Brian: My job is up for grabs. My marriage is up for grabs. I mean, if, if, if I told my mom and my dad where I was, the phone would simply go dead.
[Death, Sex & Money theme music]
Anna Sale: This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
In our longest relationships, there are ebbs and flows of closeness. Sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Depending on what’s going on in your life or whether it’s easy to be together.
And then, sometimes, no matter how entangled you are, there’s a rupture. A break. You become estranged from the people you come from, or the communities that once felt like home.
Listener: I Have been estranged from my family since I was 16. I moved out and I just never saw them again.
Listener: I'm in a 13-year journey of trying to estrange myself and my sister from our mom.
Listener: And I haven't spoken to them for the last 129 days.
Listener: I don't even know that I'd recognize him on the street if I saw him or recognize his voice.
Anna Sale: When we asked you, our listeners, earlier this year about your experiences with estrangement, hundreds of you shared stories.
You told us about the moment you knew you were done.
Listener: He told me he would not come to my wedding.
Listener: She reminded me often that I wasn't wanted. She wanted to have an abortion.
Listener: He will just message you out of nowhere tearing you down, letting you know what a loser he thinks you are.
Listener: I was diagnosed with cancer. I just remember, like I called him and I said, you know, I have something I really need to talk to you about. It’s really important. And he said, “Well, can it wait? I'm just not in a really good place right now.”
Listener: And that's when I decided to draw a line in the sand.
Listener: I was left with this turning point in our relationship.
Listener: And I never saw them again.
Anna Sale: You described what estrangement feels like in your body.
Listener: Estrangement feels like I've lost a limb and I'm learning how to live without it.
Listener: The pain is physical. I wake up with lots of tension in my shoulders.
Listener: I feel like I sit and sink in that gray area every single day.
Anna Sale: But your estrangement stories were also about finding your strength
Listener: I did what I had to do in order to be able to live with myself.
Listener: I’m so proud of myself. And I just mourn for the family that I think I should have had, and I didn't.
Anna Sale: It’s difficult to find reliable data on how common estrangement is. One national survey published in 2020 found that more than a quarter of American adults had cut off contact with a family member.
And that’s just one kind of estrangement. Others of you have lost communities, your sense of national identity or entire belief systems.
Listener: I think I was 14 when they officially excommunicated us. My uncle wrote the letter and everyone signed it.
Anna Sale: We are bringing you three episodes in this series about different stages of estrangement, and varied vantage points. Some of you are years out, decades into making that hard boundary. Others have had estrangement happen to you, for reasons you haven’t always understood and couldn’t control.
Listener: He just told me he couldn't come anymore and that he wasn't able to share why.
Anna Sale: We heard about the families and communities you’ve rebuilt after estrangement. And we heard from those of you just newly contemplating the idea – not quite there yet.
Listener: How do I do it? Do I let him know? Or do I just block him or do I leave him unblocked and just ignore his messages?
Listener: I'm sort of mourning this relationship slowly, and I'm just not ready to fully kill it.
Anna Sale: That’s where Brian was when he reached out to us in early June, he said he felt caught between two worlds. On the one hand his growing disillusionment with the religion he grew up in, and on the other his wife and parents who are still embedded in that religion, losing one would mean losing the other.
Brian: I'm stuck in a way because my wife is still, for lack of a better word, a true believer, and that connects me to it in a way that I'm just fear riddled that I'll lose her if I lose, if I leave completely. Because I know I'll lose my parents completely if I leave. They'll cut me off. One hundred percent cut me off.
Anna Sale: Brian asked us not to use his real name, or to identify his particular religious community. It’s Christian, with meetings and services multiple times a week. He describes the community as “high control.”
Brian: There is real clear guidance on gosh, everything like what you should or shouldn't watch on TV. What you should or shouldn't do in your, in what you read, what, what movies you see, you know, even rules on what you do and don't do in the bedroom.
Anna Sale: Brian said he started to feel doubts in his mid-20s. He’s in his mid-40s now.
