The Dark Side of Voluntary and Involuntary Estrangement

As we continue to find kindred souls who experience sibling estrangement like us, and have relevant conversations about this subject on the sibling estrangement Facebook page, sooner or later, differing perspectives come up. We’ve talked before about estrangers and estrangees, and how it’s not always obvious where one or the other starts. Nonetheless, more needs to be said with regard to voluntary and involuntary estrangement, and the darker side of both these views.

Voluntary estrangement (estranger), is when you choose to estrange yourself, based on the need to abstract yourself from a family situation that can range from difficult to toxic. Those of us who have gone through this have gotten to a point where we get so fed up with our situation that we decide we’ve had enough, and take a step back. This is usually not an easy step to take, as it requires courage to have to make a life-altering decision like this. And since many of us are empathic, this can feel counterintuitive in the beginning. (For some of us, the cutoff may not be complete, being that there can be degrees of voluntary estrangement, ie, off-limit subjects, limited contact, etc). While this can be an empowering move, based on courage, it can also be pushed to an extreme, and have an unhealthy representation to it. 

That particular dark side is when we decide to discount a relationship without taking the effort to salvage it and work on making it better. We see this with people who meet with adversity in a relationship and decide to “ghost” the other person (ie, disappear from their lives). The danger is that we dispose of people prematurely, rather than attempting to take the time to discuss, clarify, and work through adversity. Most of us in our Facebook group have tried to work things out in the past before we opted for voluntary estrangement. But those that consider it to be on top of the list from the get-go before experiencing a saturation point may be depriving themselves of the opportunity of developing emotion-focused conflict management strategies, which is a necessary tool in life. 

Involuntary estrangement (estrangee) is a different type of estrangement. This one leaves us bewildered, wondering just what we may have said or done that caused a person to draw away. Sometimes, it can be based on an incident that was wrongly taken, which may cause some siblings to make false conclusions about us. It can also be based on avoidance or poor conflict management strategies, perhaps leading to the weaponization of estrangement against us. In any case, this is its own type of torment, in that we are left to fill in the gaps in our mind, which can foster rumination. While it can be good to find meaning in our experience, and broaden our identities outside of what we perceive our sibling estrangement and/or family situation to be, there can also be unhealthy representations associated with this type of estrangement. 

Because we become more conscientious of the remaining relationships around us, we become aware of how deep relationships can cut. Subsequently, there can be a risk in not allowing ourselves to experience vulnerability with others, and thus insulate ourselves from the very life experiences that can foster closeness. And in some cases, we may start to feel as though some people who choose to experience voluntary estrangement are somehow weaponizing it against others, rather than seeing it as an altogether different situation than what we may have personally experienced. In this area, the darker elements that we need to watch out for are overprotection and projection. 

In conclusion, keeping in mind that the pain of estrangement is something we need to manage, we have the responsibility of keeping in check the unhealthy representations of either of these two types of estrangement, which we have seen. Otherwise, they run the risk of controlling us and playing themselves out in undesirable and hurtful ways. 

Feel free to reach out to me if you need help with this, or to share your thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear what you think.

Ali-John Chaudhary is a Registered Psychotherapist with offices in Ontario and Quebec. He helps clients from different parts of the world going through sibling estrangement issues, and produces YouTube videos on the same subject, with author Fern Schumer Chapman. He also hosts a twice-monthly online support group and an intensive workshop both on zoom for those looking to empower themselves with this rarely discussed subject.

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