The Holidays Can Be Really Hard When You're Estranged From Family

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published:

They’re always there, even when they aren’t. You’ve purposely pushed them from your life, yet they linger, clinging, startling you at odd moments. Maybe they were abusive. Maybe they were downright toxic. Maybe they took advantage of you. But for some reason, you had to cut ties. That cutting did not come cleanly. Estrangement is never a simple, surgical slice. It comes ragged on the edges, messy, the kind of cut that doesn’t stitch. And every holiday season, it opens again.

You’re reminded everywhere: the holidays are for family. Images crowd in from ads, from movies, from greeting cards. Grandparents and cousins, aunts and uncles, mom and dad and sisters and brothers and children, all gathered round the table, all smiling, all passing the pudding. But estrangement adds a missing chair. You see that chair every time you see that goddamn table. You are reminded that so-and-so is absent. They are absent not through death, not through distance, but through your conscious choice.

You feel, again, the doubt and pain that come with estrangement: the if onlys, the we shoulds, the maybes, the you just don’t do thats. You clench your teeth and remind yourself why you created that distance in the first place.

The questions come, the well-meant questions that hit like the right hook you never saw coming. “Will you see your mom this Thanksgiving?” asks the sweet mom from playgroup. “Now, do the kids see their grandparents on Christmas?” says the casual friend from the gym. “Will you travel to see your brother, or will he come visit you?” your internet friend types.

And you feel compelled to answer them, your stomach churning. You must explain the estrangement. And you can never just say, “We’re estranged.” You have to say something like, “We don’t speak to my mother/my father/my brother/my sister.” They blink at you and say something like, “Oh! I’m so sorry!”

Then they wait.

They expect an explanation. Because you don’t just cut people out of your life, not your nuclear family. Estrangement, as private and personal, as brutal and miserable as it is, demands a public explanation. Society insists you explain.

And so explain you must.

You say something like: Listen. My parents’ marriage basically imploded a few years ago for reasons that had nothing to do with my mom and everything to do with my dad. Turns out he had, um, issues. And had those, um, issues for a very long time. So they divorced, and when they did he had zero interest in seeing my kids, except to brag about them. He’d say he’d call and he wouldn’t. He’d say he wanted to visit and he wouldn’t. We asked for literally nothing from him except a consistent, regular relationship. We planned calls that never came over and over.

Estrangement is never a simple, surgical slice. It comes ragged on the edges, messy, the kind of cut that doesn’t stitch. And every holiday season, it opens again.

So we cut him off, because you can fuck with us, but we won’t let our kids get disappointed because someone who’s supposed to love them only does so when it’s convenient. Boom. Estrangement. I have to explain this every time people ask, all while protecting my mother’s privacy and not calling my father ugly names in public.

It happens over and over again.

Then comes the worst cut of all, the one that sends you gasping, the one you beg your spouse to handle, the one that sets you crying. This sends you questioning everything about the estrangement, about yourself, about your motives. You feel selfish. You feel wrong. You feel like every bad thing your family has said about you.

Around the holidays, estranged people try to heal the estrangement.

They’re people too: they also long for that picture-perfect table. They want that Hallmark card family. The holidays also cause them pain. They think, maybe. Maybe if I reach out, in the spirit of the holidays, we can heal this estrangement. The holidays are a time for giving, for peace, reconciliation, for open doors and open places at the table.

So they give it a try.

They reach out to you. They call. They text. They Facebook message you. They send cards. The worst of them contact your children. They ruin a random Tuesday afternoon when you check that ringing phone, or flip it over when it beeps, or open the mailbox. The estrangement crashes down on you, all the doubt and pain and fear.

Estrangement complicates everything. But it especially complicates the holidays.

My father just about ruined our Christmases when he sent our boys money (though he declined to call). What the hell did we do with it? How did we explain it? In the end, we put it in savings for them.

And even if they don’t reach out, you live in terror that they will. Will it be this phone call? This Facebook message? Will they try to contact your spouse instead? My father’s pulled that trick; he somehow thinks my husband’s more “reasonable” than I am or something.

Estrangement complicates everything. But it especially complicates the holidays. It always hurts, but it hurts more when you see the happy families gathered ’round the fireplace, the Christmas tree, and know that yours isn’t one of them. The family you’ve chosen may be whole and happy. But the family you were born with isn’t.

And that hurt never goes away.

This article was originally published on