The challenge of the festive season

Exploring the issue of family estrangement

“I have my logical family and my biological family. They are very different.”

We often think of families as being typified by unconditional love and a place where family members give and receive emotional and practical support. Yet for many people in our society, family relationships are challenging, distant and a source of pain.


Stand Alone has recently carried out a piece of research in collaboration with the Centre for Family Research at University of Cambridge. The study looked at the experiences of 807 people who self-identified as being estranged from their family or a key family member. This included estrangements from parents, children and siblings. Almost all (96%) respondents identified the holiday season to be the most challenging time of year, describing feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness.

This is the time of the year where the focus of society turns to our family. I can confirm that as someone experiencing estrangement, the notion of a family Christmas seems to be everywhere – from shop windows to buses, I am surrounded by togetherness. As December goes on, this silent expectation to play happy families grows to the point where one might simply forget the very serious problems and turn up on the doorstep with a gift basket of jam and chocolate. Blood is thicker than water – isn’t that what they say?

Yet for many experiencing family estrangement this flippant sentimental gesture is just not possible. There are many reasons behind family breakdowns, but most often they are serious and ‘going home’ may well compromise physical or emotional wellbeing. For those wishing for reconciliation, the other party may not be ready or wiling to talk.

Therefore, at its worst, the festive season can become one long reminder that we are contradicting the basic expectations of family life.

It also seems to be the only period where people do directly ask about your family, and your isolation can be painfully highlighted over an awkward glass of wine at an office party. The study goes some way to confirming this, with work colleagues highlighted as the least likely to know the full story around a family estrangement.

“Everyone always says "what family plans do you have for holidays?" and look at you funny when you say none. It’s hard to explain to people why you don’t want to be with your own parents.”

Social media also plays its part, as if advertising is not enough. One look at Facebook feeds on Christmas Day and you will be bombarded with polished postings of the family experience – the smiles, the presents, the games. It can make the best of us feel jealous and frustrated and brings up that relentlessly difficult question: why did this have to happen to me? It also can be that difficult reminder of happier family times, the times that many participants in the study would like to return.

So what can we do to enjoy and re-claim Christmas?

My answer is to work on a sense of belonging. This seems to be the quality that we crave when we see these images of the happy and functioning family at Christmas – we crave the feeling of being supported, of being unconditionally loved and accepted for exactly who we are.

I have long been a fan of the researcher Brene Brown. She often talks about the myths that separate us and the family myth is no exception: the idea that we all have close and functioning family networks is the same as the idea that all woman have bodies that can fit into size eight clothes. Yet, the media hold up and broadcast these unattainable ideals regardless of what percentage of the population it applies to.

Brene would say that this is where shame kicks in – I feel terrible because I can’t fit my body into a small dress, I feel terrible because I don’t have a partner, I feel terrible because I can’t fit my family around a Christmas tree every year. To be different to this ideal takes away our sense of belonging and our sense of confidence in society, but the irony lies in that the image is so unrealistic and unattainable that we are almost all different to it.

How many people do you know who really have a perfect family Christmas every year?

So, for me, to enjoy Christmas is to bust this myth. It is about accepting yourself and your situation and your difference. You might spend the day alone watching films, or you might go and help feed the homeless, or you might be flying away to escape it all. You might be finding other friends and loved ones with whom to spend the day – and creating a different sense of ‘family’ which is away from the past.

Whatever you choose, belonging to you and accepting your unique experience of family is the best Christmas gift you can give yourself this year.

To read our research report, click here

This article was written by Becca Bland from Stand Alone. Visit Stand Alone if you are experiencing family estrangement.

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