"I'm Done" - When Families Stop Speaking
by Mark Sichel, LCSW
It's astounding to me how many people I know, both clients and personal acquaintances, who have had family members go off speaking terms with them: siblings who become estranged, adults who electively orphan themselves, ageing parents who refuse to speak with their own children, and close friends who suddenly terminate friendships. Whoever the players in these dramas may be, there is a commonality of experience and process that characterizes the family breakup.
The manifest causes of people going off speaking terms are very often never even discussed, or if they are, they are usually still inexplicable to the person who is dismissed from the relationship. The reasons given almost never make any sense to the person who is on the receiving end of the statement, "I'm done." Certainly, to the victim the alleged crimes committed never seem to be commensurate with the punishment.
Very often these episodes of "being done" occur simultaneously with a major life event, such as a marriage, a graduation, or a birth, where expectations are running high, new elements are introduced into the family dynamic and most of the family is gathered together. As a result, these episodes often ruin what should be joyous milestones for families, turning these occasions instead into sad memories. During trying family occasions, such as the loss of a job, a pet, or a family member, stress and sorrow can make people feel extra sensitive and fragile, increasing the likelihood that they will perceive remarks and actions as direct attacks on themselves. When an episode of "being done" occurs during a sad time, the family splinters when it most needs to pull together for the well-being of each family member. Nobody wins when a family member declares "I'm done," whether it's a happy or a sad time.
The dance of "I'm done" is often repeated within a family for years, even decades. The choreography is intricate and detailed but the process is predictable: A family member feels insulted, slighted, wounded and injured by someone else in the family. They then confront the offending family member with the alleged crime, and the insult is generally not understood or even remembered by the "perpetrator." Sometimes the perpetrator does remember and acknowledge the crime, but cannot understand the level of fury exhibited by the accuser. In either case, unless the accused immediately grovels and apologizes, the fighting will invariably escalate until it culminates in phrases like: "I'm done." "I'm never speaking to you again." "You're no longer welcome in my house."
Ultimately, no one wants to be without family, not even the initiator of the family breakup. Once put out there, though, ultimatums and harsh words are hard to retract. Generally, the person who is dismissed by a family will go to great lengths to fix the family for one central reason: The pain of elective loss is a huge burden to bear. It feels bad, sad, wasteful, awful, and lonely.
Read on to understand more about the drama and characters in this wretched scenario that is being played out in families throughout the country. The repercussions of family splits have been downplayed in the media -- especially in shock daytime shows where family disharmony and fighting is the coin of the realm -- and all but ignored in discussions of public health. However, from my personal and professional experience, I can guarantee that the toll this phenomenon takes on individuals and families is massive.
To learn more about rifts in the family, read When a Family Divorces.
To find out more about why family members will banish their loved ones, read I'm Done: The Drama.
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