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How My 15-Year Maternal Estrangement Led to Reconciliation

“Estrangement is often a similar attempt to reduce the hold that the parent continues to have over the adult child. However painful the separation, many adult children report that ending the relationship with the parent was the only way they could find to take control over their own lives. To consider reconciling, an adult child needs to feel assured that they can return to the estrangement if they decide that reconciliation was a bad idea.” –Joshua Coleman

Family Estrangement

Family estrangement occurs when at least one family member distances themselves from another due to longstanding conflicts in their relationship. It can last for months or years. Alternatively, it can cycle through intermittent periods of communication and reconciliation, particularly for adult children estranged from their mothers. Family estrangement occurs between parents and adult children, siblings, or other relatives.1

My drinking career began in earnest after graduating from college in 1971. From the get-go, I had a love affair with alcohol. It was an acceptable social lubricant that eased my anxiety, especially when meeting single men. After an untold number of incidents where I got sloshed, blacked out, and woke up the next morning with my head ready to explode, I finally hit bottom in my mother-in-law’s house at 2:00 am one morning. I knew then the only way I could redeem myself was to get sober.

Raw Reality

So, in 1985 at age 35, I attended AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings to address my drinking problem. After removing the alcohol, I was forced to face the raw emotional underpinnings of abuse for the first time. I knew then that I could not see or speak to my mother for some time. She had, in effect, been buried, but still preserved, underneath my 14-year drinking career, camouflaged and supplanted by other people, places, and things. Without the anesthetizing effect of alcohol to buffer deep emotional pain, the harsh reality of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood came into sharp focus.

When I initiated the estrangement with my mother, I did not communicate my intention to her or other family members. I simply stopped communicating with her by letter or phone. For one of my birthdays, I was so intent on remaining distant that I pulled the phone cord out of the wall socket, so I wouldn’t have to hear the unanswered phone ring. Meanwhile, my sobriety progressed as did my continued participation in AA.

Impact of Sobriety

I had no clue before I got sober that the elimination of alcohol would strip away psyche protection. Without my numbing agent, I could only hide my feelings behind plumes of smoke.

Sobriety marked the beginning of 15 years from 1985 to 2000, during which I did not talk to or see Mom. Newly sober, I could not see her because I was too vulnerable. I needed to focus on sobriety rather than contacting her, which could have easily triggered a relapse. It was a slippery slope that I needed to avoid.

As the estrangement period unfolded, I remained in contact with my father via letters. The relationship with my siblings was similarly distant. Over time, I felt like I was indeed outside the family system, like a third cousin living two states away.

A Double-Edged Sword

Estrangement was both relief and pain.

I was relieved that I did not have to engage with my mother. I could initially focus on my recovery from alcohol without muddying it by bringing her into the mix.

But I was still stuck with the pain from the past. Sobriety erased the chemical coverup. All the negative feelings that I had repressed for 30 years surged upward, like vomit rising in my throat. Growing up, my feelings were ignored by my authoritarian mother. She demanded unquestioned obedience, never addressing tears or negative emotions.

During the estrangement period, the heightened pain did not go away. It was immediately below the surface, expressing itself at the slightest provocation. For example, if I discussed my mother with a close friend, the conversation always ended with me in tears. I was unable to discuss her objectively or without weeping.

Holiday Depression

During the holiday season, like clockwork, the pain intensified. Every December resulted in a black depressive and angry mood for two to three weeks. All television programs or commercials depicting close family celebrations cut like a sword. I didn’t want to see them or hear them.

Causes of Estrangement

Historically, families fought over tangible resources, such as monetary inheritances and property, whether real or personal.2 They still do, but today, the estrangement of a family member may be due to other reasons.

In 2015, 804 people participated in an online survey about family estrangement, resulting in a report titled “Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood,” a joint research project of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge (U.K.) and Stand Alone, a nonprofit organization in the U.K. that provides education and support for individuals estranged from their families.3

The survey respondents were about half British with the remainder coming from the United States and other countries. The respondents were 89% female and 88% white. All participants identified as estranged from either their whole family or an immediate family member, such as their mother, father, siblings, or children. According to the survey, most estrangements between a parent and an adult child are initiated by the adult child.4

The following summarizes four of the study’s findings:

  • 90% found the Christmas period challenging.
  • 80% experienced positive outcomes of their estrangement, such as greater feelings of freedom and independence.
  • 68% felt that there was a stigma about the topic of estrangement and described feeling judged, as if they were contradicting society’s expectations. They felt there was a general lack of understanding about estrangement.
  • Factors that contributed to relationship breakdown with parents, siblings, and children include:
    • Emotional abuse.
    • Clashes based on personalities or values.
    • Different expectations about the roles of family members.

Another study by Kylie Agllias in 20165 found that estrangement may also be due to:

  • Clashes based on the choice of partner, lifestyle, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious views, or political views.
  • Abuse: physical, sexual, or failure to protect.
  • Neglect.
  • Authoritarian parenting style.
  • Unaddressed mental illness.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Destructive behavior.
  • Unsupportive behavior.
  • Bullying.
  • Betrayal: lying, embarrassing the adult child, or sabotaging or undermining the adult child’s relationships.6

The Final Straw

On July 18, 1992, seven years into sobriety, I received a letter from Mom’s lawyer advising me that due to the concerning relationship between Mom and me, he felt compelled to write a letter to inform me of Mom’s “…great disappointment in the relationship between you and she” and that this disappointment would play a part in her estate plan.

