The Problem with Discussing Estrangement Online
People who have a family estrangement tend to have experienced one of two kinds of situations: they have decided to become estranged from someone or they have become estranged due to someone else's decision. The first group I call Estrangers. The second Estrangees.
The boundaries between the two situations are not always clear. Sometimes we might feel as though we are the estrangers. On a different day we might feel like estrangees. We may feel as though we've been left even if we were the ones who left. No matter which way we describe ourselves, we feel a loss.
If you have known married couples who have split up, generally there is someone who leaves and someone who feels that they have been left. The perspectives of those two states of mind, feeling like the one who left or the one who has been left, are different. If each went looking for a support group to help them through their pain, chances are that they would find the least support in a group composed of people whose decisions were most like that of their soon-to-be ex-spouse. Chances are that they would soon find themselves arguing with strangers about familiar issues. What would be accomplished? Not much.
In fifteen years I've been a member of five online discussion groups in which the topic was conflict or estrangement in families. Most members were adult women who were either mothers who had been estranged by their children or daughters who had estranged themselves from a parent. There were also daughters who had been estranged by one or both parents. There were very few mothers, perhaps three, who had estranged themselves from their children. Some participants identified themselves as a sister or a brother experiencing estrangement from siblings.
I can recall three sons who had experienced estrangement from their parents. One was the moderator of one of the groups although he rarely moderated or shared.
I have never belonged to any groups on Parental Alienation Syndrome. I know that PAS groups exist and that more men than women discuss it.
In the groups that were composed mainly of mothers, women shared their stories and their pain and were supportive of each other. When there was dissension, it occurred when someone expressed a negative judgment of another's decisions.
In a group composed mostly of unrelated mothers and daughters, hostilities prevented that group from being the source of support that was most likely the goal of its founder when it was set up. While there are almost five hundred members, the number of active participants is few. New people would subscribe every week and then unsubscribe or become inactive when they realize that they would be more likely to be wounded than healed if they shared their stories. Who goes to a group looking to be wounded?
Estrangees would come into that group looking for support for the pain of their loss, a place to talk about the whats and whys of the estrangement, the unexpectedness of it, the inability to resolve it, the deep grief that they were experiencing, the anger at others in the family who had estranged them or who were contributing to the estrangement, their feelings of powerlessness, their deep sorrow, their inability to comprehend what had happened, all of the many feelings that they were experiencing. They joined the group hoping to find others who could understand and empathize with what they were going through. They would come to the group feeling like the walking wounded, looking for comfort and healing.
Estrangers would come to the group with the same hope of finding others who had experienced what they had experienced and who could offer support to them as they shared their feelings of anger, betrayal, loss, powerlessness, fury, sorrow, grief, and all of the intense feelings that happen after the loss, even the willing loss, of family members.
The subject was the same: estrangement. But their experiences were from opposite sides of the fence. Thus they came into the group hoping for support and solace and found themselves in the middle of a group therapy situation gone wrong. (Or gone right depending on your point of view. Some therapy groups use this kind of interaction as a catalyst for developing insight and growth. But that is when a therapist is present and is moderating the group. Not letting it be a free for all battle.)
The conflict that they had been through in their own family began to reenact itself in the group. Rather than finding the support that they were looking for, the unrelated mothers and daughters and an occasional brother, sister or father found themselves either being charged with a host of actions and thoughts that might or might not have ever crossed their minds or they became accusers themselves.
Rather than receiving support from each other, they ended up defending themselves from the accusations of strangers who were projecting their feelings about their own family onto people they didn't know. Some would leave in short order when it became clear that the climate was hostile. Some would stay and join the fray, using the group to displace their own anger at their estranged relative on strangers who had the slightest resemblance in terms of family role to the relative at whom they were angry. Someone else's mother would be the favorite target of angry estranger daughters. Appeasing someone else's daughter would become the goal of sad estranged mothers. Mothers who were attacked would find themselves defending their character and intentions to strangers who were inexplicably hostile when they expressed their grief and sorrow.
