5 Ways to Deal with Strained Family Relationships by Karen Sherman, Ph.D

Estranged family relationships leave one reader wondering how she can turn things around or simply move on.

I think I have an unusual situation. Neither my family nor my new husband’s really wants to spend time with us—not even at major holidays. My sister has two little children, so that is very sad to me, but even when I suggest coming to visit across the country to see them she is less than enthusiastic and never initiates the topic. My husband’s father and mother are older, live a state away, but have never invited us to their home. We have invited ourselves, so to speak, once or twice for an overnight on our way someplace else, but it always felt a little flat or off and we promised ourselves not to do it again.

Both of us grew up in rather estranged families with lots of issues and tried to cope by moving away at a young age. The consequence is that we are pretty much orphans now. We are very warm, active, professional people—I am a fiction writer and lawyer, my husband is a chef—and we try to reach out with calls, cards, lots of gifts for the little ones, but the problem lies with the adults; they just do not seem to act like family should. They never initiate plans to get together and generally do not accept our invitations, or they act like they are doing us a big favor by bothering to visit. They have even said things like, “Well, if it means that much to you, I guess…”

This has been going on for quite a long time—ever since my husband and I met 10 years ago. We are sad about it, and lonely, and long for a sense of family that we never had. We don’t have many friends, either. And the friends we do have are always busy with their families.

What is the best course of action to take? Should I quit trying to make plans with those who are not excited about seeing us? And if so, what do we do to fill in these empty times? Fall and winter are especially hard, but I feel the loss year-round. You can’t invent a family! We have tried taking trips at holiday times, but we just feel more alone during Christmases at ski resorts, et cetera. Please help!

Dr. Karen Sherman’s Reply:

First, let me express my gratitude for your courage in expressing this concern. Sadly, many people have similar feelings though the particulars may vary. And, at this time of year when there are many celebrations that tend to be spent with one’s family, your loss is going to feel even more pronounced.

Let me say straight out that everyone wants to have a sense of belonging. It provides a feeling of security. Family serves that purpose; they are your roots. In reality, most people’s families do not live up to their expectations or the images that are often portrayed by TV shows and movies. However, your situation is certainly one of great magnitude.

Though your letter speaks to your sadness, it also indicates some clarity. You cannot force people to have interactions with you if they do not want to. I notice that you say that both you and your husband moved out at an early age in order to cope with estranged families who had lots of issues. Clearly, this is a long-standing problem on the part of your family members, and it doesn’t seem that they are addressing them. Unfortunately, therefore, there is no reason to think that they will change.

Given all the information you have provided, here are some suggestions I can make:

  1. You can choose to still act in loving ways to them, e.g. acknowledge events or check in at various times. However, understand that they are limited and do not expect anything from them.
  2. Continue to let the younger generation know you care. Perhaps they, like you, will see the dysfunction in the family and will have you and your husband available.
  3. Consider helping out through volunteering in things like soup kitchens at the holidays. Many people feel very satisfied with providing this type of service to others.
  4. You might also create some family by getting involved in senior citizen assisted living facilities. Many of the residents would be very happy to have “family” who care.
  5. Start to extend your network of friends. Social support is very important, and though you do not have a large circle of pals now, you can make the choice to join into activities that will broaden your network.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “You can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends.” I wish this were different for you; it is hurtful. But it may be time to let go of dashed hopes and be more proactive where you will get more reward for your efforts. Maybe this year’s holidays will truly be abundant!