Brian: I think as an adult, you look at your behaviors and you decide which ones are worth maintaining and which ones are not. And the constant pressure to do more, more, more for the faith. It left me with this incredible feeling of inadequacy. I could never do enough. And every time you reached for the goal line or the finish line of whatever it was you were trying to do, I felt like it moved.
Anna Sale: mm. Like an exhaustion with trying to please.
Anna Sale: And you reached out to us when we asked our listeners about experiences of estrangement. When I ask that, with that word estrangement, what connected for you about that?
Brian: You know, when you're raised, from the beginning of your formative thought process in, in a, in a, in a group like I was, or am, your entire life perspective is really kind of built on that as it's basis. not just morality, it's what you do with your time, how you plan for your future. Even the definition of the word future is different, right? When you're a devout believer, you believe that any time the end could come, you know, and, so it's a separation. The estrangement is a separation, not just from my community, but from an entire belief system.
Anna Sale: You said “I was,” and then you corrected yourself and said, “I am.” What is your current relationship to the church community?
Brian: I stay in it as much as I have to, and the “have to” is, is based upon, is predicated on how much turmoil I want to take on at any given time. I don't wanna cause my wife any more stress because of what it would mean for her. Not to mention the fact that the job that I have puts me in touch with are in constant contact with people who are 100%, still in that world, and it would my separation from it would abbreviate or, truncate all those relationships.
Anna Sale: What does your wife know?
Brian: She knows how I feel about the organization. She knows how I feel about, um, the different beliefs that we've had over the years that I no longer hold onto. The one thing I wish I were a little more transparent with her about is just how kind of done with the day to day stuff I wannabe.
Anna Sale: Hmm. Does she know we're speaking?
Brian: Does it make me a bad husband if I say no? Does it change the answer?
Anna Sale: I don't know. I don't think it makes you a bad husband either way. Just speaks to where you are in the process, I feel like.
Brian: So, no, she doesn't no Uhuh.
Anna Sale: Mm.
Brian: Because of the way the organization handles marriages, to her, my separation from the religion would feel like I was generally calling into question morality and that it might also include my, um, um, uh, I'm trying to think of the word for it. Um, trying to, it would, that that would include my dedication to her, my promises to her.
Anna Sale: I see.
Brian: And so, I'm a, I'm a 100%, one woman, man. And it's always been her since we were, since we were kids. It was her. And so I, I'm just not, I'm not a, I'm not the kind of guy that looks around. I'm not the kind of guy that's gonna show too much attention in the wrong direction. But to have to reaffirm my fidelity as a husband, that's, I don't know, it's irritating. It makes me more mad at the organization that they taught us to believe that way.
Anna Sale: Yeah.
Brian: I, I hate it. I hate it for, for my wife, because I just can't blind her with the honesty of it. I have to slow roll it because if I just unload, she won't be able to hear it and it will terrify her.
Anna Sale: So you are trying to figure out how to live honestly, while knowing that this is a bomb in your marriage?
Brian: Yeah. And so, I mean, you're, the bomb is a, is a, it's just, it's a super destructive thing, right? Just tears, everything apart all at once. And that's not how this would go. That's not how this would go. If it did cause the failure of my marriage, which I have to say out loud, I'm generally unwilling to accept. Not even general. I am absolutely unwilling to accept. It would be in, it would be in really small steps. It would be the absence of family invitations. The reduction in family phone calls, the seeing the posts on social media from family members, doing things together that we weren't invited to, that would lead to her seeing me as less of an asset to her life and more of a weight.
Anna Sale: Hm. Like estrangement by a thousand cuts.
Brian: Yeah. Yeah.
Anna Sale: Are you and your, are you and your wife raising kids?
Brian: No. Isn't it awful to think that that's a mercy? I don't know. I couldn't teach a kid to believe this way. I couldn't, I couldn't allow it to go by.
Anna Sale: Was it intentional not to become parents?
Brian: No, no, we tried. Wasn't biologically possible for us.
Anna Sale: I imagine that was years ago but now you see that as a grace, as a blessing.
Brian: Yeah. Isn't that awful?
Anna Sale: No.
