Recently I read about debunking myths about family estrangement in the New York Times. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/well/family/debunking-myths-about-estrangement.html)
What I learned: estrangement is more common than you think and sometimes a great thing to do. I read between the lines as the lines told upsetting stories of real challenging families were people had been cruel to one other. But what it implied was more worrisome. The feeling conveyed is that at the first sign of trouble many people are just dropping troubling family jerks off. After all they are troubled and troubling.
The unsaid part is what is the long term cost? What if anything could the possible befits be of dealing with the family jerks, those who have behaved in a horrid way toward you? Why not just get rid of them? More and more people do take the easy way out. Depending on what the person has done, it is a lot of work to put the facts on the table and to make an effort to hold people responsible for past actions without the punishment of estrangement.
To avoid estrangement and cut off from family one has to have a reason or a principle to make the effort to change oneself and to change the way I automatically deal with others.
Some say that is too hard and they just cut off and walk away from the disappointing family members and smile. But wait, what are the long-term consequences of the “take the easy way out” solution?
Consider the possible impacts:
Am I getting emotionally weaker by not taking issues up with people?
Am I encouraging more horrid behavior?
Am I getting paralyzed emotionally or can I see possible options in the way I deal with family members?
Am I teaching my children to slink away from dealing with people?
Are there more options than winning and loosing in family interactions?
Can we get beyond blame and shame and consider the basic behaviors that promote survival in family groups. Other forms of life have basic building blocks that organize living organisms.
Consider an Aspen grove. They are far removed from us but they are an organism that has many individual tress connected by a root system promoting both group and individual survival.
Over time these trees developed a root system that could figure out who to help and at what cost. Can you imagine the human family as though it were a grove of Aspen trees?
Aspen Trees are connected over many miles and very cooperative. Perhaps as they are often clones they do not fear one another. They share recourses, like water, over many miles. They do not reject the jerks.
But wait you say we humans aren’t clones and are often fearful of others. (Are you in my tribe or not?)
For humans there are many reasons to worry about jerks.
We know that the fear response activates with the slightest hint of difference. Therefore our sensitive physiology is a challenge. Unlike the Aspens we have to calm ourselves down in order to figure how to cooperative with our near and dear.
Differences can be charming or they can be threatening. The family connections that sustain us can also threaten us. We humans are just way more emotional and reactive to those we are related to, and much of our reactivity is dominated by generations of habitual responses.
Consider the Aspen:
A single Quaking Aspen in Utah covers 106 acres of land and is estimated to weigh more than 6,000 metric tons. Aspen grove known as Pando (Latin for I spread) could be shoots from a clone as much as 80,000 years old. 
|Consider the human: If you go back ten generations you are related to about 1024 ancestors. It is estimated that 80% of the marriages in history were between second cousins. Why? Because the population base was smaller, people lived in small communities and migrated within those same small communities.
We are less sensitive to extended family members who lived many generations apart from us. They may have done the very things that we consider harmful and toxic today, like marring a close relative. But we can accept them, as they are not relating to us today. That was the past.
Today a family under stress will throw people out and take the short term benefit and accept the long term hit. Part of the reason may be that we are not as dependent on our near and dear as humans were before agriculture. Now people believe they can do without their families. Sensitive families feel “forced” to cut off from their root system to survive. Either you are like me and make me feel safe, or you are somehow different and are the enemy.
Great sensitivity, not rationality, leads to estrangement in important relationships. Sensitive people can tell you in excruciating detail how horrible it is to live with or be around people who are critical or disrespectful and so they feel that the only option is to cut off.
At least in my family, only a disciplined effort can reorganize the relationships system. First, people have to lower their automatic reactivity in order to take a better guess as to what is this thing that caused the upset. It takes time to consider various reasons and not just react. Maybe I am having a bad day, or I have a headache and now I am not as good at relating and figuring things out.
If one can understand their sensitivity and work on being interested in difficult people, they can, over time, bring back into the family those who have been discarded and be stronger for it. Perhaps there is an evolutionary selective advantage to belong to a family unit which uses cutoff and sacrifices one or two of its members for the good of the whole family?
Or perhaps the advantage is to the families that preserve their family members by changing self to deal more with ones own sensitivity and not just blame and cut off from the others.
In 2014, 8 percent of roughly 2,000 British adults said that they had cut off a family member, which translates to more than five million people, according to a nationally representative survey commissioned by Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged people. And 19 percent of respondents reported that another relative or they themselves were no longer in contact with family.