“You’re dead to me.” One woman shares her experience of estrangement.

by | Sep 7, 2021 | Estrangement

According to research by the national charity, StandAlone, one in five families in the UK will be affected by estrangement. Here, one woman addresses – in a letter she will never send – the impact of a family member cutting her out of her life.

“I had sensed there was something wrong between us, but I never dreamt it would lead to you not talking to me for three years. There was no big bust up, no confrontation. You just stopped calling for a chat or to invite me out for a drink. When I saw you at social gatherings, you avoided eye contact and seemed taciturn. I put it down to you not feeling yourself or feeling stressed or preoccupied with something. I expected you to ‘get over’ whatever it was, and we’d be back to normal. But over a few weeks, you became more and more distant until, one day, you stopped speaking to me all together.

Harmful

“At first, I was perplexed. My calls went unanswered, so I tried texting and emailing you. I told you how much I was missing you and apologised for any hurt I had caused you. I acknowledged that there must have been something I’d done to upset you though I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. I spent weeks agonising about our final exchanges, going over conversations in minute detail, checking out with family members what it was I might have done. As the months passed, my distress never once abated. I started to lose trust in myself. I worried that perhaps I was unaware of something in my character or my behaviour that was damaging to you and, potentially others too. This line of enquiry led to me believing I was repellent or harmful to others.

“I experienced your silence as rejection blended with a voiceless anger. And while I knew you must be feeling hurt, there was also a terrible power in your silence, or maybe it was an act of taking back power that you believed I had usurped.

“Your silence felt like an accusation that could not be addressed, answered, or defended. Without the articulation of specific grounds for your anger – if anger was what it was – I could only conclude that you were not responding to what I had done but to who I was. I was therefore denied the relative comfort of guilt and the possibility that I might make amends for my wrongdoing. Instead, I felt such overwhelming shame that I started to withdraw from friends and family.

Missing

“It is now three years since we last talked. You haven’t died. You haven’t gone missing. And yet you are dead to me, lost to me though you are still very much in the world. I left the place we both lived to create a life without you and without the possibility of bumping into you. Birthdays, anniversaries have passed unmarked though I feel a pang in the run up to them: on cue, an old wound plays up. The silence between us impacted our family profoundly: like the movement of tectonic plates, the division runs deep with little prospect of reconciliation.

“Since I don’t know what it is that I did to hurt you, I have had to find comfort in theories I have postulated for our estrangement. My relationship with you continues in this contemplative space. I tell myself that your silence was the only way you could express a deep hurt, that estrangement was somehow necessary for you to recover and heal and in that process, our relationship was collateral damage. I tell myself that I had done nothing wrong and, if I had caused hurt, I would have gladly apologised and made amends if given the opportunity to do so. But I had no control over your anger or distress and since you were either unable or unwilling to express how I might have hurt you I could not offer you the gift of my contrition, a gift, incidentally, that would have relieved me of a torment.

“At my lowest moments, I imagine your silence as a cruel and punitive gesture. In calmer moments, I perceive in our estrangement a sickness, a trauma for which my exile was the only cure. Mostly, I have accommodated your absence in my life, and only occasionally do I feel the grief of it and when I do, I know my heart is broken.

Legacy 

“As we get older, I wonder how our estrangement might impact the various rites of passage of our family members – the hatch, match and despatch of our little tribe? You will not share in the joy of my grandchildren, nor I in yours and in this, I recognise our poisonous legacy. I can only hope the sickness ends with you and I and when we’re both dead, our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren might pick up the threads we severed in anger and distress and start to tie them together, finding understanding, fellowship and love.”

  • For more information on the causes and impact of estrangement, check out StandAlone

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