Brian: It's a, it's a, it it's a major crime because, um, my wife's, um, maternal instinct is so strong. She would have been the world's greatest mom.
Anna Sale: Coming up, Brian talks about why he first started feeling alienated from church.
Brian: I’ve watched my brother struggle with the knowledge that his family thought that he was damned. And I’ve watched my sister deal with the same, and how that they have broken themselves trying to regain approval from their families. It broke my brother till he died. And it almost did that to my sister.
Anna Sale: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Brian told us he wasn't the first person in his family to consider life outside their religious community. Both his siblings – his older brother and younger sister – became estranged from the church and thus, their parents.
First it was his brother, who began distancing himself when he was in his early twenties. At the time Brian was a teenager, still devout and very disapproving of his brother.
Brian: I was always the good kid and he had all of the pendings of the rebellious child, and so I yeah, just continued to make decisions that I thought mom and dad would be proud of, which put me in the position where our, my relationship with him was, there was a lot less communication There was always this fine point – I remember telling him one time – that you know, I, I was okay to, to hang out with him and, and, and talk and do whatever, but if he ever mentioned anything that was contrary to our religious upbringing, then that was just the end of it.
Anna Sale: That you couldn’t sustain a relationship If he was gonna talk to you about that?
Brian: exactly. Yeah, exactly. I just, I wouldn't, I couldn't hear it or wouldn't hear it. There's um, I guess for lack of a better word, there's a thought blocking that that comes into the way that we're taught that you can't yet. I've seen it on my wife's face and I'm sure it was on mine when I talked to my brother. Like when you get to the point where the discussion goes towards something that isn't in line with, with teaching, with the teachings, your face changes and you can tell the person stopped listening, or they, because they simply cannot hear it.
Anna Sale: Mm-hmm
Brian: And as he grew away from the faith, his lifestyle grew increasingly less like mine, and more like, who he wanted to be. And his sexuality was in question to him and because of my fundamentalist upbringing, I was really cold about that.
Anna Sale: mm-hmm. How long ago did you lose him? Did he die?
Brian: It's been about six years.
Anna Sale: Six years. Are you comfortable sharing how he died?
Brian: I am. He drank himself to death.
Anna Sale: Oh, that's sad.
Brian: Yeah. He went into the hospital on a Thursday and I went in to talk to him one night and I leaned in and I said I love you. And he said, I love you back. And I think I was the last person he spoke to. A couple days later, his body just gave out. I think the official cause of death was multisystem failure. So yeah, by Sunday he was gone.
Anna Sale: It's nice that you got to visit him.
Brian: Yeah. Yeah. He knew it. He knew how I felt, so.
Anna Sale: Did your brother know that, that how you were thinking about your faith, your individual faith was shifting? No.
Brian: No, I think he and I would've been, really close right now because of it. I think he would've enjoyed the person, I think I'm becoming,
Anna Sale: Oh, that's beautiful. And there's such a sadness to that.
Brian: I know.
Anna Sale: When Brian's younger sister left the faith community at 18, their relationship ended more abruptly. Brian, and everyone else in her family, cut her off.
Brian: She left in a very different way. My brother faded away, which, was easier for me to maintain a relationship with him. My sister was pulled away, because the congregation decided her behaviors were not ones that could tolerate, so they excommunicated.
Anna Sale: She was cast out.
Anna Sale: And when the church cast her out, you cast her out as well?
Brian: I did. I did. I didn't speak to her for almost 20 years.
Anna Sale: And she lost her whole community?
Brian: She did. Her, all of her friends, all, all of her friends, her lifelong friends. There's probably, there's even several she probably has yet to be able to communicate with because she still carries the label that the organization put on her. A scarlet letter, isn't it?
Anna Sale: Well, I'm just curious. I just want to make sure I'm understanding – was it some violation of something about sexual morality?
Brian: It's even more trite than that. It was a cigarette. She smoked a cigarette. Other people saw her do it. It was found out. It was reported to the people in charge of that particular congregation. She told her story and they didn't believe she wasn't lying. And it's, it's sick, isn't it? It's sick how small that is – a kid trying cigarettes.
