Complex PTSD, family strain & estrangement – with Annie Wright, LMFT

Do the words ‘family estrangement’ scare you? Do they make you inwardly recoil or want to stop reading? Maybe the topic feels too heavy on top of everything going on in the world right now.

For many people with trauma histories, strained family relationships are common. If you entered the last months with strained or estranged relationships, you are not alone.

1 in 5 families in the UK will be affected by estrangement and over 5 million people have decided to cut contact with at least one family member.

Stand Alone UK

To help you normalize and understand the experience of family estrangement I invited Annie Wright, LMFT to answer questions about this topic. Annie is a therapist, a writer, and a sought after expert on relational trauma. She is also someone with lived experience. And she is about to launch an online course touching on this topic.


Annie Wright, LMFT is the founder and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling - a therapy center located in Berkeley, California - as well a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in complex relational trauma. She's also a published writer with pieces and opinions appearing in Forbes, NBC, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Reader's Digest and more. You can find her online at www.anniewrightpsychotherapy.com or at www.evergreencounseling.com


What is the definition of family estrangement?

The definition is as unique as the individual’s experience. I do think it’s a subjective definition with no one-size-fits-all. What looks estranged for me may not look like what’s estranged for you.

Family estrangement is very subjective but at its core, is a strained, dysfunctional, brittle relationship.

Annie Wright, LMFT

Classically, estrangement means no relationship as in no contact but it could also mean you are somewhat in contact. For instance, maybe you are on the same family photo stream and they leave a comment once in a while that you see but there is not a lot of contact in between. That might also be considered estrangement.

Do you see an average timeline leading up to estrangement?

No, but I will contextualize that by saying that I don’t think that estrangements come out of the blue and when a foundation has been laid for healthy, functional, good  relationships, a rupture doesn’t usually lead to estrangement. It usually leads to some challenging situation that family members work through.

In my experience with estrangement, it can look like it comes out of the blue but most often, the groundwork has been laid for quite some time for the conditions to exist where one moment in time, one incident, or one set of circumstances would then rupture the relationship entirely.

Usually, they are a long time in the making.

What is the relationship between people coming to therapy with complex relational backgrounds and strained family relationships?

This is purely anecdotal but in my opinion, I have never seen anyone with cPTSD who did not have strained or estranged relationships in their family.

To be clear, strained relationship does not necessarily mean no contact. We also have to dig into the person’s subjective definition of what estranged means because if you ask somebody what estranged means, it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no contact.’

Annie Wright, LMFT

In my ten years, I have never seen anyone present with complex trauma or cPTSD or relational trauma - any one of these terms - who did not have strained and dysfunctional family relationships in their history.

Why is it so hard to talk about family estrangement and complex PTSD?

It’s not popular to talk about family estrangement or cPTSD because we live in a pro-family world where there is a dominant message globally that says 'They’re your family and you just forgive them and move on. You accept them.’

It's not popular to talk about family estrangement.

Annie Wright, LMFT

There is a sort of dismissal of the victim’s experience so when you take a stand and say ‘Even though they are family, it’s not okay that they treated me this way,' you are going to be unpopular. Saying this goes against the prevailing societal message of family.

What are the common questions you get around strained relationships?

Some of the questions I receive are:

  • Is a relationship with this person even remotely possible?
  • If I set boundaries, will they be respected?
  • At what point, do I need to end the relationship? How will I know that?
  • What will the cost be if I decide to end the relationship?
  • If I don’t have contact with that one person, what will happen to my other family relationships?
  • What if there are kids involved? Are we going to try and let them see the grandparents?
  • Are we going to talk to them about that person on the family tree?

If you have a partner and the estrangement is not with your family-of-origin, what are the questions and concerns that may come up?

  • Does this person (the partner) understand this situation is really a problem?
  • Are we on the same page about the level of severity?
  • Has my partner done their work where they know it is okay to step away from the strained relationship?

The biggest issue that comes up when it’s not your family (i.e., in-laws) is about partners being on the same page. Are we on the same page as a couple about what the impact is now and what we need and want moving forward?

Annie Wright, LMFT

It is a tough situation.

What would you say to someone who is wrestling with shame around this topic?

Clinically, one of the things I have seen is the amount of secrecy and shame people have about estrangement is astonishing.

We all walk around with this story that ‘we are the only ones,’ but it is really quite common.

Annie Wright, LMFT

I want to grow that black sheep/estrangement/family trauma area but not that many people want to talk about it. For so many, this topic is anathema. 

What are some of the struggles people are facing with COVID-19 and estrangement?

A lot of my clients have been very triggered by seeing other people engaged so heavily and so creatively with their own ‘functional’ families through Zoom or through social distancing. There can also be an added layer of logistical complexity about having contact with one member and not another. COVID makes these issues a little harder.

For people that come from trauma backgrounds, who have relational trauma - we all have triggers - and there is a possible risk that they can be exacerbated under times of general, huge stress. A lot of folks are more triggered and are struggling more than ever.

Estrangement and being strained with your family feels like a very lonely place to stand at the best of times. With COVID, It’s like a second, heightened layer of loneliness. Even if we really need somebody, they are not there to support us.

Annie Wright, LMFT

COVID is a magnifying glass and a heightened pressure situation. Even if you have not had any new pressures added like job loss, the situation takes the things that were already hard and makes them harder. We need to treat this time as a marathon not a sprint. We need to treat our mental health incredibly well. There are a lot of families who are struggling.

How will your online course 'Hard Families, Good Boundaries' help people who are experiencing strained or estranged relationships?

My course is designed to help those who never were taught or modelled these things to learn what they are in theory and practice. For those who are already experiencing strained and estranged family relationships, the course contains modules and exercises to help you decide whether or not the boundary you are currently holding is appropriate and whether it needs to be strengthened.

Often, when we come from dysfunctional families of origin, we may not have a good sense of what appropriate boundaries are, what healthy relationship looks like, and how to skillfully communicate, assert and hold our boundaries with those family members.

Annie Wright, LMFT

The course content will also support you in thinking through what you may need and want if you decide you'd like to shift your boundaries or if your boundaries are forced to change through external circumstances.


Annie's Recommended Resources

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