Of all the questions I field, this is one that comes up again and again. Because estrangement from a parent—and it is rarely just one parent—is considered a cultural taboo, it remains hugely fraught even though it’s not as much of a rarity as you might think. Adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood, here are some observations that may help direct your thinking.
What estrangement does and doesn’t do
First and foremost, it doesn’t heal you; healing from your childhood experiences is a separate process, and a long one at that, best accomplished by working with a gifted therapist. But it does give you the psychological and emotional space—free from continuing pain and an ongoing inner dialogue—to take stock of yourself, the effect the relationship to your mother or father has had on your behaviors and your life, and to re-focus. This relationship is complicated and central to your identity and its formation; what’s broken cannot be fixed just by slamming a door and to think so is reductionist.
Cultural myths contend that cutting a mother or father out of your life is done in a reactionary way, angrily and thoughtlessly. Daughters are cast in the popular mind as losers, rebels, or hugely impulsive; the truth is that this is usually an action preceded by years of consideration. Most daughters experience a feeling of relief but then are often surprised by great feelings of loss and sorrow as well as newfound pain when they realize that this is the moment at which they have to give up hope that the relationship will ever be loving.
Following are some general observations about some predictable things that may happen if you decide to cut your mother or father out of your life. Please note that these are generalizations and, obviously, each one won’t l happen to every woman but, still, it’s useful to consider these even if they don’t happen to you if you make this decision. It’s always better to be forewarned. It’s also important to realize that you never “divorce” just one person; most commonly, other family members will take sides, whether prompted or not.
- You’ll realize no contact isn’t a “solution.”
Going no contact gives an unloved daughter breathing room and freedom from manipulation and continued emotional abuse; it alone does not promote healing from a toxic childhood. You will still have to address the ways in which you have been shaped by the relationship and how your past continues to influence your present.
- You may actually feel worse for a time.
Daughters expect to feel relieved, but are often surprised that along with that sigh, there may be feelings of fear, regret, isolation, and terrific loss. According to my research, this is neither unexpected nor unusual, because mistrusting her own perceptions and being prone to self-criticism and doubt are common legacies of the childhood experience.
- You have to work on healing.
Again, therapy is the best solution but self-help and working on self-awareness can help you move in the right direction. By healing, I mean not just recovering from abusive or hurtful maternal treatment, but also coming to terms with how you adapted to that treatment. The unloved daughter’s unconscious behaviors, forged in childhood and adolescence, are often the real source of her inability to thrive and live her best life.
- You need to expect and anticipate fallout.
Again, this is about realizing that no contact is a last-ditch effort to save yourself from continued pain and not a solution unto itself. While some mothers will simply accept the cut-off, as my own mother did, most will not. I will never know, of course, why my mother said nothing and only maligned me when asked, but I suspect she was relieved to have me out of her life; I think I reminded her of her failures. But the preponderance of mothers will retaliate in an effort to defend themselves against criticism and shift the blame very publicly onto their daughters’ shoulders in a highly aggressive way, recruiting family members and anyone who will listen to their side of the story.
It’s important to remember that mothers too are hobbled by the myths of motherhood, stunned into silence as much as or more so than their daughters. A mother cannot admit that she doesn’t love or like her own child; think of the shame involved in that admission. What kind of a woman feels that? She can’t own her own treatment of her daughter for the same reason; it has to be justified or denied. Hence the vehemence of her response.
You never just cut off your mother. Keep that in mind. People take sides.
- You will probably feel isolated and misunderstood.
A smear campaign is beyond awful and some of these mothers actually make a concerted effort to turn people outside of the family against you; women have told me about being bad-mouthed to their bosses, neighbors, and even church members. But you may also feel a general lack of support from friends and close others; estrangement just isn’t something most people are comfortable with. I suspect this has to do with need to believe in one kind of love that’s inviolable in a world where love often seems ephemeral — and most people identify it as maternal love. Even the most well-meaning of people will tell you “to get it over it,” “put the past behind you,” and “make peace.”
- You may struggle with guilt and shame.
