Hi Page, I enjoyed your open letter to your mother. I don’t have a difficult relationship with my own parents, so it was very eye opening to me. I do have friends whose situation is similar to yours though. The holidays are coming up soon, and I’ve heard that they can be a tough time for people estranged from their families. How can I support them? How can I be there for my friends?
1. Assume that they have good reasons for being estranged from their family.
I’ve listed this point first for a reason. It’s the #1 mistake that people tend to make that ends up leading to unsupportive behavior towards an individual who is estranged from their own family: Assuming that the estrangement is a mistake and something that could be easily cleared up.
I’ve found this is rarely, if ever, the case. Family estrangement can be extremely painful, and it typically makes an individual’s life harder. Therefore it’s not a step that people take or a condition that they maintain lightly.
If you see someone with a bad family relationship, you should probably assume that they have good reasons for keeping their distance.
2. Accept that you might not know everything that’s going on or the entire story about why estrangement occurred.
This goes hand in hand with point #1.
When it comes to family estrangement, there’s usually a backstory you aren’t aware of, unless you are incredibly close to someone and they trust you enough to talk about it.
You might think that the reason they don’t talk to their family is over some silly misunderstanding or fight. But in actuality, there could be additional factors involved, like a history of child abuse, domestic violence, or molestation. Something that person really doesn’t want to talk about.
For example, in one large scale study of family estrangement, 77% of people estranged from their mothers had been abused by them.
People shouldn’t have to tell you that for you to be understanding that people might have very good reasons for maintaining their distance from their family.
If you’re trying to be supportive, default to assuming they know what’s best for their life.
3. Do not advise them to make up with their family.
Unsolicited advice is always a risky proposition, often irritating the person you’re giving it to more than helping them. And this is especially so when you’re telling an estranged person to repair difficult family relationships.
Your heart may very well be in the right place when you advise a friend to consider burying the hatchet with a family member, but you’re not telling them anything new. You’re not offering a unique and novel solution. People who are estranged from their families have considered doing this already (and likely many, many times) and have opted not to (at least for the time being) — again for reasons you might not be aware of. And things that frankly aren’t necessarily any of your business and might very well upset you unnecessarily were you to know the entire story.
Rest assured that if and when someone feels like they want to repair those relationships, they will. They always know that option is open to them, for them to make overtures on their side at least (it’s important to note that they don’t have any control over how those gestures are accepted by their family members).
4. Do not tell them they will regret the estrangement if that person dies before they can reconcile.
Another common thing that people tend to do to people estranged from their families that is very unsupportive is to remind them that we only live so long and that family members might die with these issues unresolved.
This is also not new information. People who are estranged from their families already know this. We are all mortal.
People who are estranged from their families have generally thought through that specific scenario: The one in which their family member dies before they can repair their relationship.
You’re also over-claiming. You have no idea how that person is going to feel if their family member dies during estrangement. Grief is an extremely complicated and individual emotional process. Some people who are estranged from their families grieve harder for those family members when they pass and indeed experience regret about the estrangement. But others don’t experience any regret at all.
Grief doesn’t follow logical, predictable patterns.
5. Understand that family estrangement can take many different forms.
Generally speaking, family estrangement can take a variety of different forms. It’s not just the situations in which there’s no contact. Instead, according to the experts who study it, family estrangement occurs when at least one member of a family distances themselves from at least one other family member on purpose due to a difficult relationship.
Sometimes this can indeed look like a complete clean break — but other times it’s a lot messier than that. There’s intermittent contact, off and on, a series of fights, absences and reunions, over the years.
So it’s very likely that you know more people who are estranged from their families to some degree than you realize.
6. Consider throwing a friend-themed holiday event.
Like many other people, every year I throw a Thanksgiving dinner for my friends that I call Friendsgiving. Typically I do this a weekend or two after Thanksgiving proper.
It’s been a real emotional lifesaver for friends I have who are also estranged from their families or who can’t make it to see their families on the holiday for other reasons (for example, they live far away, work weird schedules and don’t have the day off, etc.).
And it’s also been great for my friends who celebrate traditionally with their families. They often bring leftovers from those dinners and use the gathering as a place to decompress from family drama. Y’know, regale us with tales of things their uncle argued with their father about. That sort of thing.
7. Consider inviting them to your family celebration.
I may be estranged from my family of origin, but my in-laws adore me and have basically adopted me. My mother and father-in-law are also estranged from their parents (for very valid, very personal reasons), so they’ve been extremely understanding of my own circumstances. They’ve also informed my husband and me that if we ever had a friend who didn’t have anyone to celebrate holidays with that they’d be welcome at the family dinner.
So that’s always an option if you want to be supportive of someone. Please bear in mind that some people with difficult family situations might say no to you because they don’t want to impose — or they might find celebrating the holidays with another family a painful reminder of what they left behind. Please don’t take that personally if they do.
But even in those cases, people generally are flattered to be invited.
In any event, I’m happy to hear that you want to be supportive of your friends. That is awesome! And really, that’s most of it — just the desire to help and not assuming that your friends are making a mistake by maintaining some distance.
Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.