Estrangement: What about hope?

estrangementby Sheri McGregor, M.A.

In the face of estrangement from adult children, the concept of hope frequently comes up. Some parents take comfort in the idea their estranged adult children might one day reconnect. Others waffle, wondering if hope is futile. Some parents let go of hope entirely, and believe it’s a positive step toward their emotional well-being. Others are troubled by the admission and worry that giving up hope isn’t normal.

Let’s take a closer look at the concept of hope as it relates to recovering from the pain of estrangement.

Estrangement: Is it wise to hope?

Parents suffering the throes of estrangement usually hang onto hope. Sometimes though, they wonder if hope is even realistic. They ask if it’s is healthy for them, or maybe holds them in a sort of limbo state.

“I would get caught up in magical thinking,” said one mother whose estrangement continues after six years. “At least I’ve come to see it like that.” This mother of two daughters whose oldest is estranged explains that in the beginning, she would often send texts, emails, and even phone messages (her daughter never answered), thinking if she just said the right thing, her daughter would return to her. “Now, I don’t believe anything I could do or say would make a difference,” she says. “But I still have hope.”

Hope is different than expectation.

This mom doesn’t equate her hope with expectation. People routinely hang onto hope when outcomes are beyond their control. Hope rises with the element of possibility more than probability. 1

Seeing hope for what it is allows you to get on with your own life.

In estrangement, can hope help?estrangement

For parents suffering the distress of estrangement from adult children, the hope of getting through the emotional trauma and having a happy life despite it can most certainly help.

Studies about hope often center on persons who are physically ill. Even so, we can learn from people whose precarious circumstances serve to highlight what’s most important in life. For these persons, hope can provide insight into their lives as a whole, and help them see how their past can intersect with their future.2

Similarly, parents devastated by an estrangement over which they have no real control can find a way to view and conceptualize hope as part of an overall narrative of their life and focus. For instance, seeing the part they played in their son or daughter’s upbringing—financially, emotionally, or otherwise—and understanding how that past role contributed to the adult child’s life and future as well.

Did you provide a stable environment? Allow your child to explore a variety of interests? Contribute financially to their physical wellness and/or education? Perhaps you were adventurous, and introduced your child to physical pursuits that widened their experiences and built their strength. How could things like these fit into your child’s adult life?

Ideas around hope can be unique, fitting into an individual parent’s personal life narrative. We always hoped for the best for their children. Continuing to hold out this hope for them, even in estrangement, can bolster our self-esteem and confidence. We are still good parents—despite our children’s choices.

estrangementHope for reconciliation:
Is it normal to give it up?

Among the many thousands of parents who have shared their estrangements with me, many say they have lost all hope of ever reconnecting in any significant way. Some go so far as to say they hope their child never tries. Or have even been contacted but turned their son or daughter away. Often, these parents are troubled by their feelings.

One parent whose son initiated estrangement admitted she hopes he’ll never try to return. Over several years of torment, her son duped her out of large sums of money that derailed her retirement. He even threatened to murder her. His estrangement came as a relief. After several months, she still suffers ill effects to her health, has trouble sleeping, and is sometimes plagued by the feeling that she must be to blame. Although she is relieved over his estrangement and honest that she’s given up the hope of ever having a relationship with him, those feelings trouble her. In her medical profession, hope is encouraged, so to personally experience a loss of hope cuts deep, slashing at her ideals.

This mother didn’t choose the estrangement, but because her son did, she’s since experienced a level of peace in her everyday life that wasn’t possible when her son remained in contact. She’s no longer awakened by hostile rantings and threats, and is no longer manipulated into financially rescuing her son.

It’s not difficult to understand why her son’s estrangement is liberating. This mother is similar to a couple in their seventies who, after years of verbal abuse and episodic estrangements initiated by their son and his wife, have decided that they will no longer allow him back into their lives. The pain of losing their grandchildren yet again, and of suffering their son’s vicious verbal tirades has taken its toll. Exhausted, these parents have chosen to savor their older years together, thankful for some peace. They’re no longer always on edge, in a perpetual state of fear. Their hope now rests with the grandchildren, whom they’re optimistic will one day contact them and pick up the loving relationship they cultivated during the “on” years of their on-and-off relationship controlled by their estranged son.