I was livid. I needed an emergency session with a therapist. After calling around, I received a reference from a friend to Beverly Engel, M.F.C.C. (Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor). Coincidentally, I had read her book, titled Divorcing a Parent. I was stunned to learn she was practicing 15 minutes from home. The emergency visit with Beverly kept me from unraveling completely, convincing her that I needed ongoing help. Financial considerations necessitated my joining her group therapy session with other abuse survivors rather than enrolling in individual therapy.

For years, Mom had held her financial hammer over my head. After decades of emotional abuse and mistreatment, she was threatening to cut me out because of our “poor relationship?” The letter was the final straw. Presumably, my mother paid the lawyer to send me the letter. I, in turn, sent copies to everyone in the family to expose Mom and her lawyer. I wanted the family to be fully aware of the legal possibility of my disinheritance and why. One of my siblings vowed to share any inheritance between the three of us and the other was noncommittal.

Letter of Confrontation

The lawyer’s letter had a devastating emotional impact on me, thrusting to the surface every negative emotion I had ever felt toward my mother. How dare she threaten me, holding her legal financial hammer over my head and attempting to blame our poor relationship on me, when she was the bully!

To complicate matters, my sister was getting married on August 21, 1993. She asked me to be her Maid of Honor. Given the lawyer’s letter, I could not imagine even being in the same room as my mother. My feelings toward her were too hostile.

Feeling contentious, I mailed a letter to Mom and confronted her with physical and emotional abuse. I cited specific examples, and I told her how I felt about the way she had treated me. She replied by letter, denying my accusations. She claimed to have never done or said the things I alleged. She didn’t recall any of it. She closed by saying that “…if I must apologize, then I do.”

If she must apologize? It was a half-baked apology for a lifetime of bullying. She only said that to prompt me to attend my sister’s wedding. I did not accept her apology. I wrote to my sister and told her I would not be at her wedding. She was devastated.

Reconciliation

Estrangements do not last forever. On average, they last about nine years. For mothers, more than five years, and for fathers, more than seven. Interestingly, more mothers are cut off by adult children than are fathers.7

In March 2000, my father died unexpectedly in a Seattle rehabilitation center from respiratory failure while recovering from a stroke.

Arriving home, Mom opened the door. It had been 15 years since I’d seen her last. She appeared shorter than I remember with short gray hair plus about 30 extra pounds. Smiling and hugging me as she greeted my sister and me, she just looked like a kindly little old lady; not the mean mother that I once knew.

Looking the Tiger in the Eye

On the last day of my 3-day visit, I walked into the kitchen and found Mom making tea. The moment I’d imagined for a lifetime was finally here. In a calm, even voice, I began telling her how I felt about the way she treated me for the first 50 years of my life. I cited specific examples of physical and emotional abuse and the impact it had on me as a child and adolescent and now as an adult. Standing at the corner of the kitchen counter, she began to weep.

As I continued speaking, she became increasingly distressed. Bent over the counter and sobbing, with her head in her hands, she repeated, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry”.

Despite her sobbing, I continued my speech, having rehearsed it in my mind dozens of times. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I told her that although she had inflicted a tremendous amount of pain on me for decades, I had forgiven her. I also stated that any future relationship with her was contingent upon mutual respect and that I would not tolerate, under any circumstances, any form of abuse from her ever again. She was silent.

I felt triumphant. I did not yell or scream. I spoke calmly and evenly; factually. It was the summation of 50 years of hurt, anger, rage, and misery spoken in a steady tone. That 10-minute verbal delivery was a constellation away from the newly sober, wounded victim of 15 years earlier.

Grown-Up

After coming back into Mom’s life after a 15-year absence, I had simply grown up. I had separated from Mom emotionally. I was no longer dependent upon her for approval or permission to do, think, or feel anything. I was an adult and we related to each other as one adult to another, rather than as a mother to a daughter.

Forgiving Mom was a priceless gift, unlike anything I imagined was possible. The 50-year obsession with her and all her dastardly deeds vanished. I no longer replayed the victim record in my head, recounting over and over to myself and to anyone who would listen, all the negative nasties she said and did. The emotional shackles fell away, my energy freed from a mental prison built of hurt and deep resentment.

I have forgiven her, but I have not forgotten.

Final Words

Survivors, if you need to distance yourself from a family member for self-preservation, give yourself that gift. With distance and perspective, you will realize whether forgiveness and/or reconciliation are in your future.

References

  1. “What is Family Estrangement?” By Susan Adcox. verywellfamily. Updated on July 2, 2021. https://www.verywellfamily.com/breakdown-of-family-estrangement-1695444
  2. A Shift in American Family Values Is Fueling Estrangement.” By Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. The Atlantic. Updated on July 28, 2022.
  3. and 4. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood.” Standalone.org.uk. https://standalone.org.uk HiddenVoices.-Press.pdf.
  4. and 7. “Family Dynamics” Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/family-dynamics/family-estrangement

Books 

5. Family Estrangement: A matter of perspective. September 22, 2016. By Kylie Agllias.

Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. March 2, 2021. By Joshua Coleman Ph.D.

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