Going no contact is, in some ways, a public act, and lets a wider audience know about what happened in your childhood home; this disclosure may both be embarrassing, uncomfortable, and shameful, especially if you are someone who values her privacy.
Then again, there’s the self-questioning that inevitably arises when you make a decision as weighty as this one. The question I’m usually asked by daughters who are thinking about total estrangement is: “What if I’m wrong? What if I’m too sensitive like she says, or exaggerating? Could her taunts possibly be jokes I don’t get?” Alternatively, a daughter may worry about filial duty and what she owes her mother: “Aren’t I obligated to take what she gives out, because she took care of me? Granted, she wasn’t very good at it, but aren’t I supposed to honor her like the Bible says?” Some of the guilt and shame come from cultural pressure, but the daughter’s deep sense of insecurity and fear of making a mistake fuel both as well. She may feel guilty, even if she has spent years trying to manage the relationship before choosing to go no contact.
- Your losses may be complex.
Going no contact formalizes the sense of not belonging to her family of origin she’s always felt, and may awaken powerful and complicated emotions; sometimes, daughters find themselves unprepared for how intense their feelings are and how distraught they feel. Some will find the isolation daunting and reinstate contact with their mothers in order to salvage connections to their fathers, siblings, and other family members. For some daughters, the feelings of loss are a part of a transition as they reflect on how calm and undistracted their lives have become; for others, loss lingers along with guilt, leaving them uncertain. As one daughter wrote me, “What if she changed her mind about me, and I missed it because I stayed estranged. I know it’s unlikely, but is her having an AHA moment impossible?” That’s the daughter’s need for maternal love and support kicking up.
A study titled “Missing Family” by Kylie Agllias of 40 respondents shows that belief in estrangement as the only path to healing and growth, and a feeling of relief absolutely co-existed with feelings of significant loss and sometimes vulnerability.
- You need to mourn your losses.
Yes, it’s counterintuitive if the daughter has chosen to estrange herself, but she needs to grieve nonetheless; again, this step is the death of hope, an acknowledgement that her mother’s love and a sense of normalcy lie forever beyond her reach. It’s important that you actively mourn not just what you needed and missed — reliable caring, respect, love, support, and understanding — but the mother you deserved. Part of healing is really seeing and understanding that you were always deserving of love. For precise steps and strategies to mourn, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- You may double-back and reinstate contact.
This happens so often that I have a phrase for it: Going back to the well. Even though you know intellectually that the well is dry — and probably always has been — and you’ve divorced your mother for good reason, you’re just not ready emotionally to accept it. It might be second-guessing yourself, self-criticism, fear of feeling regret later in life, or any other unarticulated and largely unconscious reason that causes you to pick up the phone, email, or text. Hope dies hard. A British study conducted by Dr. Lucy Blake found that cycling in and out of estrangement is common, in fact.
This is something I know a lot about since I did it for almost 20 years — breaking off, going back — in my 20s and 30s. I finally went no contact when I was almost 39 and only had the courage to maintain it, because I was pregnant with my only child and determined that my mother’s poison would never be permitted near her. That said, it was only after I wrote Mean Mothers — at almost 60 — that I realized that my mother never initiated or tried to reconcile with me when I left. She was apparently fine with it.
- You may waver in a crisis.
I hear frequently from daughters who have re-initiated contact — much to their emotional and psychological detriment — when their mothers or perhaps their fathers have become ill and infirm; sometimes, they are only children, but, often, no other sibling will step up to the plate. They act for various reasons, including compassion, guilt, filial obligation, or even a need to feel good about themselves. I would like to be able to report that I’ve heard about great rapprochements, epiphanies, and tenderness, but alas, they are few and far between. Not many Hollywood endings, but stories of sober and true pain.
I cannot emphasize enough that there is no single “right” answer.
So, to go back to the original question about whether going no contact heals you: The answer is a categorical “no.”
Adapted from copyrighted material in The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book.
Photograph by GimpWorkshop. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Agilias, Kylie. Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents. Australian Social Work, 2015, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 92-104.
Agllias, Kylie. Missing Family: The Adult Child’s Experience of Parental Estrangement. Journal of Social Work Practice ,2018, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 59-72.
Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf