Estrangement is one of the most complicated and painful struggles a family can ever experience.
One family member may say to another, "I'm done" while simultaneously feeling both relieved and distraught. And for the one being cut off, the relationship may seem all but hopeless.
Most of human families' history has always involved estrangement to some degree. But until recently, little research had been done on it. Estrangement, according to researchers, is when a person stops regular contact with one or more members of their family —a situation that festers for a significantly long time, even though the people they wished to separate from make efforts to re-connect.
Therapists may refer to this state of a relationship as being "cutoff" or "emotionally cutoff."
Despite a lack of solid data, psychologists, therapists, and sociologists are increasingly inclined to believe that intentional parent-child "breakup" has become a growing phenomenon in western nations.
Sociologist and Human Development professor at Cornell University, Karl Andrew Pillemer, explains, "The declaration of ‘I am done’ with a family member is a powerful and distinct phenomenon. It is different from family feuds, from high-conflict situations and from relationships that are emotionally distant but still include contact.”
For his 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, Pillemer conducted a nationwide survey after having realized there were only a few significant studies of family estrangement. According to his survey, more than one in four Americans said they were estranged from a relative.
Stand Alone, a British estrangement charity, did a similar research which revealed that one in five families in the UK is affected by the same phenomenon. Therapists and academic researchers in Australia and Canada also assert the existence of this "silent epidemic" of family break-ups.
Moreover, social media has seen a rise in online support groups for adult children who have decided to be estranged from their family.
Reasons Leading to Estrangement
Estrangement from someone rarely has a single, identifiable reason. A family member may be more susceptible to cutoff if there is a lack of flexibility within the family structure to handle conflicts, differences, or stressful events. The reasons might include:
a parent's illness
a new marriage
death of a parent
birth of a child
moving from other family
These kinds of turning point can create tension in a family, and tension can in turn change the family dynamics.
Differences in values, beliefs, or lifestyle choices can also make estrangement more possible. According to a 2015 study, opposing values between an adult child and their mother can create relationship tension and lead to estrangement.
While formulating his family systems theory, psychiatrist Murray Bowen, asserted that conflicts didn't lead to family cutoff. Instead, as a result of these conflicts it was the family's level of emotional reactivity which surfaced. Bowen claimed that an unresolved over reliance between the child and parent makes estrangement more probable. This means that an anxious attention on the other's reaction —rather than in one’s self— can make an individual more sensitive to the other person. For instance, the child might crave closeness but also feel averse to the relationship. Cutoff then becomes a means of managing that anxiety.
Also read: 3 Causes of Family Estrangement
The Effects of Estrangement
Family members who cut off may go through a lot of distress –whether they initiated the estrangement or not. Because the other person is still alive, some psychologists consider estrangement as a form of uncertain loss. As a result, they may feel grief and their overall psychological well-being might suffer. A person who is estranged from their family may have to endure stigma from other relatives as well.
There may also be substantial loss of emotional, financial, and social support. Family cutoff can affect future generations as young children lose touch with their grandparents or cousins never meet. Bowen asserted that someone who is estranged from their family may be more inclined to repeat the same action in future relationships.
How Prevalent is Estrangement?
Most people can recall at least one incident of estrangement in their extended families.
In a different survey conducted in 2015, more than 10% of mothers said they were cut off from at least one of their adult children. In a large-scale survey of undergraduates, 39% of respondents said that estrangement did occur within their immediate family, and 61% within their extended family.
For the same 2020 book, Fault Lines, Pillemer and his team polled more than 1, 300 Americans and discovered that 27% were currently cut off from a family member —and that's a significant number!
Although any familial relationships can become estranged, the majority of research on estrangement concentrates on parents and their adult children –also dubbed intergenerational estrangement.
Siblings can become estranged from each other, for instance, after a parent has passed away or when there is disagreement over money regarding their inheritance.
Read related article: Adult Sibling Rivalry
Family Structures That Result in Estrangement
Some families experience estrangement more often than others. If there has been a history of multigenerational cutoff, a person is more inclined to cut contact with family members in times of intense tension in the family.
Most likely, it is the adult child who initiates the separation in parent-child estrangements.
The probability of family estrangement can also increase with the intensity of the parent-child relationship. When the child was young, the parent who is nervously focused on them may feel close to them, but the connection changes as the child gets older. If the parent struggles to accept these natural changes, the child might believe that cutting off contact with the parent is the only way to escape the intensity.
A father's risk of being estranged from his child increases after divorce. And, a father is more likely to be estranged from his children if he never weds the child's mother. Mothers who are married have a reduced risk of estrangement from their children. Moreover, according to researchers, the mother's partner (or spouse) might act as a mediator in a tense relationship.
Discover critical lessons learned about parent-child breakup at: What is family estrangement? A relationship expert describes the problem and research agenda.
How to Mend a Fractured Relationship
It's no easy thing to reconcile after estrangement. In his study, sociologist Pillemer discovered that the likelihood of reconciliation increases when family members are less obsessed with achieving the same understanding of the past, but are more keen on working together toward a better future. Family relationships also tend to get better when individuals lower their expectations and set clear boundaries.
Therapy can often be a crucial first step for many families in figuring out how to go forward. Therapy can teach an estranged parent how to regulate strong emotions and think more objectively about whether they want to reach out to their child –and how.
For the estranged family member, therapy may become a calm space to think about how they want to act moving forward if they find it difficult to re-connect without a mediator. Therapy can also be a good place to examine one's multigenerational history and understand how previous generations handled problems. For better or worse, such an exercise can provide context for how their parents or siblings function through conflicts.
So, if you're contemplating cutting off from family or relatives, understand the resources you will need to handle the challenges. Discover more about your family's experiences and history and how tough times were handled.
Estrangement between adult children and their parents seems to be increasing, or at least being discussed more increasingly, which appears to be the result of a complex web of psychological and cultural factors. Consequently, many questions are raised by this phenomenon, especially with regards to its impact on both the individual and society.
Estrangement has its own advantages and disadvantages. The decision to cut off contact with family may bring safety and peace from upsetting –or even harmful– interactions. Therapy can –and should– offer a trusting, nonjudgmental space where a person can carefully think through what is best for them in light of their family situation.
Reach out to JarvisHypnotherapy today to help you process the grief of estrangement or if you need help in how to re-connect with family after so many years of distance.