When I was a young girl, my father would tell me a story about the Hindu god, Ganpati (aka Ganesha). He told my sister and I this story as a lesson he thought we should learn from and very nicely sums up his philosophy on parenting. The story goes like this:
One day, Ganpati and his brother decided to compete with each other to see who could travel fastest around the world. His brother set about circumnavigating the globe. Ganpati, being clever and all, decided to circle around his parents, Shiva and Parvati. Ganpati won the race by explaining that his parents ARE the whole world.*
How do you suppose one might go about negotiating a relationship with a parent who not only thinks they should be the center of the their child’s universe, but the entirety of that universe? How do you negotiate a relationship with a parent who would compare himself to freaking Shiva?
The answer is that you don’t. There is no room for negotiation in a relationship like this. This is a one-way relationship where the parent expects to be deferentially respected and obeyed like the God of gods. And of course, when their child inevitably disobeys, there is hell to pay.
So, after more than three decades of paying hell and failing to negotiate new terms, I did the only sensible thing. I walked away.
This email is about what happens when you walk away from a lifetime of parental abuse and the common misconceptions and stigma around estrangement.
To give you some background, I stopped speaking to both of my parents roughly a year ago. The particulars of my mother could fill a book and this email is already long enough, and so I’ll save that for another time. But because both my mother and father are particularly destructive and dreadful parents, it was easiest and most healing to me to walk away from them both.
On that note, I present to you, everything you've ever wondered (and lost of things you probably didn't care to know) about parental estrangement.
- Estrangement isn’t an overdramatic reaction. When people find out I don’t speak to my parents, they basically assume I’m a really dramatic person who overreacted to a particular situation.
But that’s doesn’t show that whole picture. In my case, my estrangement from my parents is a final solution after a very long buildup of physical, emotional and mental abuse. While the physical abuse stopped during my high school years after an intermediary stepped in, the mental and emotional abuse continued until the day I told my parents that I would not longer be in contact with them.
Still, when I initially tell my story, people (especially Indian people, people who were mildly spanked or people who have not yet come to terms with their own abuse) often think that I’m dramatizing a one-time spanking from my childhood. I mean, how could someone so well adjusted and positive have really been abused? Of course, once I get into particulars they are convinced, but I shouldn’t have to. Here’s why…
In a speech for Safe Horizons, a domestic violence shelter, actor Terry Crews says, “Success is the warmest place [for trauma] to hide.” It’s easier to cover up signs of abuse and trauma when you are successful and most people assume that trauma and abuse happens to the uneducated, poor, lower class, etc. But a study done by the CDC in collaboration with Kaiser Permanente (the Adverse Childhood Experience or “ACEs” study), showed that about 2/3 of study participants experience at least one ACE while 28% cited physical abuse and 21% cited sexual abuse. According to the CDC website, 1 in 4 children experience abuse and neglect. The ACEs study was demographically important because approximately 75% of the participants were white and college educated and all had jobs and good healthcare (and in case you were wondering, about half were women and the average age was 57).
Put more bluntly by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who gave this eye-opening Ted Talk on the ACEs study, “the difference between Bayview [a low-income, diverse neighborhood] and Pacific Heights [an affluent, largely white community] is in Bayview, everybody knows who the molesting uncle is and in Pacific Heights they don’t.”
In my book, walking away from a three decade long abusive relationship is not an overdramatic reaction.
- Estrangement doesn’t happen overnight. Piggybacking off the idea that someone who stops talking to their parents “must be really dramatic” is the idea that estrangement is a sudden reaction to a singular event. But that is almost always false. In my case, my desire to divorce my parents was clear from childhood.
When I was young I used to fantasize about growing up, sending them a check for all their financial troubles and never speaking to them again. I actually used to write this fantasies down in the form of poems and hide those poems in my Narnia books (because, you know, I learned the hard way that any diary in the house was going to be read and used against you).
While those fantasies never came true exactly in the way I’d imagined, I started distancing myself slowly over time. First in college and then again after some really shitty parenting behavior that happened in my 20’s. The event that broke the camel’s back was actually quite banal but it was the tipping point for the realization that the power dynamic had shifted and at this stage in my life, I have the choice to walk away.
The relationship actually intensifies for a while right after estrangement. When I first stopped talking to my parents, the immediate feeling was relief. But that was quickly followed up by anger. A lot of anger. I was angry at them all the time. All the stuff from our past kept bubbling up and my feelings of anger intensified. I wanted to call them up and yell at them at all hours. I wanted to forward them videos and articles I’d seen online. I wanted to hash it out. But I never did because I knew where that road would lead…to the same place it’s lead for 30+ years. So I bit my tongue and just played those moments out in my mind until they passed or I could distract myself with other thoughts. Now, close to a year later, I can finally say that those feelings are starting to wear off. I’m starting to move into apathy and healing.
Healing requires emotional, financial and physical distance. In that same speech for Safe Horizons, Terry crews also mentions that survivors of trauma need emotional, physical and financial distance in order to heal. When I heard that, my heart pretty much leapt out of my chest because of how true that statement rang for me.
While I have physical and financial distance, estrangement allowed me the emotional distance to begin the real healing work. Because abusers don’t just stop being abusive once you grow up and move away. Every visit, every phone call, every social media interaction is an opportunity to try and assert the abusive dynamic. In order to heal emotionally, I needed to cut them off and create the emotional distance.
