Ending a relationship, especially with a family member or close friend, can be difficult for those involved and often confusing for those on the outside of the relationship. What makes it more confusing is that many people don’t realize there are two types of estrangement and they have different causes and motivations. To the outside, however, these two kinds of relationship “breakups” can look similar.
Type 1 follows this sort of scenario: Amy’s narcissistic mother caused dramatic scenes at every family gatherings, often lashing out at angrily at others. Amy had spoken to her mother numerous times about stopping these tantrums, so that when her mother did it again, Amy decided to go no-contact and stopped calling and visiting her mother.
Type 2 follows this scenario: Jack has always been the difficult sibling in his family (an Other-Blamer or narcissist). He sponges off his parents, refuses to get a job, abuses alcohol, and also hits up his brother, Alex, for money constantly. Alex has told Jack in the past this behavior needs to change. But when Jack asked Alex for money to bail him out of yet another crisis, Alex laid down the law and refused to give Jack the money. Jack stormed out of the house and said he was never going to talk to Alex again.
Someone hearing the short version of these story might only hear: “I don’t talk to my brother anymore,” or “I am estranged from my mother.” It would be easy to make assumptions about these scenarios that aren’t true.
If you hear of someone being estranged, be aware there are two forms of estrangement:
Type 1: A victim of narcissistic abuse ending the relationship with the narcissist because they no longer want to accept the abuse — a very valid reason.
Type 2: A narcissist (Other-Blamer) who cannot tolerate hearing the truth about their behavior storming off in denial.
For people in a Type 1 estrangement, they are often told something like: “It’s your family, you should love them no matter what,” or “It’s your mother, you can’t cut her off!” This “blame the victim” mentality often overlooks the years of emotional pain caused by narcissistic abuse and encourages returning to the abuser. The victim usually does not go into detail about the abuse to protect the abuser or avoid looking “dramatic” (like the abuser!). So anyone hearing about the estrangement does not get the full picture, leaving them in a poor position to give advice. I often wonder how this advise-giver would handle the abuse if they were deep in the weeds with it and if they would give the same advice.
Type 2 scenarios may also make the victim look like the cause of the problem, as if they were the ones who cut off the relationship, not the Other-Blamer who stormed off. Solutions given often involve advising the victim to try to repair the relationship and to apologize to the narcissist. Never mind that it’s the Other-Blamer’s fault for being unable to hear the boundary setting and criticism given to them. Other-blamers are unable to tolerate shame, so anyone criticizing their behavior is often attacked, blamed or shunned. A person with healthy shame tolerance should be able to manage incoming messages about mistakes and remain in relationship to repair and apologize.
If you hear about an estranged relationship, be careful about jumping to conclusions. One type of estrangement is healthy, as the victim creates boundaries against disrespectful behavior, and one is an example of unhealthy shame intolerance of the reactive and defensive narcissist.
With Other-Blamers, you will often see a pattern in their lives of many estranged relationships, a lack of friendships, and lack of long-term relationships. Other-Blamers sometimes build a life disconnected from others because they know closeness would bring the possibility of accountability. My sister, whom I’ve blogged about before, has never been married or been in a long-term relationship and she has no friends. My brother and I both cut off our relationships with her independently because of her bad behavior at a family gather and you will see this often in Other-Blamer lives, where family members have ended relationships to disconnect from abuse. My sister also cannot work for a boss, so has worked for herself for most of her career. Other-Blamers have great difficulty handling feedback or criticism, so they often change jobs frequently or refuse to work in traditional work settings with a boss or supervisor.
If you hear about an estrangement, understand the impact of Other-Blamer behavior on one side of that relationship or the other. It could be the Other-Blamer disconnecting to protect themself from shame, or a victim of narcissistic abuse protect themself from further abuse.