These parents cut off the prospect of further distress. Their reasoning aligns with the thoughts of philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, who calls hope “the most evil of evils, because it prolongs man’s torment.”3

No hope when nothing has changed

One father recently sent me an email, telling about his experience during six years of estrangement from his son. This loving father who had tried to have a good relationship with his son had been holding out hope. He fully expected that if his son did ever return to him, life lessons would have helped him mature—similar to the prodigal son who returned with a changed heart. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. This father welcomed his estranged son into his home, but within a few minutes, the son proceeded to list what he saw as his father’s faults. He blamed his father for all of the problems in his life, and also the estrangement.

Reminded of the old turmoil—as compared with the relative peace during the six-year estrangement—this father told his son to leave and never come back. And then he sent me an email, wondering if it is common for parents to put an end to a relationship with an abusive son.

The answer is yes.

I hear from parents at all stages of estrangement: a week of no contact, one year, five years, or even decades. While it’s true that the majority say they wish they could have a good relationship, many admit to having lost all hope. Some for reasons like the parents above. Others because a son or daughter is now a stranger. Many explain why they know that a normal relationship isn’t possible, and they no longer want to try—yet are still plagued by sadness and worry their loss of hope represents some personal shortcoming.

Hope: Against the odds?

In the first example, the mother spoke of hope as integral in her work. Hope helps people who are suffering, often in situations that are largely out of their control. That’s how the idea of maintaining hope differs from optimism about more self-determined outcomes. We “hope” that there will be no traffic. We “hope” our surgery will go well. We “hope” that a friend with cancer survives. Other than the obvious things we might do to help these situations along, such as leave at low-traffic times or choose a reputable doctor, the outcomes are mostly beyond our control.

Hoping an estrangement will end is normal, but it’s also wise to accept that the outcome is beyond our control. Some parents can see that in their situation, it also isn’t likely. For them, leaving hope behind makes sense in order to stop the torment of continued hurt.

The couple in their seventies who are optimistic their grandchildren will one day reconnect make a distinction between hope and optimism. The oldest was 14 when the last estrangement began. They still send cards to her and her younger siblings, although they can’t be sure they’re receiving them. They reason that their granddaughter was old enough to see that her father’s bad behavior wasn’t their fault.

Limits are unique

We each decide our own limits as to how much trouble, abuse, or neglect we will accept in estrangement and still hope for reconciliation. In my book, there is a series of questions that help individuals conclude for themselves where they fall in the spectrum. Sometimes, taking a hard look at the realities of the relationship dynamics helps parents come to terms with what is, and move forward in their own lives—whether holding out hope or not.

If you’re troubled by your lack of hope or your decision to close the door to reconciliation, you’re not alone. As parents, we’re accustomed to caring for our children. For parents, sometimes the lines between childhood and adulthood can blur. An adult who has caused us repeated troubles may trigger the love we felt for a child who made a mistake. But that’s not the same as an adult son or daughter whose mistakes aren’t innocent or childlike.

Eventually, to protect their physical strength, their sanity, and their future, many parents draw the line—which is a healthy self-preservation response. Many of these parents say they wish they’d have done so sooner.

estrangementHope for ourselves

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” ~ Desmond Tutu

As I say in my book, the landscape of loss is fertile ground for growth. When it comes to a happy future, we have more than hope. We can be optimistic and cultivate the fruits of our positive expectations with action. We can control our thoughts, our behavior, and for the most part, our lives. We can be happy, despite loss.

My hope is that all the caring parents who have been mistreated and estranged will make the most of their treasured lives.

References:

  1. Bury, S.M., Wenzel, M., Woddyatt, L. (2016). Giving hope a sporting chance: Hope as distinct from optimism when events are possible but not probable. Motivation & Emotion. 40:588-601
  2. Dal Sook, K., Hesook, S.K., Thorne, S. (2017). An Intervention model to help clients to seek their own hope experiences: The Narrative communication model of hope seeking intervention. Korean Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care. 20(1):1-7.
  3. Nietszche, F. (1994). Human, all too human. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Related articles:

Adult children won’t talk to you: What does it mean to cope?

Parents abandoned by adult children: Shape your new normal

 

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26 thoughts on “Estrangement: What about hope?