- It isn’t a matter of “just getting over it. ”This one comes up a lot, even from other people who have also experienced childhood trauma. But the thing is, whether we like it or not, what happens to us at a young age shapes our beliefs, our behaviors, our habits and our HEALTH!
According to that ACEs study mentioned previously, having even one ACE can dramatically increase your risk of developing 7 out of the 10 leading causes of death. It increases your chances of developing inflammatory conditions like autoimmune disease (hello, psoriasis!?!).
You can try to “just get over it, “ but whether you like it or not, the behavior that was modeled to you at a young age will follow you into your other relationships. I speak from personal experience. My husband and I have both had to work on identifying my emotional triggers and I’ve had to do some very deep, dark work on addressing those triggers in order to maintain a stable relationship.
I could have tried to convince myself that I was “over it” and that my childhood experiences didn’t really affect me. In fact I did for many years. And guess what? It didn’t really work out that well…
- It’s more common than you think While the topic of estrangement doesn’t come up that often in any cultures, independent studies done in the US and in India found that up to 27% of people will be estranged from a family member at some point. While numbers were slightly lower in Europe (though similar in the UK), studies confirm that estrangement isn’t as infrequent as we would like to believe. Of course the reasons can be really different depending on cultural context. But just because we aren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
- All family relationships need to be renegotiated. This is the hardest part of estrangement – the renegotiation that has to happen with other family members and friends of the family. In my particular situation, estrangement from my parents has meant that I have significantly reduce communication with my extended family members in India, including withdrawing from chat groups that include my parents. While some of this is to avoid having to see or talk to my parents in any way, it’s also a matter of not having to explain myself in every communication with family. To my family in India, estrangement seems unacceptable even if the alternative is abuse. That is something I wholly disagree with and it is easier for me to withdraw from these relationships as well.
That said, I know plenty of people who operate on a partial estrangement arrangement because their extended family lives much closer and they do not want to withdraw from these relationships as well. Not to mention that siblings often choose to side with their abusive parents.
Truth is, when estrangement happens, even if it’s for a good reason like abuse, people tend to side with the abuser because it is easier than reorganizing our entire friends and family structures or having to admit that the entire dynamic is unhealthy. It’s easier to ignore the problem and shun the person who stands up for themselves. In other words, it’s much easier to victim-shame, even within our small little groups, than it is to stand up for institutional change within our families.
- It isn’t “sad” for the person walking away. The most common reaction I get from people who learn about my estrangement is how “sad” it is. I know some people are fine with this sort of sympathy, but I for one can’t stand when people say this to me. I mean, imagine someone told you they left an abusive spouse. Would your reaction be, “Awww, how sad”? No..you’d probably say “good for you” and “that takes a lot of strength.” Their ability to make a positive change in their life would be applauded. Well I feel the same way about not just walking away from abuse, but from finally breaking the chains of the Stockholm syndrome that kept me from making a change a long, long time ago.
It took growing up, doing the emotional work, supporting myself financially, making a lot of bad, destructive decisions, learning from those decisions and finally finding a steady, supportive and loving spouse (and extended in-law family) to be able to shake off the yoke of abuse. It’s not sad. It’s an achievement be celebrated, goddamnit!
- My unborn children will be just fine. When I recently revealed to a friend that I had stopped communication with my parents, a well-intentioned but misguided friend asked me whether I thought this was a responsible decision for my future children. To be clear, I have never expressed any clear intention of having children, as I’m yet undecided on the matter. So basically, it was unintentionally implied that I should give up my piece of mind, health and overall wellness for children that I have yet to decide I want.
And just to add to that, as a fun fact, moms who are in supporting family relationships are less likely to experience postpartum depression and vice versa. I’m pretty sure that the emotional distress of an abusive relationship doesn’t count as a supporting family relationship.
Lastly, emotionally abusive parents typically turn into overbearing and disrpectful grandparents. Personally, the thought of being pregnant and having children AND having my parents around gives me anxiety …physically! All the fight or flight hormones start flooding my body the longer I think about it.
- People who divorce their parents don’t necessarily lack in family values. People don’t necessarily tell me to my face that I don’t have family values, but it’s often implied in conversation. Comments like “I don’t think I could ever stop talking to my family” more or less imply that a person who could or would stop talking to a family member doesn’t have family values. But we aren’t talking about a fight or an argument. We are talking about decades of abuse with no support or recourse. Comments like that are akin to saying “if you leave an abusive spouse, you don’t believe in marriage.” It makes a lot less sense when it’s put like that, doesn’t it? Never the less, that’s a really common comment I get all the time. And while I do admit, I was put off by family for a long time (who wouldn’t be if that’s your only experience of the institution???), I have a really strong connection to my in-laws. My husband’s family has modeled normal, loving, supportive family relationships to me that has changed my entire perception of family.
I would argue that my much more traditional Indian parents (and any abusive parents) are the ones that lack family values since their self-centered motives and actions are the reason for the lack of a strong family bond. In the case of people who estrange from their parents, perhaps most of us just take our family values elsewhere, building our own families from scratch.
*As a sidenote: this story makes Ganpati seem like an insufferable sibling and a brownnoser. I mean, just imagine how the family dynamics shifted once that brother got back from that long journey…
Anyway, I'd love to hear your stories if you have one to share. I know that estrangement is a secretive topic but it affects so many more people that we care to admit. If I missed something or you have something to share, you can reply to this email.