A Knot in the Red String: The Myths and Meaning of Family Estrangement

Often when monks make a red string bracelet or ring, they breathe prayers or mantras into the knot that connects it. Because clarity is better than confusion, let’s explore some of the myths of estrangement so we can breathe compassion into the twisted family cords.

 

By Kellie Schorr

 

“I’m free Sunday the 12th,” I said, swiping my calendar to May.

“Isn’t that Mother’s Day?” My friend asked.

“I have no idea,” I replied matter-of-factly. “I don’t know when that is.”

She looked up from her phone, her mouth open in disbelief. I live in the south where Mother’s Day is a glorious combination of a national holiday, spring fling, and a holy day of obligation (complete with lunch out and flowers). She must have heard me wrong.

“I haven’t had a relationship with my mother since I was eighteen.”

“Oh.” She looked back down. “I forgot.”

A dense, gray fog of silence filled the room for a good fifteen seconds. It was awkward. Then, it was over. The conversation went on.

For many people, the idea of being estranged from a parent or member of your family seems an unthinkable fate reserved for the most extreme cases and afternoon Lifetime movies.

The concept is so foreign that it has been filled with myths and assumptions that are neither helpful nor correct. It’s especially daunting when you’re a Buddhist.

Buddhism is swathed in mother love. We are taught to love all beings because it’s possible in another life one of those beings were our mother. We are given examples of how we should nurture one another because we had a mother who nurtured us.

Aren’t we the people of the red string, that symbol that reminds us we are all connected one to another? Aren’t we the ones who believe everyone has Buddha nature or basic goodness?

What kind of Buddhist doesn’t know when it’s Mother’s Day if her mother is still alive? What kind of Buddhist doesn’t know where her daughter lives or if she ever got married? What kind of Buddhist blocks his own brother on Facebook because he just can’t take it anymore?

The kind who parks beside you at a sangha meeting.
The kind who says mantras every day and offers metta every night.
The kind who sits tonglen for a friend and holds compassion for a stranger.
The kind like you.
The kind like me.

Often when monks make a red string bracelet or ring, they breathe prayers or mantras into the knot that connects it. Because clarity is better than confusion, let’s explore some of the myths of estrangement so we can breathe compassion into the twisted family cords.

Myth: Estrangement is rare.

Clarity: Popular phrases like “Blood is thicker than water” or “Home is where your heart is” serve to reinforce our social ideology that families should always stay together. However, scientific research shows estrangement is far more common than people realize.

Dr. Kylie Agllias wrote a 2014 article in Psychology Today citing reports that show 7% of adult children are estranged from their mother, and 27% are estranged from their father in the US. A 2008 German study revealed 10% of population to be estranged, and a study commissioned in 2017 by the UK’s “Standalone.org” (a support group for estranged people) found 1 in 5 families in the UK are touched by estrangement.

Myth: Estrangement is one-sided.

Clarity: Estrangement is often mutual and can allow both parties to move forward. The “classic” idea of estrangement is an adult child who cuts off contact with a devastated parent, or an angry parent who tells the problematic adult child never to return. That does happen, and it can be very painful.

However, while estrangement is usually initiated by one side or the other, it frequently evolves into an accepted agreement from both sides. “He lives his life; I live mine.” may sound like a tragic statement, but for the people who were trapped in a toxic or harmful relationship, it shows the freedom to pursue a life with much less suffering.

Myth: Estrangement happens over little things and be easily solved with patience or prayer.

Clarity: Inevitably, anecdotes of small clashes make it into the stories of estrangement. “My mother called me after three years and the first thing she asked was if my hair was still stringy and flat.” or “My son said I couldn’t take my own grandkids to the Trump rally so I quit going over there.” While these micro-stories reveal a lot about the tone of the relationship, no one cuts off contact with their mother because she criticized their cooking. No parent changes the locks on a son because he voted for “the other person” or has a different view on immigration policy or football teams.

