Becoming Strangers

I think that some people in every era have felt that their particular timeframe in our planet’s history is the “worst.” Of course, each of these societies is right, at the time – every generation in most places on Earth is forced to go through massive change during their lifetime – it’s part of the progress of our species. Not to mention – the planet Earth itself is beautiful, but it’s not an easy place to live. It’s fragile, finite, and changes constantly, often bringing chaos in terms of weather extremes, plate shifts, spewing hot molten rock from its holes, etc. And then there are the changes we bring on ourselves (humans suffer from a tremendous lack of self-awareness and foresight into the future, as well as the pervasive greed of some of us that causes dangerous short-sightedness), by failing to take care of our fragile, finite, fickle planet. It can all get pretty overwhelming.

Change is difficult for many people. Removing the security of what we’ve always known, whether the changes are physical, geopolitical, technological, social, or any of the myriad other ways that our lives can go through upheaval, is very disorienting, and usually frightening. Heck, I’m having trouble accepting the fact that Klondike bars are getting thinner (and there’s nothing I can do about it!!) and I can no longer eat croissants (gluten), let alone the rest of the mess in our world right now. I recognize that in the midst of “growing pains” we feel somewhat helpless and off-balance. It’s an estrangement from our surroundings – a feeling of a loss of control; or, more accurately, a loss of the illusion of control. This sense of loss is often profound, and can change our lives.

But I have found that estrangement in relationships is often the most painful change we have to endure. I’ve had my share of saying goodbye to people. I dated a little in High School – a few tentative flirtations and a very few longer-term forays into real relationship. One significant connection I thought would be forever only lasted into my first year or so of college, and after it ended with my heart in painful tatters I really didn’t date for the rest of my college years. I met my first husband a month or two after beginning law school (yes, likely a “rebound” relationship), and was married in less than a year (thereby forever serving as a cautionary tale). After my divorce in my late 30s, I dated pretty assertively for the next sixteen years. Which, obviously, lead to lots of endings. Although very few of my (almost all initiated online) dating efforts actually resulted in a relationship, changing the status of each connection took some navigating. Some of them were particularly difficult, either because I have a hard time letting go (even when I know that a relationship isn’t healthy), or because I have a hard time hurting someone’s feelings. The best ones ended in lasting friendships, the less satisfying, just… ended.

Saying goodbye to a potential life partner is often painful, usually for one partner more than the other. But saying goodbye to a family member carries a particularly intense pain – one that may never really heal. A recent discussion with a dear friend eventually came around to the subject of family – specifically, how each of us became estranged from certain of our family members. Growing up in my family of origin was difficult, for various reasons. Like many people, many of my present-day fears and anxieties, especially those centering on my sense of self, stem from early traumas. I never really felt that I “fit in” with my nuclear family – and many family members confirmed those feelings both to me directly and in how they described me to others. Thankfully, I had other relatives who lived within walking distance who made me feel loved, and gifted me with some positive self-regard that I can still draw on when I work at it.

It took me decades to work through the trauma of my early years. Never in my wildest nightmares did I ever think that I would suffer estrangement as a parent in my own family years later. The pain is something that can’t be explained, and is constant. Although many days I just go through without having the situation at the top of my mind, when the awareness does come, it’s always devastating. We learn to live with it, but, as a minor Harry Potter character once said “Never whole again, are we?” No, we’re not.

The reasons we become estranged (literally – “made strangers”) from those we love are as varied as there are people on the planet, and may be simple or complex. Sometimes it stems from a disagreement that got out of hand, and continues due to stubbornness – the ones that make holidays with family uncomfortable, but still doable. These often eventually work themselves out, and the relationship may be restored, if it’s important enough to both parties. Sometimes, however, separation is a matter of physical, mental or emotional self-protection, and necessary to keep oneself safe. We’re all aware that some families aren’t healthy. Yet most societies see the family unit as sacrosanct – to be preserved at all costs. There are many people with dysfunctional families for whom this is just not possible, who are as a result of this blood-ties bias often given the heavy burden of guilt to carry along with the emotional scars of having a damaging family situation.

It’s a courageous thing to have to let go of a connection that is no longer healthy – especially when it’s with a person you love. Life gives us challenges that often don’t make sense, and bring us great despair. Change may be all at once or incremental, but neither is easy. Adding the pain of guilt and self-recrimination only compounds the suffering. In a world that can often seem cruel and indifferent, there will always be those who relish beating others with the blunt instrument of judgment that, seen through the windows of their own glass houses, they would decry as unfair if they found themselves in similar circumstances.

So life goes on, but with an empty space in one’s heart. In the decision of how to proceed, we use the scale of our love for our family member vs. our own peace of mind. The scales never balance completely, but totter precariously between the two, depending on the day. Birthdays and holidays are especially grueling. The careful attempt at finding equilibrium between reality and what we wish would happen is a constant. We can’t hope harmony into being, unfortunately. So years go by, and the now stranger creeps further and further away, but not so the heartache. The feelings may dull over time, but never quite disappear. Peace of mind, balanced with a longing heart. Longing for what should be, but isn’t – a healthy, happy relationship with someone you love.

After years of abuse, I finally decided that I needed to cut ties with my father, when he began to treat my children similarly to how he treated me through the years. I was close to 50 years old at the time. Upon his death a few years later, my daughter asked me if I were sad about his death. It was an interesting question, and I thought about it for a minute or two, asking myself that question for the first time since I learned of his passing. I realized that, no, I wasn’t sad, but nor was I happy, or relieved, or upset, or regretful. I simply felt… nothing. I realized then that my decision to estrange myself from him, which others may have regarded with disdain, was the right one for me and my family. I was burden-free. I remain at peace.



Image credit: Gerhard Litz on

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