how horribly mispronounced hed hame was in English.
        In the end, I settled on Solomon for the boy and Cedella for the girl (even though I was nowhere near meeting their mother yet!)
        As it happened, when I finally did have my daughter, my wife chose the name (which happened to be an accepted English name of German origin) and I had no say in the matter.
        When my sil was later pregnant, I happened to mention that if I ever had a boy, I wanted to call him Solomon, she said “that’s a nice name”, and lo and behold, my nephew is Solomon!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. We can plan ahead but it always turns out to be different in life.
        The pronunciation is something to take into consideration.
        I once new a Solomon, very handsome boy with a nice name 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. As you know Kacha, I’m very fortunate to have relationships with my family and I can only imagine what your estrangement from your mother felt like to you. Oh my word tho’ — your work friend — “….but the very next day our friendship sunk below zero. No hard words or anything. Just no words. No contact.” That’s terrible and no wonder you felt unable to trust others enough to open up again!

    I’m happy to know that you’ve come through that with Pierre and his family, they sound almost as wonderful as you are 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much Caz! With Pierre and his family I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I’ve never could have imagined life being so good to me. I know I can overcome all of this. Thank you for reading my story and your kind words. Every post helps me a bit on my journey to recovery, x

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I used to wear a mask and not really talk about it. I pretended that everything is perfect. It feels like a cage and I am constantly scared of them. Sometimes I think being followed by a murderer is safer as compared to living at home.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Holding up a brave appearance is what got me moving forward in life ’till it didn’t anymore.
      It’s hard to be in constant stress and fear. Even now I do have my ‘weird’ behaviors that stem from years ago. It takes time to let all of that go and I don’t know if I will be able to let all of it go.
      But I do feel better than back in the days. I don’t know how I lived through it but I did. It is worth it as I feel the best is yet to come. It just have to.
      Sharing my story helps me to get out of that cage too. When I can make connections with others, I know that there is a world outside that cage. A world where I don’t (always) have to pretend that everything is all right. Where I can breathe and be ‘me’.
      I hope life turn around for you too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your comment makes me feel better. I hope you get enough strength to deal with what you go through. Unlike you I can’t directly write about it but still my work has autobiographical elements in it. Writing down whatever goes on lessens the amount of pain I feel.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m too new in the estrangement to have clear opinions about my situation, beyond a deep gratitude that you are writing about estrangement. My thoughts skitter away whenever I mention I’m estranged, I’m wondering how to explain things to any new job requiring background checks while protecting my privacy. I wonder how to explain to people without outing myself as an abuse survivor or an LGBTQ person.

    My parents and I aren’t formally estranged – it’s simply a deafening silence from my father, and my mother trying to manipulate siblings to get me to contact her.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s not easy to explain while not giving all the details, especially when you find yourself in a new surrounding like work or new friends. I guess you’ll need to try some things out how to address the situation.
      I usually say that I’m not getting along with my mother. My father I don’t know, so that easier to tell. Sometimes I tell that ‘it’s fine’ which isn’t a lie either.
      We don’t have background checks at work here, except for legal paperwork so I don’t really know how that works.
      For me it was more difficult the other way around as there was information on me on the website of my work. My mother called my workplace telling them a story that it was really urgent …. 🙄
      Thank you for commenting and reading! I don’t know when I’ll write something more about estrangement as I can’t cope with going on and on about it. I need to take a break from the subject as it still is something painful and overwhelming to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It saddens me that so many people jump to the conclusion that the estranged person is at fault for the estrangement. I know it feels awkward to ask questions about an uncomfortable subject, but it seems like it would be better to ask and learn enough to understand rather than simply end an otherwise pleasant relationship. I’m sorry you’ve had that experience of reaching out only to receive rejection, and very glad that Pierre honored the trust you gave him with acceptance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Since the experience with my colleague, I’ve encountered much more positive reactions. Many of them here online 🙂
      When you keep on reaching out, you’ll find some like minded folks out there but sometimes you need to look very good 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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