Article Summary:Understanding family estrangement.
The drama of family members going off speaking terms generally revolves around a long-term lack of communication within a family. Often, it is difficult to find the words to express or explain important issues, particularly if a family has a history of poor communication with one another. When people cannot use words, they resort to actions that symbolize the intensity of their emotions about a particular issue: severing ties with one another.
For example, Christine* and Claudia are two grown siblings who became estranged after their mother's death. They had had an amicable relationship up to that point, and when Claudia came to see me for counseling, she was extremely upset about their estrangement. Their mother had not been particularly affluent, and when she died she left a small estate that she equally divided between her two grown children, with the exception of her diamond engagement ring, which she had left to Claudia. Christine, who was 55 years-old at the time, called Claudia in a rage, demanding that she compensate her for half the value of the ring. She then proceeded to list all of the ways in which she felt their mother had favored Claudia's family over Christine's family over the years.
Claudia told me that she had cared for both their parents as they aged, and that while Christine, who lived in a distant city, had helped from time to time, the bulk of the elder care had been her responsibility. She also said that their mother had always told her that she wanted her to have the ring when she died, and to pass it on as an heirloom to her daughter, Joan. Claudia was shocked that this offended Christine, given the fact that Christine had no daughter. Claudia was even more shocked that Christine's husband Robert was insisting on the compensation as strongly as her own sister was. Robert had been given their father's gold watch when he died, to pass on to his and Christine's son, and while Claudia had not been happy about this and her husband Charles had been even less happy, they had let it pass because of the knowledge that Claudia would be getting their mother's ring.
When Claudia responded to Christine's demand with an assertion that it was unfair to ask for compensation, Christine flew into a rage, calling her names and ending with "That's it. I am done with you. Don't call me ever again." She then proceeded to hang up on Claudia and has not spoken to her since that day. Claudia left some phone messages for Christine after this, but her calls were never returned and she stopped trying to mend her relationship with her sister after that.
Claudia and Christine were not at war over a ring; they were staging the last scene of a drama that had to do with life-long unresolved issues of competition, sibling rivalry, poor self-esteem, feelings of deprivation, and other central psychological problems, which, when left unresolved, wreak havoc on people's lives.
The drama of family estrangement, we see, is not actually about any one given incident, but rather an accumulation of negative feelings and lack of communication. The drama is a life long drama, and for many, going off speaking terms is the final scene - a way to exit stage left and put an end to the anguish. It is a highly dysfunctional method of coping, of course, but the subplots and scenes of the drama exist in each player's mind and memories, thus explaining why dropping the curtain on the whole thing often seems like the easiest way out.
(*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.)
Mark Sichel is the author of the best selling and highly acclaimed book, Healing From Family Rifts. Mark has been a practicing psychotherapist, teacher, consultant, and speaker since 1980. In 1999, in an effort to reach a larger audience, Mark created www.psybersquare.com, a self-help website that was awarded the prestigious WWW Health Award for excellence in patient education in the Fall of 2000. Mark is available for consultation and speaking engagements internationally and can be contacted via his website, www.marksichel.com