Family Estrangement During Coronavirus

Why this crisis is extra difficult for those who are estranged and what you can do to help

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During crisis connecting with family is normal. As a species, humans are biologically wired to reach out, to talk, and to gather when there is distress and fear. Although the advice to practice social distancing is warranted during Coronavirus, there remains an inborn desire to connect.

For some, reaching out to loved ones during Coronavirus is not an option. Those who are estranged from immediate or extended family may experience this current crisis as extra stressful.

According to Stand Alone, a UK charity dedicated to providing support for those experiencing estranged relationships, estrangement is “the breakdown of a supportive relationship between family members.” Other definitions include an intentional choice to end contact with existing family relationships through physical or emotional distancing.

Estrangement from immediate or extended family members is not uncommon. The Stand Alone websites states:

1 in 5 families in the UK will be affected by estrangement and over 5 million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member.

A 2015 study Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate by Richard P Conti demonstrates the commonality of this familial disconnect. Of 354 respondents, 154 or 43.5% reported estrangement from one or more family members. The study concluded that family estrangement might be as common as divorce.

If family estrangement is common as research suggests, most people will know of someone facing Coronavirus with limited or no familial support. These people are friends, neighbors, colleagues, partners, or perhaps yourself. It is important to to acknowledge the unique stressors those in estranged relationships face. Here are seven things to know in order to respond with sensitivity and support.

Read on the topic

The 2017 New York Times article Debunking Myths About Estrangement sheds light on the complexity of the issue.

Estrangement is widely misunderstood, but as more and more people share their experiences publicly, some misconceptions are being overturned. Assuming that every relationship between a parent and child will last a lifetime is as simplistic as assuming every couple will never split up.

Complex factors lead to estrangement

The reasons for estrangement are varied and most often, a cumulation of issues. Common factors include:

  • Childhood sexual, physical, emotional abuse and/or neglect.
  • Sibling differences
  • Money issues, including inheritance
  • Disagreements about romantic relationships
  • Political differences
  • Personality difference
  • Differences in relationship expectations

Estrangement often occurs after many years

To an outsider, the choice of estrangement may seem sudden. In the article Brittle, Broken, Bent: Coping With Family Estrangement, psychotherapist Annie Wright dispels the myth of a sudden break in contact.

Instead, family estrangements are, in my experience, a relational break that’s a result of strained, unhealthy dynamics that have been building over time.

Estrangement is stigmatized

Despite its prevalence, stigma and shame is a common experience for those who are estranged. The Psychology Today article Coping with Family Estrangement states:

Those who are estranged from a family member discuss it rarely and with few people.

Furthermore, those who do share often do not feel supported. Awareness of the societal propensity to judge or minimize can help to mitigate stigma and provide opportunities to offer compassionate support.

Crises may not be the time to reconnect

Under normal circumstances, a crises like Coronavirus could be a good opportunity to reconnect. However, there is much more involved. It is important to allow those who choose estrangement to make relationship choices when and if they choose to do so.

Offer simple support

There is no need to complicate support. Compassion, sensitivity, and listening go a long way. Allow the person you are supporting to lead the discussion. Providing an open invitation for support, especially during Coronavirus, may provide an opportunity for ongoing discussion.

Express concern if someone’s struggle is prolonged

Finally, if you notice the person is showing signs of unremitting anxiety or depression during Coronavirus or anytime, gently suggest they talk with a professional or connect with the support resources of Stand Alone UK.

The additional stress of family estrangement during Coronavirus is a reality for many. Understanding it and responding with sensitivity and support is needed more than ever.

Originally published at

Written by

Consultant. Coach. Writer. Specialization in supporting partners/supporters of individuals with complex PTSD.

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