Estrangement is a tricky thing. It can be messy, toxic. It can be tiring. It can be traumatic. But perhaps most of all, it can be sad.
Particularly around the holidays, estrangement can stir up bittersweet feelings. And even when estrangement is the healthiest route, it can also require the most painful journey.
I watched my husband’s relationship with his family completely disintegrate. The details, over time, become increasingly less relevant.
I could share details about the time when my husband found a fake Instagram page his family made to bully me. Or the stalking my husband endured. Or the public and private vitriol we were on the receiving end of for multiple years.
I could talk for hours about the pain both he and I experienced, as those are my truths and they’re my stories to tell. Nevertheless, dwelling on the past and the mutual hurt does nothing but shift our energy away from all the positive blessings in our lives. Those positive blessings are the details that matter.
My husband’s estrangement story is complex, as are the stories of those who have endured this toiling process. Hate. Addiction. Politics. Religion. Sexuality. Violence.
The causes for estrangement are different and the experiences vary, but there remains a certain solidarity between those who are estranged — as well as those who love someone who is estranged.
Perhaps that’s what I’ve noticed most commonly: the intense effect estrangement has on those around them, with emotional shrapnel ricocheting everywhere. That is, unless you build a fortress of protection. A fortress of love.
We’re conditioned to think that relatives deserve a free pass, which means we often put up with behavior we wouldn’t put up with from others. Behavior that’s demeaning, demoralizing, and despicable. But if you wouldn’t allow yourself to be treated poorly by others, does it make sense to let your relatives treat you poorly? If you wouldn’t put up with hateful values and toxic dynamics with friends or peers, why does family get a pass?
“We need to get over the idea that it’s not normal or okay to set permanent boundaries with parents — especially with mothers — when necessary,” asserts Katya, who is estranged from her mother.
When people ask Katya about celebrating holidays and occasions with her family, she gets straight to the point. “I’ll often just say that I don’t have a relationship with my mom. [People will] get really awkward and express pity, like ‘Oh no, that must be so hard!’ And I’ll assure them that it’s really okay.”
“In reality, what was hard was not being estranged from my mom. What was hard was having an abusive parent in my life.”
While some are quite transparent about their estrangement, others, like Hilary, prefer not to delve into specifics. “My close friends know that I’m estranged from my parents,” she says. “If other people ask, I just say that our families live in the Midwest and we spend holidays at home in Vermont.”
For Hilary, her friends’ familial celebrations have become her own. “We are fortunate to have close friends who include us in their family celebrations. We also have our own family traditions,” Hilary says. These include making tamales on Christmas Eve, watching “Elf” after opening Christmas gifts, and doing puzzles during holiday weeks.
Katya enjoys the same mix of quality time between friends and relatives, with her being particularly fond of the traditions she’s developed.
“I had a beautiful anti-Colonialist Friendsgiving with some of my queer fam last weekend,” she recalls. “I also did Rosh Hashanah dinner with my chosen family. And when I visit my dad and brothers, although it’s never around any holidays, we eat vegan BLTs together and watch House. I feel pretty damn fortunate to have all of this.”
I stumbled across a cheesy quote recently. One of those unattributed musings overlaying a touching stock photo. It read, “Family is anyone who loves you unconditionally.”
It resonated with me, because even before having a partner who’s estranged from his family, I learned that lesson. There’s a certain magic around having a chosen family.
Or as my husband and I call it, our “framily.” The term is a portmanteau of friends and family, thus signifying when the two became one in the same.
My immediate family is small but mighty. Some of my extended family live in the south, so I don’t see them often. Growing up, we celebrated some holidays with framily members — particularly “aunts” who we loved like blood.
It’s simple: the number of blood relatives in your life isn’t nearly as important as the quality of the relatives in your life — whether by DNA or by choice.
Love that comes with conditions isn’t love. Instead, love that comes with conditions is a contract. An exchange. An “I love you if and only if you do what I want” becomes a representation of the very coercion that creates toxic familial relationships.
I spoke to many people as I gathered stories of estrangement, and every single person said that there is no chance of reconciliation with their family member(s). That doesn’t mean that estrangement is always permanent; it just highlights how deeply wounds may persist after cutting ties with a person you were “supposed” to love forever.
“My parents aren’t going to change and I’ve given up on the fantasy that things can ever change,” Hilary says. “As painful as it is to be estranged from them, it’s more painful to be connected with them.”
Katya echoed those sentiments. “There’s the point at which it is never going to be healthy to let someone back into your life, especially if that person hasn’t taken real responsibility or made a real change.” That insight struck a nerve with me, as my husband often says the same thing about his own decision to remain estranged from his natural-born family.
“Don’t let people into your life who haven’t earned it,” he always says.
With my husband’s estrangement, as with many others, it’s not black and white. The road that ultimately leads to estrangement is often trodden down by hurt on both ends.
“I certainly have moments when I wonder if I’m actually the problem,” Hilary reflected. “Who knows? What I know right now is that I’m happier and healthier without my parents in my life.”
For Jessica, who is estranged from her sister and multiple relatives on her mom’s side, perspective is everything. What brings her joy during the holidays? “My faith, my dog, my new partner, and remembering I am blessed and better off than any of them are.”
There’s also an unexpected benefit to being estranged from family during the holidays. “Less Christmas presents to buy,” she quips.
And to that, I unabashedly laugh. There’s always a silver lining, after all.
Some people will say that blood relatives deserve to be in your life by default. They’re your parents after all. But if there’s one thing my husband and I have learned firsthand — and something that has been echoed by many of the people I spoke to — it’s that blood doesn’t make family. Love makes family. And during the holidays, as well as every other day in life, you deserve love.
Alexis Dent is an essayist, author, and entrepreneur. When she’s not at her keyboard, you can find her on a beach somewhere drinking a margarita. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.