Getting familiar with estrangement

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 17.18.42Assessing high conflict separated families, we distinguish between Alienation (“there’s no good reason”), and justified estrangement (“there is good reason”). Commonly it is a hybrid mixture of both. Estrangement can be looked at in its own right in other adult family situations where it means the same: “distanced relationships with a good reason”. Understanding estrangement illustrates some important points about Alienation.

About “good reason” or not: It is important for those experiencing the injustices and false allegations to show they remember that justice is as essential for the many cases where there are significant or awful real abuse and risks to assess. Sorting out justified, unjustified and hybrid – and doing it promptly – is not easy for the professionals who do it. Only by recognising the justified situations can we expect others to recognise the unjustified ones.

Stand Alone estrangement survey

Stand Alone is a new charity offering support to adults estranged from their family or children. We welcome Stand Alone here on the alienation experience blog. They’re now in our useful links and services. They have a ‘meeting people’ page and (so far) offer support services in London, Sheffield, Newcastle and Glasgow. Outside those areas, they have a comprehensive on-line support service. Stand Alone may not mention Alienation specifically, but the estranged and Alienated alike would surely find sympathy there.

Among the innovative things they’ve done is to commission research on levels of estrangement in the population. They got Ipsos MORI to do a preliminary survey. It shows that around 1 in 5 families in the UK will be affected by estrangement, 1 in 4 know somebody who is no longer in contact with a family member, and 1 in 10  said they were personally estranged from a family member.

You can see details and download more and the top line and full data too.  Ipsos MORI do long face to face interviews in people’s homes with specific commissioned questions included. One way to get a better idea of how many people are affected by Alienation would be to craft and commission our own questions for a survey. Stand Alone’s key question was:

Do you know anyone who is estranged from a member of their family? By estranged we mean they are no longer in contact with at least one member of their family due to a breakdown in the relationship.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 17.19.11So this is not asking about estrangement from  the whole of the rest of a person’s family. Severe Child and Parental Alienation (PA) means that a child is cut off from one parent plus their whole family too. The estrangement need only be with just one member of your family. You wonder how an Alienated person would respond to the estrangement question asked. Other questions emerge too.

It is great to have some new facts on the overall picture:

Over a quarter (27%) of the GB public know somebody who is no longer in contact with a family member. 8% of those surveyed said they were personally estranged from a family member. The figures show little variation in terms of gender … The figures stay consistent across class and earnings, yet the regional breakdown showed a lower incidence of estrangement in London versus the rest of the country. This preliminary research points to the fact that family estrangement permeates all types of families, including those who consider themselves highly educated and earning well above the national average wage.   … among a sample of 2,082 adults aged 15+ in September 2014. Data were weighted to known population figures for age, region, social grade and working status within gender and non-interlocking targets for household tenure and ethnicity.

Estrangement will be of harder on young adults because, having distanced from their family of origin, they are less likely to have established other families and support in their lives. Why is there less estrangement in London? Seems surprising. Maybe the larger ethnic population in London means communities of people who stay closer to their families:

What would alienated people have said?

What a single question like theirs cannot control or get at is what people took as their definition of ‘family’. Older people are likely to be in one or more extra families of marriage or cohabiting. So older people have a wider selection of families and family members to belong to, and be estranged or Alienated from. To be estranged from all members of all your families would perhaps not be so much rare bad luck, as to raise a question about what that individual may do to fall out so much. But it is common for an Alienated person to be completely cut off from a whole family network having done nothing to deserve that fate.

People who said “yes” to being or knowing someone who was estranged would mostly be talking about people who continue to have good relationships with the other members of their family/ies. Have a look at the full data that explores multiple yes-es more. More detailed answers to these questions would require some extra different questions asked.

For Alienated families, if you are a grown-up alienated child, you may well still have a strong link to one parent and siblings and that side of your family of origin. You wouldn’t say that you were estranged from that your (perceived main) family. And you might or might not say you know someone who is estranged – even though you do very well know of one: the parent you rejected along the way. But the rejected parent would say they were estranged (if not Alienated) to this general survey question, and so would those who know them. For Alienation you could expect the answers to give you figures that don’t match. And if your questions were carefully defined – estrangement = “good reason”; Alienation = “no good reason” – then you would get diametrically opposing views of the same relationship depending on whose side you were asking. Perhaps the value of a non-technical use of  ‘estrangement’ is that it invites fresher responses, and gives you richer answers and interesting questions. For many people, the word ‘Alienation’ already brings in too much baggage.

So it would be great to build on this preliminary research to explore some more underlying details.

Estrangement and Alienation

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 19.07.26

Young people’s views from SCCR survey 2013

Stand Alone was mentioned by Dr Jason Robinson, psychologist who has studied estrangement. He was interviewed for Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 recently (listen from 1 min 20 secs).  Here’s an academic presentation of his research on negotiating adult family estrangement.  Shaheen Hashmat also talked on the programme about her choice to distance from her family – because of their cultural requirements that she couldn’t accept or find a compromise with.

The picture from this is that estrangement is significantly different from Alienation though it still leaves the estranged person bereaved and unsupported compared with those who have family around.

The key difference between Alienation and estrangement is this: Where Alienation entails three parties, estrangement in the BBC discussion is more of a two-party pattern. Alienation is when one person turns another against a third (see more on this broad definition here). In Child and Parental Alienation this is specifically a parent turning a child against the other parent. The broad meaning of estrangement (that Stand Alone used) means that, faced with unresolvable differences with their family, a person chooses by their own (reluctant maybe but) free individual choice to create a big distance. They find it a relief to make the break. This may be with just one family member, some of them, or all of them. For Shaheen Hashmat it was with all her family except for one sibling.

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Parents’ and carers’ views from SCCR survey 2013

But both three-party Alienation and two-party estrangement involve seriously difficult family relationship conflict, and both are miserable predicaments all round. With the high prevalence shown in the surveys, it is right to look for other ways to help.

Another organisation that has grown into this field is the Edinburgh-based Cyrenians and the umbrella organisation, the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution that grew from realising how homelessness was mostly the result of family fall-out.

The SCCR diagrams here give some of the statistics from their own 2013 survey. 41% of parents or carers and 61% of young people report having weekly arguments in their family. 25% of youngsters each month think of leaving home and 50% would like to talk to someone who could help. 70% of parents would think of talking to someone to help sort things out.

In conclusion

It’s good to have some real facts to work from. It would be good to use this survey approach to find out more about Alienation in the UK – as well as more about estrangement too. Looking at estrangement in its own right is relevant for this blog given the estrangement Alienation is contrasted with, and given our interest in broad thinking about the hard end of broken family relationships. We can see more clearly some similarities and differences between estrangement and Alienation.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

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About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink now family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

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