  1. Broken-hearted Estranged Single Mom

    Estrangement is part of what my family has done at times over generations. Even though my 28 year old had everything including love and a cheerleader, she is being controlled by her husband who also had multiple parental estrangements. I will keep hope but I will not accept abuse. If her return is to continue to hurt me, we’re done. I’ve given my all. But I will not surrender my Soul—not even for her.

    Reply
  2. Jan

    Hope vs expectation—thought provoking. My daughter has been gradually pushing me away for a few years—rarely returning calls or texts, not sharing information (good or bad) about her family, my grandkids, etc. My only source of information was social media and now she has unfriended me. I received a call on Mother’s Day, but it wasn’t pleasant—no name calling or yelling, just a coldness and distance. My SIL did most of the talking. I sense she has a lot at anger toward me but will not discuss it. I’m working through this with a therapist and I know she’s in therapy for depression as well. My 70th birthday was two days after Mother’s Day, and she completely blew it off. Hope vs Expectation—I hope she will make an attempt at reconciliation. I hope to again be part of her life. However, if she does, she must be willing to engage in a dialogue and be willing to listen as I am. I will not engage in a blame game and be chastised as if I were her child. However, my expectation is that I will not hear from her anytime soon. I am currently reading Sherry’s book and working through the exercises. I feel that I am regaining my strength and self-confidence. I hope it lasts, but my expectation is that there will be set-backs along the way.

    Reply
  3. Goretti

    I do not HOPE any longer that my adult son will change. He has never treated his father and me as his parents. Never said a kind, encouraging or loving word to us. I feel he has always treated us a two people in whose house he lives, that all. We have fed, nourished, educated and cared for him his entire 30 years. I need to think of him the same – expecting nothing.

    Reply
  4. Jude

    My estrangement has gone on for 20 years following a bitter divorce. Not bitter from my side but my ex husband told me he would destroy me. I didn’t believe him but he has. He systematically used our children [now 38 and 40] as weapons in a war. He loved revenge more than he loved them. He is also wealthy and I am not and he has bought them houses, which I could never do. He had countless women in our marriage and moved one in as soon as I left [and I did leave], I could take no more and he made things so bad that I felt I had no choice]. He told people that I had three finances [not sure if all at once or consecutive but of course I had no one]. I didn’t worry because I thought the evidence was clear, there was no one there. That’s when the estrangement started. I do not know where they live, I do not have the phone number of my son. My daughter emails me once or twice a year to say she won’t be coming to Mother’s Day or Christmas or whatever I have invited them too. I have never spoken of what their father has done and only reassured them of my continuing love. That certainly hasn’t worked. Hard to hold on to hope but I do. The pain and the judgement of others is sometimes unendurable but, somehow, there is still a glimmer of hope.

    Reply
    1. Cynthia

      I have a very rich ex also so I can relate. He came back to attach himself to the grandkids. My son & daughter in law have taken the grandson away that I helped raise. My x gives them houses, bmws I can’t compete. Not to mention he pretends to agree w their politics. I get the pain. They don’t like me because I believe in vaccines. It’s a psycho mess. I miss the grandchildren but they are young and I’m in my 70’s do by the time they are 18 who knows. I’m so sorry for your issues.

  5. Kitty55

    I’m so angry at my daughter for cutting us out of her & our grandchildren’s lives that I don’t know how I’ll react to her coming around again. We were the primary caretakers for the grandkids but now that she’s divorced she wants time alone= zero contact. We’ve helped her with so much. I don’t want to be a doormat but we miss our grandkids terribly.

    Reply
    1. Cynthia

      I have the same issue. Oomg. It’s painful. I walk on eggshells. I keep her pms date. I ignored it yesterday. Now I’m on the you can’t see the grandchildren list and they treat my grow daughter the same way.

  6. Grieving mom

    My husband and I are heartbroken since 3 of our 6 adult children have decided the do not want us in their lives. This occurred a few months ago after a discussion about some current events. After much crying on my part for several weeks, and repeated attempts by both me and my husband to reconcile, we have decided to stop trying. I can no longer put up with the finger pointing, the yelling, the cursing, the sneers and the cruel texts. They don’t want to discuss, only accuse. We pray for them and our grandchildren daily. Maybe giving them what they want, i.e., no contact, will give us all more peace. We are letting go, as best we can. We study the 12 steps of al-anon together each morning, and this has helped us tremendously.