Anna Sale: After she was excommunicated, Brian says his sister struggled with drug addition and got in trouble with the law. They were estranged for 20 years. But when their older brother died, Brian picked up the phone and called his sister.
Brian: She was far more forgiving than I deserved for sure. Yeah, just how, you can't just apologize for 20 years of silence and all the times you should have said something. It's just, it's just not, I mean, I did, I did apologize. But it's, you are what you do and not what you say, so I I've got some time left to prove that I meant it and I intend to and have been. But I was just doing what I was supposed to. I was doing, it was, it was considered to be right. When you're brought up that way, you have to stop believing in what is right or what you thought was right. You have to acknowledge that it just, it wasn't, it just wasn't. It’s wrong.
Anna Sale: Does your sister hold onto any faith? Is she still a believer in some ways in the teachings of the religion you grew up in?
Anna Sale: Is she helping you have language to critique the religion you grew up in?
Brian: I think just in trying to be available to her, yeah, I think she's helped me to kind of work around some of the same thought blocks that I had in place. There's a really good friend of mine who was even more involved in, in the group that I was, who pulled himself out of it and his family. And he and I have kept in really close communication. And that's helped a lot too, is to have someone to talk that out with. Yeah, I'm not the most emotionally mature or a conscious person.
A lot of times I'm like a little kid who cries, cuz he's both hungry and tired and I don't know, so I'll cry and not know why. I think he's helped me out a lot with that – knowing, knowing why instead of just being a general wad of anxiety and anger.
Anna Sale: Is your relationship with this friend secret?
Brian: No, no, that's I and because his, his family is still nearby and, and I'll still bump into them occasionally. But it is known, it is known that he's left.
Anna Sale: Mm-hmm
Brian: And because he left and I maintain communication, it puts me on the watch list. I won't hide that from the religious community that I am both communicating with my sister and that I am communicating with my friend. Um, I won't hide that I, I, it, because to me that would feel like I was doing the same thing. I owe it to, I owe it to my sister who I can still prove it to, and I owe it to my brother's memory to not be ashamed of them.
Anna Sale: That’s a listener we’re calling Brian. Since we talked a few months ago, Brian emailed us an update: “I had an open conversation with my parents about where I’m at, the result has been what I thought – a dismissive withdrawal of most normal communication,” he wrote. But he said felt better having been honest with them. “My wife has come to a better understanding of where I am,” Brian continued. “She’s been very forgiving, but still doesn’t want to talk about it.”
And he said she still doesn’t know about the podcast.
On next week’s episode, stories from listeners about choosing estrangement, and how they did it.
Sonia: Once they landed in Poland and they sent me the text that we landed, that's when I blocked the phone numbers and their email addresses.
Anna Sale: And from listeners who had estrangement done to them.
Megan: went out to the porch. It was January and it was cold. And I remember picking up the note and being so excited by having a note from my daughter.
Anna Sale: What was your daughter writing to tell you?
Megan: That she no longer wanted to hear from me.
Anna Sale: Death Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Zoe Azulay. The rest of our team is Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz, Afi Yellow-Duke, Tracie Hunte, Lindsay Foster-Thomas and Andrew Dunn, who composed original music for this series.
Julia Furlan and Lilly Clark worked also on this series with us. And it started with a pitch from our former intern Gabriela Santana.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
Thank you to Molly Ryan from Dorchester, Massachuessets for being a member of Death, Sex & Money and supporting us with a monthly donation. Join Molly and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
I’m on Instagram @annasalepics, the show is @deathsexmoney on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Brian says he sometimes goes to online chat rooms where they use different lingo to describe the various states of leaving religion. Like this acronym for being physically a part of a community but mentally outside of it.
Anna Sale: have you heard the term PIMO?
BRIAN: Physically in mentally out?
Anna Sale: Yeah.
Brian: Did you just get on Reddit?
Anna Sale: Is that where you are?
Brian: With 100% certainty. Yeah.
Anna Sale: That's the only thing that's certain right now in your life.
Brian: I know! [Laughs]
Anna Sale: I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.