'Blood is thicker than water': What not to say to someone estranged from family

‘Blood is thicker than water’. ‘Everybody makes mistakes.’ ‘You’ll regret it when they’re dead.’

If you’re estranged from a family member or members, you’ve probably had to deal with more than your fair share of insensitive comments like these.

If you’re trying to support someone you care for in their estrangement, it’s important have open and honest conversations with them or give your advice if asked for it.

But while we’re big fans of earnest curiosity, what we’re not about is judgement and insensitivity, which does not an open conversation make.

We asked the experts how to handle a conversation where someone opens up about their family situation.

Counselling Directory member Inese Vorobjova tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Begin by checking in with your own intentions of the conversation. Are you in the space where you have the capacity to listen to someone? 

‘Bringing openness and curiosity, and leaving judgement and criticisms at the door is key.’

So if you’re sure you’re able to express yourself in a way that won’t make the estranged person uncomfortable, then go ahead.

If you’re not – you have been warned…

‘But they’re your mother/father/grandparent/etc.’

See also: ‘You only get one/you can’t pick your mother/father/grandparent/etc.’ Newsflash: we know.

If someone’s correct in this heteronormative assertion, estranged people certainly don’t need to be reminded that their only biological mum/brother/second cousin twice removed has been harmful enough for all contact to cease.

We’re already well aware of that painful fact.

Counselling Directory member Naomi Segal tells us: ‘If someone has chosen not to be in touch with a family member, don’t say “But why not? It’s family…”

‘To many people, the idea of stepping back from a relationship with, say, a parent or sibling may sound like an extreme choice. However, without knowing what led them to this decision, we may not have an understanding of their reasons.

‘It is important that each of us can make our own informed choices on what boundaries we need to put in place with people in our lives to protect our mental and emotional wellbeing.’

‘Have you tried x y z?’

Estrangement isn’t often a person’s first port of call, so you can trust us when we say we’ve tried it all.

Inese says it’s not your responsibility to try and fix an estranged person’s relationship with their family.

She adds: ‘But you can offer a listening, understanding and compassionate ear.

‘Questions like: “I am curious how estrangement is affecting you? What is it like for you? I am available to chat – when you feel like it, just let me know,” create space for others to share their experience.

‘Be mindful that you might not agree or fully understand their reasons. Acknowledging it by saying: ”Do I hear you correctly, that it made you feel x,y,z (name the emotion)?” can go a long way, making the other person feel heard and understood.

‘Let them know they are not alone, despite what it feels like at times.’

‘What happened?’

We get it, you’re curious, but don’t forget that some people have family who put them through abuse and cruelty worse than you could possibly imagine.

Take a moment and think about how certain you are that they’re fine to talk about it at the drop of a hat, or indeed whether you really want to hear their answer in the first place.

‘Blood is thicker than water’

A lot of people got back to us to say they get told this one a lot, and it’s not just infuriating because it’s one of the most misused quotes of all time, given the full proverb is actually ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.’

Inese says: ‘Just because a person is related to another person by blood doesn’t [mean you have to] put up with another person’s toxic, repeatedly harmful behaviour to you. 

‘Everyone has their own individual reasons, and making choices can be painful.

‘Sometimes it is about choosing a less harmful position and love from a distance. It is a way to look after your needs – you don’t have to maintain relationships at all costs.’

Life Coach Directory member Esther Limberg tells us: ‘If a relationship is toxic and healthy boundaries cannot be agreed and adhered to then sadly the only option is to become estranged.

‘This is not selfish, but self-preservation and putting ourselves first is necessary, especially if it is having an impact on our health.’

‘Everybody makes mistakes’

Calling reasons for estrangement ‘mistakes’ can be a pretty insulting euphemism given how serious an issue has to be for somebody to stop talking to family.

Knocking into someone on the street is a mistake. Forgetting you had a meeting at work is a mistake. But things like abandonment, bigotry and abuse? They need stronger words to describe them, and they’re certainly not the kinds of things ‘everybody’ does.

Inese says: ‘Choosing a path of estrangement can be very stressful and painful, but also can be life-changing. It most likely is someone’s last resort after exhausting many other options for managing their relationship circumstances.

‘Do not give advice, or suggest or push someone to reconcile, unless they have clearly expressed that [is what they want].

‘The opening question: ”Is there anything I could support you with?” is great to hear. But before committing, check in with yourself to see if you feel comfortable with a request.’

‘You’ll be sorry when they’re gone’

This is one that, sadly, estranged people hear a lot.

Holding the inevitability of death over an estranged person this way is not just hugely unkind, but logically flawed. Would you forgive and forget everything bad anyone’s ever done to you just because one day the perpetrators will stop breathing?

On top of that, grief is complicated, and it’s certainly not made any easier when estrangement is thrown into the mix.

Chances are, the estranged person you’re talking to is already plenty sorry enough, having already grieved for the family member they don’t speak to anymore, along with the healthy version of the relationship they should have had.

There’s also a chance they actually won’t be sorry at all.

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