Estrangement stories cross my path often lately. It’s a painful and sensitive topic, for both sides. Some people are hurting because they’ve chosen to estrange themselves, others because they don’t understand why a loved one has estranged. Still others long for the relief of estrangement, but the pain of setting that boundary is clearly too difficult.
The journey of coming to terms with why we need to estrange ourselves can be grueling, depressing, and exhausting. Desire for belonging to family is strong, and it took considerable pain – and 3 attempts – before I was finally able to definitively draw my line in the sand.
The first time I tried to estrange from my abusive father at 17, I simply wasn’t strong enough to defy him.
Five years later, though, my motivation was much stronger because I was pregnant. I didn’t want my baby near Dad. In an effort to dissuade me, he used guilt, shame, and contempt about the move. Though he’d severely abused me my entire childhood, the desire for him to love me and be proud of me was powerful. Conflicting emotions tugged at my heart. The maternal instinct to protect my unborn baby prevailed, however, and my husband and I moved from Alaska to Seattle.
A month later we had our daughter, and in two years we added a son to our family. The power of love I had for my kids was surpassed only by a powerful protectiveness. Their safety was of utmost importance to me. My kids were growing up, and all the while I was having a constant inner battle between wanting a relationship with my parents and protecting myself and my kids from Dad. It became increasingly difficult to invent reasons why I refused him time with them. Several times he insisted I let my daughter fly to Alaska to go fishing with him. We never spoke of his abuse directly, but he was outraged when I repeatedly told him no.
I was straddling both sides of a painful fence. On one side, I longed to have a normal relationship with my parents. I wanted to pretend away dad’s abuse and offer a loving, fun set of grandparents for my kids to enjoy. On the other side, I wanted Dad out of my life. It was agonizing every time I spoke with them on the phone; the pretending was taking its toll.
When the anxiety about my own abuse, and the fear of potential new abuse grew beyond my emotional capacity, I finally realized I could no longer continue this way. In my third and most deliberate effort to estrange, I wrote my parents a letter explaining I was sorting through some things and needed my space. I asked them not to contact me until I was ready. This was not well received.
First they enlisted my sister and a neighbor to call on their behalf. I tearfully held firm this was between me and my parents and for them not to be involved. After a few weeks, my parents wrote letters telling me how much I was hurting them. When I didn’t respond, they took turns calling. They were relentless in pushing my boundary. I knew if I gave in, though, I would never have the strength to separate myself from them again.
The barrage wore on me and I fell into a seemingly bottomless depression. On one of my worst days, I lay on the kitchen floor and flattened myself against the linoleum. I tried to grab hold of the floor in a desperate attempt to stay down. The emotional pain was so great all I could do was pray for God to give me the strength to keep firm. Deep down I knew estrangement was the only way to heal my past, and to protect my children’s future.
Eventually mom and dad stopped trying to communicate with me and I continued with my therapy. I needed to process my past and learn how it was affecting my marriage and my parenting. Grief work is demanding, though, and I was exhausted. Each time I wanted to quit therapy God gave me reminders, always in reference to my kids, of why I needed to persevere. In an exasperatingly slow process, healing finally developed while anger and anxiety abated. I began to see light and happiness where only darkness and grief existed.
Dad had passed away without us reconciling, and though I wanted to reconcile with mom, I was still angry with her for not protecting or even believing me. I wrote her a letter saying I was struggling with forgiveness. To my great surprise, she wrote back asking if we could meet in person. So, after a 12 year estrangement, she came to see me in Seattle. My husband and I stood in the hallway at the airport waiting for her arrival and I burst into tears when I spotted her. I couldn’t believe after all this time we were actually going to see each other.
She spent several days with me and we talked about painful things. She asked me difficult questions and I responded with equally difficult answers. This time she not only believed me, but she got angry with dad. She even went to therapy with me. We were both willing to be brave and vulnerable in the interest of reconciling and healing.
I am a radically better wife, mother, and friend because of the process. I am happier and freer than I ever imagined while living in those dark places. I can now live freely in the truth.
God was faithful to give me strength and determination to stay the course so I could move from estrangement to reconciliation. My own strength was not nearly enough to get me through.
Reconciliation isn’t always wanted, or even safe; but I share this story to give hope of reconciliation to those who do want to reconcile one day.
How about you? Have you experienced estrangement or reconciliation?