Most mothers who come to these groups don't bear as much anger at their daughters as most of the daughters have towards their mothers. When estrangee mothers subscribe to a group which includes both estrangers and estrangees, they are walking into a lions' den where someone's angry daughter is just waiting to dump some anger. While men have been in the minority in the groups that I've been in, they also fall into the same two camps: estrangees and estrangers and they behave accordingly with hostility to those they see as being in the "other" group from whichever of the two circumstances that they identify as their own.
Some optimists stay for a while hoping that the support that they are looking for will turn up one day if they keep hanging in there and throw enough "logic" out in an effort to connect with someone else's angry relative. Some stay and fight with strangers, a fight that they can't have with their own relative who isn't there. But over time the anger wears everyone down and few are interested in sharing their own stories when nothing is being accomplished.
One group where the hostility between estrangees and estrangers was particularly bad had over two hundred and fifty members in 2006 and an average of 134 posts per month that year. In the month of September of 2007 there were fewer than seventy posts. While the number of subscribers has increased and is at almost five hundred members in 2011, the activity level in the group has dropped drastically. There have been no posts at all from the end of 2010 to today's date of January 19, 2011. The highest number of posts in one month in 2010 was fifty-eight.
Contrast that sad outcome with that of a small private group composed of mothers who have experienced estrangement by their adult children. The number of posts written by eleven to thirteen members ranged from eighty-eight to over three hundred per month in 2010. The group is kept private and membership is by invitation only. They feel as though they are among friends and are supportive of each other. This group is going into its sixth year. Some have experienced reconciliation with their children.
Posting online is not a contest. I am providing the numbers above to show the contrast between two groups that differ in the composition of the types of members. The small group of women who all can relate to each other write regularly and often while the large group of almost five hundred people with differing and opposing perspectives is withering away.
The best group for you is not necessarily the one with the most posts per month or the most members. The best group for you is the one that helps you find what you are looking for which might be comfort or a place to vent or a place to try to unravel the mysteries of the hearts of people in your life whom you don't understand. The chances of your finding what you want in a group are better if the group is active than if it isn't. The chances are higher if you are in a group where you feel safe than in a group where you feel insecure and threatened.
In general I've found that estrangement is a topic around which there are intense and painful feelings and that often people have a hard time talking about it. Your chances of finding healing are better if you can talk about your feelings and thoughts with people who aren't inclined to attack you when you share your story.
The internet now offers so many options for people to take creative approaches to solving problems. Anyone can set up a website or a blog or a discussion group to try to meet a need. You can set one up yourself.
A group doesn't have to be large. Sometimes it is better if a group is smaller and people can get to know each other. There is some security in not feeling as though you are part of a large anonymous crowd. The group can be private or public. It can be set up to allow anyone to join or just a few. You aren't limited to joining groups that are set up by someone who might be more interested in marketing a book or enhancing their own image than in paying attention to what is going on in their group.
As you maneuver through your life online trying to find answers to why you are estranged, whether you need to be estranged or not, and how to become un-estranged if that is a goal, keep in mind the following:
- Not everyone else who is estranged is going to be capable of being your friend, even though you share the same kinds of loss of family. (There are estrangers and estrangees.) Online attacks are so much easier for people to do to anonymous strangers than face to face with a real live human being.)
- If you are looking for solace, look for it in places where you are more likely to find it rather than looking for it from people who can't give it to you.
- Consider taking creative action to find your own solutions to meeting your need to talk with others online about your losses.
- If you join an online group to discuss estrangement, choose a group (or create a group) that is composed of people who have had experiences of the type that you want to talk about.
- Remember that everyone has baggage and often people try to get their own needs met by dumping their baggage on someone else. So don't let them do it!
- Become aware of your own baggage and don't dump yours on anyone else either.
- Remember that some people are safe to talk with and some people are not. Be safe!