by Elizabeth Heaney MA, LPC

What can you do if you’re the one who’s being shut out?

  • In an estrangement, the one banished must do the difficult work of sorting out the meaning of the rupture.
  • It’s useful to ask questions about how one might have contributed to being cast out.
  • Estrangement could also be due to the other person’s struggles.
  • Over time, with sincere effort and deep self-honesty, healing from being estranged is within reach.
This post considers how estrangement might impact those on the receiving end of the dynamic and the complex emotional work one faces when being shut out of an important, close relationship.

The person who is banished from an ongoing relationship with a family member or loved one faces the enormously difficult work of sorting out the meaning of the rupture. They might not be able to understand every contributing factor that led to the other’s decision, but it’s helpful to grapple with how the estrangement came about. There are two distinct possibilities:

  1. Something they did (or didn’t do) contributed to the rupture, even something subtle or not realized at the time. The person choosing estrangement felt slighted, hurt, or dishonored in some way.
  2. The rupture is being used as a punishment for an imagined offense and is not related to something the shut-out person actually did or didn’t do. Perhaps the person choosing estrangement is acting out of an inner turmoil that’s projected toward the person they’re shutting out.

In the first case, where there might have been a contribution on the “banished” person’s part, the questions I would ask center around how one might have contributed to being cast out:

  • “Do you see any way you contributed to the estrangement?”
  • “Is there any way you might have caused the other person (who has now chosen estrangement) to feel criticized or invalidated?
  • “Was there any way you exhibited a lack of caring or attunement?”
  • “Looking back, is there anything you wish you had handled differently?”

The answer might be “Absolutely not!” but I think it’s important to grapple with the questions so that one can search very carefully for any way they might have contributed to the break.

Looking back, Jason had to face the years he had spent ignoring his gay son’s emotional and relational life—he talked with him about sports, work, and home improvement projects, but his discomfort with homosexuality meant he never asked about his son’s relationships.

Teegan had to look at how she had taken a subtly superior role with her younger sister her whole life—and how taking that position felt oppressive and dismissive to her sister.

It’s important to note we’re not looking for fault—we’re just scanning for patterns or dynamics that might have contributed to the estrangement. Jason and Teegan aren’t fully to blame for the estrangement, but if they can grapple with their contribution, there might be some hope for repair. And being able to see how they contributed helps them come to terms with the painful impact of being shut out. They can work with their grief, regret, or amends in useful ways (even admitting to the other person that they are facing their contribution, making amends, offering reparative conversations, etc.). Repair isn’t always possible, but reckoning with their part in the rupture helps the ejected person move forward.

Sometimes, the person on the receiving side of estrangement must live with truly not knowing what happened or not having contributed in any meaningful way to the rupture. I’ve worked with folks who sincerely couldn’t understand why their parent, sibling, or loved one closed the door to an ongoing relationship. They might have offended the loved one without meaning to, but the estrangement also could be due to the other person’s struggles and not in any way reflective of a relational shortcoming on the part of the person who is shut out.

Dinesh’s mother suddenly stopped returning his calls or answering his emails. Although he tried very hard to look at any contribution he might have made, Dinesh couldn’t find one. He came to see that his mother had been deeply unhappy for many years, and the estrangement was one more step in her process of feeling like her connection to others wasn’t satisfying. Dinesh took refuge in the compassion he felt for his mother’s profound unhappiness.

Astid’s adult son cut off all communication, saying he’d never felt loved by Astrid. This declaration was profoundly shocking and hurtful, but as she moved out of the initial trauma, Astrid could look back and see how her son had often accused Astrid of lacking love for him—something Astrid tried her best to respond to with a wide variety of caring responses over the years. Nothing had ever satisfied his criticisms. Astrid had a lot of work to do to hold and “own” her love for her son, even if he didn’t accept that as true.

Without a doubt, estrangement causes tremendous pain on both sides of the dynamic. Perhaps that’s the essential truth therapy can focus on. Sometimes, you can own your contribution (and maybe even repair the relationship); sometimes, you have to move forward without any real repair or understanding from the other person. Either way, making your own meaning out of it can help you live with the ongoing schism.

The challenge of addressing estrangement for the one who’s cut off is a two-step process of reckoning and meaning-making, figuring out how to walk forward in life bearing the scar. I’ve seen many instances where moving forward with grace and wholeness at first seems emotionally impossible. Over time, with sincere effort and deep self-honesty, healing from being estranged is within reach.

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