    Reply
    1. NICOLA S

      I completely understand how you feel. I also cannot take the constant accusations, snide remarks and vitriolic texts. I am going to buy Sheri’s book in a bid to start afresh accepting that I have to think of my own mental health. I have very little hope of reconciliation and need to accept this to move on.

  7. Rise

    Hope is something that i have struggled with……….I used to hope that she would reconcile with me and we would have happy times again…like going to the theatre or shopping or sharing a meal or baking together etc. Then I began to realize that I need to be realistic……….after all the abuse hurled at me I feel it is unrealistic for that to happen. Even if she were to choose to see me again, it will not be the same and of course my guard will be up and I will be careful of what i say etc. The trust is broken!!!
    Since she is still in contact with my husband, he may have some influence and it may happen that one day she will want to talk to me and in light of this I have written down some guide rules for me to follow to protect myself. One is that I would never see her on my own…there has to be someone with me…. another is that if she in any way starts to shout or hurl abuse I will walk away, if she starts to talk about the past in untruths……I will also walk away or make it clear that I would only speak about the past with a therapist present. Truthfully, as many others feel and from many comments I have read……I have come to feel that if she were to come back to treat me in the same manner I would rather she stay estranged. I still pray for her…..I have always wanted her to have health, happiness and to be safe.
    So, is there hope yes, but I know that it will never be as it used to be and I at times still grieve about that.

    Reply
    1. Gwen L.

      Rise,
      Thank you for sharing the idea of discussing the past only if a therapist is present. I will definitely tell my verbally abusive adult daughters that this is my policy going forward. In fact, and this is very sad, I wonder if I should talk to them at all without a therapist. Each time I do it takes me weeks to recover.

  8. Juanita

    I will always trust in the Lord and not my own understanding . I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a mom and to have known what it’s like to be a mom. I don’t want to accept a life my children.i pray that God shows them a way home to me soon. Until God answers me I must not loose hope

    Reply
  9. Juanita

    Sometimes I wonder why my children can’t see the pain I feel from the way they reach out to me. I wonder why they believe others are better for them than me. Why is there always an excuse to seeing me. But then I remembered x husband is tormenting us for me not allowing him to take them when he was not in a good state . My kids have no idea how long and hard I have fought to even keep them for this long. It’s been years since our divorce but I’m still being treated like it’s my fault. I told my kids the truth and the whole truth about it all now that they are adults so they can live a life without shame, guilt or dread. With large hope that they would understand and love me more than they use too. But instead I’m still last on the list in their lives . I just need to accept it and move on but then my heart tells me no no no they are still need you and I just try to do the best I can to not bother them . Whether we reconcile or not I will always keep them and the love I feel for them hidden away. I really don’t like this relationship we have with each other I just feel like an outsider instead of a mom………

    Reply
  10. Noemi N.

    Hope is being trapped in a room and someone else has the key. Acceptance is where I am at this point. The hurt is real, but so is that room, being trapped

    Reply
    1. Beth G.

      You have stated this well, I do agree that someone Else has the key. My son and his spouse have quit talking to us, and they have blocked us from their social media. I have shed many tears, but my husband is correct when he says we have done nothing to them, they have decided that because we have different political views that they no longer want to be a part of the family. My husband is upset because of what they have done to me. I have never seen my husband so upset, it was then that I realized I cannot let my son dictate my happiness and my husband deserves better than a wife who cries and laments all too often over a son who has decided (practically overnight I may add) that he despises us. I will no longer cry over his decision to cut us off.

    1. Marta

      Wow. I relate, unfortunately. I’m Not dead yet. When my will is drawn up, it will state that my daughter is not welcome to pay any “RESPECTS” to me upon my death. It really stinks to have to do it, but if she finally realizes how precious she was and can carry that forward, my time on earth is complete.

  11. Sandy

    This was helpful to me. I do waffle with hope. I want to stop the waffle but feel helpless as to how. It’s been five years, and I want to let go.

    Reply
  12. Meryl W.

    My son in law and daughter have threatened me. He is armed. I not only have no hope of ANY reconciliation, I am so intimidated and afraid of these people, I DON’T WANT ANY FORM OF RECONCILIATION.

    Reply

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