The Causes of Estrangement, and How Households Heal

The Causes of Estrangement, and How Families Heal

A 21 year old college student who hasn't spoken to her mother since high school.

A woman who cannot get along with her daughter-in-law and therefore has no contact with her son.

Three siblings who stopped speaking 30 years ago because of a controversial inheritance.

Family alienation – an issue that was once so stressful and shameful that people hesitated to discuss it – is attracting more attention as some tell their stories and researchers delve into its causes and consequences.

Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist at Cornell University, has just published Fault Lines: Broken Families and How to Fix Them, a book that provides something rare in this area – actual data.

He asked participants in a representative national survey: “Is there a relative you have no contact with?” Of the 1,340 people who answered an online questionnaire, 27 percent said they had become estranged from a family member. And half had been estranged for four years or more.

For a period of five years, Dr. Pillemer and his colleagues conducted hundreds of interviews with people who were estranged from their parents, adult children, siblings, or other relatives. They also interviewed many who had made up, and Dr. Pillemer passed her advice on in his book.

(Another book on Rules of Alienation by Joshua Coleman, a Bay Area psychologist, will be out in March.)

I have talked to Dr. Pillemer spoke over the phone about his results. Our conversation was processed and condensed.

Paula Span: We seem to hear more about alienation than it has seemed for so long as something people just didn't talk about.

Karl Pillemer: It was amazing to me to find so little scientific literature on it.

But high profile celebrities have brought it to the fore. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Angelina Jolie, famously estranged from her father Jon Voight. Tara Westover's book "Educated".

Alienation may have been less common when families lived closer together and there were more routine interactions, a social norm that you keep in touch with at all costs. When I interview older people, they often describe being with their families no matter what.

The baby boomers and younger are more likely to feel like they can move on when the relationship doesn't work.

This phenomenon of being cut off, or being cut off from a family member, is strikingly common in America.

Plus, when you looked at gender, race, or educational level, you didn't find any differences – this can happen to anyone. Can you explain what you call paths, the most common reasons, or explanations for alienation?

One of them is the difficult childhood story: Abusive parenting, harsh parenting, memories of parental preference – people don't always get over it. They carry them into adulthood.

Second, divorce, no matter when it occurs in the life cycle. Children are more likely to lose touch with fathers, research shows, but the disorder can weaken bonds with both parents.

Even the problematic in-laws. In a remarkable number of cases, someone from the family of origin believes that you married the wrong person and the classic conflict between the demands of your own family and your partner cannot be resolved.

Then there is money. There is a lot of resentment about how inheritance is distributed. You can share your money among your children, but you cannot share material property like heirlooms or a summer home. But failed business deals can also contribute to this or fail to repay loans.

And unfulfilled expectations. An archetypal example is taking care of aging parents: sibling A stays with all due care and sibling B does nothing, so sibling A says: "I'm done."

Finally, lifestyle and value differences, especially in parent-child relationships. A kid who comes out gay or lesbian. A religious conversion. Different politics.

They indicate that people who look back on what went wrong have different views about the past. They can't even agree on what actually happened or who said what.

Correct. It is not a realistic expectation to believe that a sibling, parent, or adult child will come to your view of these past events. But it is an almost indelible wish. People are often alienated in the long term because the other person supposedly cannot see the reality of the past.

We know from psychology that we love our own narratives and don't give them up. You won't reconcile the perspectives of the sister who felt emotionally abused and the brother who thought he was just doing normal teasing.

You describe alienation as a wound that does not heal.

People find alienation isolating and shameful. They often experience feelings of guilt. And there is a stigma attached to that. Other people think that something is wrong with your family.

When analyzing the survey data, there were correlations between alienation and anxiety, depression or isolation.

Your "reconcilers" – about 100 of them in your interview sample – were obviously no different from the others, were they?

They were remarkably similar in what caused the alienation, how disturbing it was, and how long it had lasted. If I showed you accounts of how the alienation took place and how difficult it was, you would not be able to distinguish between those who ultimately made up and those who did not.

What has changed for these reconcilers? What made contact possible after years of alienation?

The situation had changed or the person had changed. If it was a problematic issue and a divorce ensued, the barrier was gone.

Or people felt the pressure of a limited time horizon. Observing their own or others' health problems led them to believe they could no longer put it off.

And just the passage of time. It made some of the angry feelings go away. One of my respondents said, "Boy, the argument that started it seems so trivial now."

Her reconcilers offered some helpful strategies, one of which was to let go of the past. They don't mean that you forgive and forget, but that you accept that you and the other person will never have the same view of what happened.

Reconciling people describe the experience as letting go of trying to make the other person see the past as they saw it.

They also talk about changing their expectations.

Reconciliation is usually imperfect, even if it is good. So it was a very useful exercise to determine the least you can accept in the relationship.

In most cases it was about settling for less. It was still worth being in the relationship again.

Here's a popular word: limits. How do they work in resolving alienations?

The Reconcilers developed very clear terms, specific conditions under which the relationship could exist. "When you're in my house, you can't say anything negative about my husband. That's the rule."

I know that some readers will reply that they feel completely entitled to cut off contact. And that someone who pushes them to reconcile or simply tells them how to reconcile will not accept their view that they did the right thing.

I do not recommend that individuals reconcile. But for the vast majority who do, it turns out to be a positive, sometimes life-changing experience. They found it a great lifetime achievement.

The number of people who had become completely estranged from a close relative and found it to be a positive event that they were glad to have happened was certainly a minority.

I would tell people who feel it was the best thing they ever did and feel liberated as a result: More strength for you. But for most of the alienated people, that is not their experience. They feel like something is missing in their life.


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