How to handle big family events when you’re estranged from a relative

Have an iron-clad escape plan (Picture: Getty Images)

If you’ve cut a relative or relatives out of your life, the break might not be a completely clean one.

Some, like myself, don’t have any contact with whole branches of their family tree, so big events aren’t something I need to navigate the way other estranged people might.

There are those who will be estranged from their entire family, while others will still maintain contact with at least one person they’re related to.

As such, family events like weddings and funerals become that much more complicated – even outright terrifying.

First, how are you supposed to decide whether to go in the first place?

Your RSVP should be ‘no’ right off the bat if you feel like you could come to any harm by going.

If you’re physically safe to attend the event, there are more things you’ll need to mull over.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott tells ‘If you have a robust escape plan and strong support from friends you will be okay. The question really becomes do you feel it’s worth your while going?

‘It can be estimable to attend events and deal with yourself in a way that makes you proud. Remember that self-esteem often comes from doing difficult tasks that we are anxious about well.

‘So, do you feel this that type of situation is something you that you could possibly gain from? Or is it just pain with little opportunity for growth? If it’s the latter, maybe it’s not worth going.’

Once you’ve established whether you think you have anything to gain from going, then there are things you can do to ensure you have as smooth a time as possible.

side profile view of church pews lined with chairs

‘Assume the problem person will be a problem’ (Picture: Getty Images)

Firstly, you should try to have expectations of nobody but yourself, make sure you have an escape plan in place if you need to get out of the event at any point, and have a friend ready and waiting on the other side of the phone.

Noel says: ‘Assume the problem person will be a problem, that you can’t stop them being that, and focus on yourself as that’s what you have power over. 

‘Have an escape route planned. If you are travelling to the event, book a place to stay that is not at the event or is secluded in some way. Knowing you can get away reduces your anxiety. You should also know when you are leaving the event and don’t be fooled into breaking your boundary. 

‘Have support available. Ask friends to call you to mentally take you out of the event and allow you to decompress, and also to remind you that you have love in your life. A call for just a few minutes will be enough to do the job.’

You can also get non-problematic family members you trust involved in the survival plan.

Noel explains: ‘With the other relatives that you get on with, and if it’s safe, then explain your boundaries above and ask they respect them.

‘It’s probably not possible for them to provide direct support as they will be in the event and therefore unavailable for the decompression role. Depending on the situation, they may be able to help by keeping the problem person distracted.’

Once you’re at the event, try not to drink a lot, don’t rise to provocations from problematic family members, and keep your expectations focused on you – the only person you’re in a position to control.

‘Alcohol confuses us, reduces our ability to assess risk, hold boundaries, and makes us overreact,’ Noel explains. ‘So, reducing or avoiding it can help you stay alert and quick-witted. 

‘Don’t respond to provocations, just leave if the problem person acts out with you. There is a concept called Karpman’s drama triangle, and in it are roles we fall into called victim, perpetrator, and rescuer. Once in this dynamic, we are stuck.

‘So, avoid it and or walk away if you are in it. It can’t be resolved without goodwill on all sides. Keep the focus on yourself and don’t try to manage or control others.’

Degrees of Separation

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.

If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

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