Most estrangement is seeded in physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, inflexible social or religious ideas, abandonment, or a constant pattern of damaging negativity and harmful encounters. The fight over the dishes or political name calling, are just symbols of a larger, longer problem that has no simple resolution. It doesn’t happen easily, and it doesn’t resolve in a snap.

Myth: Estrangement means someone is bad/wrong.

Clarity: How can a Buddhist who believes all beings have inherent goodness be estranged from her own parents? Because estrangement isn’t about their goodness, or hers. Estrangement is a rupture in a relationship. Like two benign chemicals that only become harmful when they are swirled in the same test-tube, it’s not the source, but the mixing that causes the problem.

Some people are not good parents, but they can be terrific people, friends and neighbors. Some children will never be what their parents expect, but are amazing people on their own. As I’ve often said, “My mother is wonderful person to be around, unless you’re me.” No one is a villain. No one is a saint. We’re all just humans.

Myth: Estranged people end up hurt and alone.

Clarity: “Beware of a house divided,” the Bible says, “lest you should inherit the wind.” Tell that to an estranged person who has struggled, cried, and bravely made the decision to protect their mental health and they may just chuckle. They will confide in you that the wind is far less painful that the tsunami of fear and sadness they were living in before. People don’t go through estrangement to get worse. They do it because they have determined it is the best path to better.

They also don’t live in a vacuum. Most people find a “family of choice” made of maternal or paternal influences, supportive friends-like-family, and loving spouses and kids that give life and love. Many work with therapists, teachers, and wise friends to overcome the pain of separation and begin to thrive in their new environment. Estrangement of relationship is rarely a dead-end. It is often a new beginning.

Myth: An estranged person’s situation can be accurately viewed through your lens.

Clarity:

“My mother died five years ago and I would give everything to hear her fuss at me about the way I dry the dishes just one more time. You should call your mom.”

“You’re an adult now, they can’t hurt you.”

“Give a little, you’ll miss them when they are gone.”

“Just treat them like you would any other person, don’t expect anything from them and you won’t be disappointed.”

Those are not uncommon statements for an estranged person to encounter. Because we know that we are all connected, we mistakenly feel we are all the same. I love people who love their parents, and I grieve with those who lose someone they love so dear. However, their story is not my story, and their keys do not fit my lock. Unless you have been inside the very skin of the individual with a damaged parent-child relationship (hint: you haven’t), viewing their situation through your lens is at best unhelpful and at worst, unfair.

What can you do?

When searching for compassionate ways to relate to someone estranged from their family, whether it is by their choice or not, rely on the common grounds:

  1. Don’t judge.
  2. Don’t advise.
  3. Don’t minimize.
  4. Don’t compare.
  5. Don’t Fix. (For the love of Buddha, don’t fix!).

Simply be present. Listen. Love. Repeat.

When someone says to me, “I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have my momma around.” I usually respond, “I’m glad you can’t. Love is a good thing.” An estranged person doesn’t hate mommas or dads, or kids. They usually don’t hate the disconnected relative. Estrangement is not about being angry, hating or punishing. It’s about being better outside of a relationship as opposed to hurting within it.

I wear a red string on my finger to remind me of that “invisible red thread” that connects us all to one another. I am happy with it and I am grateful for it even, or maybe especially, if it comes with a knot.

 

Simply be present. Listen. Love. Repeat. ~ Kellie Schorr Click To Tweet

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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Kellie Schorr

Columnist & Featured Writer at The Tattooed Buddha
Kellie Schorr works as a commissioned novelist who writes mystery genre novels for traditional publishers. Her published credentials also include: journal articles, short stories, and a two-year stint writing for a web-comic. Kellie’s fiction is represented by the Kathryn Green Literary Agency. Kellie has been practicing meditation for nearly 20 years. Her practice is housed in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. She is currently studying Vajrayana and Dzogchen as a member of the Buddhist Yogis Sangha from Ngapka International. She lives and works in rural Virginia with her partner, Cathy, and three beagles. Her favorite word is chiaroscuro. You can contact or find out more about her at The Bottom Line.
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