I dearly wish that we lived in a world without family estrangement. People contact Stand Alone everyday with glum and lonely stories of family relationship breakdown. These people are mothers, fathers, sisters, children or often a multitude of these family roles. But more importantly they are from all 'angles' of estrangement: there are people who felt they had no choice but to cut contact with a family member, and there are those people who feel they have been left behind.
Commonly, when we speak of estrangement, the public assume that those who cut contact are always the young, the adult children. And equally, people imagine that it is only parents that possess the feeling of being left behind. There is no such archetype in our community - parents choose distance from their adult children, and many adult children have been ostracised or rejected by their close family. The first question that arises when I talk to others concerns the morality behind estrangement. When is it 'right' to walk away and reject a family member? Shouldn't we always have a relationship with our blood?
Estrangement invites this question of right and wrong as it rattles hard at the idea of traditional family values. However, in the absence of representative research, it's crucial to consider that estrangement is different for each person or family. The hard reality is that for the many people who do the walking away, breaking out and living alone is often safer than the culture of abuse that came before it. Exposure to an antagonistic or rejecting 'close' relationship has a negative impact on physical and mental wellbeing, which is a fact that has been well researched and documented. Thus, surprisingly to some, walking away can be the 'healthy' choice.
I feel there should be a duty of forgiveness towards the human weaknesses within families, and all family members should work to see the greater context of things. But, for me, the question of whether we should constantly expose ourselves to their abuse and rejection is a different matter entirely. In my view, society should not deliver a pressure to live life with any family member that's disrespectful or dangerous. Not an adult child, not a parent, not a sibling.
This is not a popular narrative. And there would be nothing better than to see all families be as close as we have been led to imagine. But this sadly isn't the world that we live in: family breakdown happens. People themselves are not perfect, furthermore. There are many issues that prevent people from being the good brother, mother, daughter, father or son that respects us, supports us, loves us and unconditionally stands by our side in life.
But for those of you that would say breaking contact is always wrong, I would ask a few key questions. Is it preferable that someone should suffer violence at the hands of a family member? Is it OK to be financially extorted? Is it acceptable to force chemical castration on a person? Should someone be forced into marriage against his or her will? Is it right to be belittled, told you are worthless and obsolete? Is it right for your equality, individuality and freedoms to be categorically denied?
These are not examples of tough love between family members. These are very real instances of abuse that have led to someone walking away in our community, from children and from parents and from siblings. And no family member should feel obliged to continually expose themselves to these factors for the sake of satisfying a societal myth of family togetherness.
I am heartened by seeing that there are many instances where families can overcome their difficulties, where awareness and change are possible, and the abuse or disownment can stop. The chances of this increase with the intervention of a family therapist or mediation, but are sadly lessened where orthodox religious values and indeed rigid cultural or community pressures are present. But change is possible if dialogue is possible, and if love and respect are also present.
It's not easy going into the ring with the family myth. Those that believe in its truth will pull punches to protect the idea that all families should be close and in touch. My critics may well say that I'm championing silence over unity by building support for those people who are walking away, and not exclusively providing support for the 'victims' who have been left behind. But I'm not sure the people who are left behind should universally be entitled to claim victimhood, as some (but not all) may have had some part to play in the breakdown itself.
If we only see estrangement as a violation of our mythical notion of family togetherness, instead of understanding it as a coping mechanism for protecting individual physical and mental wellbeing, we're encouraging a literally unhealthy culture. And suggesting that we should support only those who feel left behind will only scapegoat estrangement as the problem with dysfunctional families, when it is the culture and instances of abuse that should be vilified
I understand that if we lived in a perfect society, where greater intervention in family culture was accepted, there may not be so much estrangement in society. This is something I would absolutely encourage, but sadly something that is very stigmatised for families. Stand Alone was formed so that people suffering in family estrangement could come together, and receive judgement-free support in whatever choice they think is healthiest for them.
Therefore, we must stop being so reductive with the idea of family estrangement and thinking in notions of right and wrong. And we must allow people their rights to freedom and individual choice, and allow each and every person to tell us about the existence they feel is healthiest.