Becoming an orphan, by choice

High expectations of family happiness at Christmas, with ensuing disappointment at the yield of huge emotional and financial investments in the festivities, may be one reason that some lawyers have dubbed January 8th“divorce day.” Relate, the UK’s largest relationship support organization, reported that in January 2017 there was a 24 percent increase in calls to their helpline. Yet rarely are the marital problems that explode in January new; the old ones just get bigger, less manageable, particularly under pressure of a new year’s resolution to improve one’s life.

Events marking family celebrations are well known for their tendency to reveal family schisms (think of the 1998 Danish film Festen, or Celebration, where a family gathering becomes the setting for a son’s disclosure of his father’s abuse, and films such as the 1995 version of Home for the Holidays where events meant to bring families together tear them apart). But what happens when bonds with other relatives are broken, particularly the psychological version of divorce between child and parent? After all, it isn’t only marital break ups that might be necessary to improve a life. Sometimes a son or daughter needs to leave a parent behind in order to lead a better life.

In 2015 I wrote in this column about the report Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood ( This was a collaboration between the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge and Stand Alone, a charity that offers support to adults who are estranged from their family. Over 800 adults, ranging in age from 18 to over 60 years, contributed their personal experiences of family estrangement, particularly about the persistent pain of separation, where absent parents, siblings or children lurk in the mind’s shadows. In that post I focused on the hollow-eyed reminders of continuing emotional loss. Here, however, inspired by a message from one reader about her decision to “self orphan”, I focus on the forces leading to estrangement, forces that make the high costs of estrangement seem worthwhile.

Why do some people choose to sever the family bonds that, to most people, seem as necessary and inevitable as air?

The most obvious answer is, “Abuse.” But what does this mean? Sometimes it means that a parent is the direct perpetrator of sexual or physical abuse. This is certainly one reason why teens abandon parents. The dangers and discomforts of life alone seem preferable to the treatment they get in the comfort and “protection” of home. But sometimes it is not the parent who is the abuser, but the person who denies the abuse. “You’re making things up,” and, “What a dirty mind you have even to imagine something like that,” are as much of a betrayal as the abuse itself. Having a parent who denies your trauma, who prioritizes her or his peace of mind over your needs, can inflict shame in every interaction with them. Such gross neglect, such cruel dismissal, can make the relationship too painful to bear. Many people in this situation live in hope that one day, things will change, and a parent will listen. When hope disappears, the emptiness of the relationship may seem worse than the pain of closing the door, firmly and finally, on the relationship.

Sometimes abuse comes in torrents of criticism. When I worked on my book Difficult Mothers, I interviewed people who, hour after hour, ruminated over parental judgments. An internal voice blasted them at high volume, mocking everything they said, every choice they made, every desire they held. As Craig, aged 21 told me, “I feel I’m up against a firing squad.” He had to choose between the constant stress of a possible attach from his mother, and alienation from her.

For Elena, who wrote to me recently (and whose message inspired this post) about her decision to “self orphan”, an overpowering family dynamic positioned her as “the crazy one”, the bad or problematic person, the subject of others’ derision. Even occasional contact was fundamentally disorientating. Remaining within the family was possible only if she gave up on her self.

Sometimes the abuse comes in the form of endless, unreasonable demands: "You owe me this, and, I need this from you." People who experience this kind of abuse often go through years of what I call “spin bargaining” wherein they tell themselves: “If I do this and this, and this, for her, she can’t complain,’ or, “I’ll give him this much time/help/money/love, and that will prove I am not a bad person.” But these private calculations in which someone tries to get sufficient credit for generosity and sacrifice, have no impact on the parent’s continuous and clamorous demands. Some people conclude that the only way to stem the flood of demands, and the disruption these cause, is to exit the relationship.

In the 1970’s Albert Hirschman wrote an article called “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” that offers a useful model in thinking about difficult relationships (though Hirschman was thinking about more formal transactions). We can remain loyal to important relationships even when they are uncomfortable, but we do so by exercising our voice: we state our needs and try to change the relationship accordingly. We remain loyal by working to improve the relationship. But when our voices fail, when they are silenced, when the pain inflicted by the relationship is beyond words, then we decide to exit. But exiting intimate relationships is difficult; it takes work to leave, and remaining apart takes a lot of emotional maintenance. There is, as the 2015 Report highlights, “the persistent pain of family estrangement”, where rejected family members are like phantom limbs, useless in terms of support, but present with discomfort, confusion, and an ever-present sense of absence. But in some cases, exit is the best strategy, even with its high cost.