Need to know
Family estrangements are fundamental to the human story, starting the day that God tossed Adam and Eve from the garden. Likewise, in Greek mythology, there’s Electra, who murdered her mother to avenge her father, and Tantalus, who cooked his son and fed him to Olympian gods. The trope continues: just look at the brutal enemies Tywin and Tyrion Lannister, father and son power players in the TV series Game of Thrones.
These fictions mirror real life. Through the ages and into modern times, family cut-offs have led to painful, shattering ends: King Henry II was forever on edge fielding challenges and betrayals from his sons; Mozart’s marriage left him estranged from his father, the controlling, nagging, unbearable Leopold; the American founding father Benjamin Franklin broke from his son, William, who supported the British king. Then there was the rift between Ronald Reagan and his activist daughter, Patti; and between Barack Obamas, Jr and Sr – the list goes on.
Estrangements between siblings are especially brutal. The sisters and Hollywood stars Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine engaged in a lifelong feud. Julia Roberts helped to fund a custody battle against her brother and fellow actor, Eric. From Cleopatra to Genghis Khan, the powerful have murdered or cut off their siblings as a matter of routine.
I’ve seen breakups in my own family. My father-in-law, Hal, was the oldest of four children born to emotional immolators whose endless warring over everything, from money to childrearing to sex, tore their marriage apart before he turned 10. With his bon vivant father gone, his gendarme mother ran the home with Hal as her first lieutenant, a brutal executor of the harsh regime. That role continued until all the siblings escaped by marriage, institutionalisation or in Navy tours. As long as they lived, for 80 more years, these siblings never missed a chance to accuse each other of criminality, tastelessness, psychopathy and sloth. The family tradition continued when Hal intermittently threatened to disown his only child, my husband, for infractions as minor as knocking the slat off a broken window blind.
The statistics on family estrangement vary by study but are always sobering. In 2015, the psychologist Richard Conti of Kean University reported that more than 43 per cent of the 154 students he surveyed had experienced a family estrangement. More recent statistics come from Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist and gerontologist directing the Cornell Family Reconciliation Project. In his latest book, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them (2020), he reports that among a representative sample of 1,340 Americans aged 18 and older, 27 per cent were estranged from a relative – including 10 per cent estranged from a parent or child, 8 per cent from a sibling, and the remaining 9 per cent estranged from a smattering of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and other relations. Half of these estrangements had gone on for at least four years. Looking only at immediate families, Pillemer estimates that nearly 20 per cent of American adults are in a state of estrangement right now.
These cold stats belie the human suffering caused by estrangement. ‘Being rejected by family, or deciding to leave, can be one of the most traumatic experiences in a person’s life,’ writes the social work researcher Kylie Agllias in Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective (2016). ‘Adult children are maligned for estranging an older parent, or parents shamed for casting out a child,’ and sibling estrangements are ‘often overlooked altogether’.
Thankfully, a group of therapists and social scientists are forging a road back. One of them is the American psychologist Joshua Coleman, author of the forthcoming book Rules of Estrangement. His interest in the field was sparked after his own daughter, then in her early 20s, cut him off. ‘It was the most painful, disorienting thing that I’ve ever had to go through,’ he tells me. He consulted a series of therapists who gave him ‘terrible, counterproductive advice, from telling me to point out all the good things I’d done for her to demanding she talk to me’. None of it worked so Coleman came up with a plan of his own: he would see everything through his daughter’s eyes and take responsibility for her complaints. It took a while, but the strategy was effective, and his daughter took him back. ‘We are now very close,’ he says.
A complementary perspective comes from Pillemer. ‘Can’t live with them, can’t live without them,’ he says of families after decades of research. Despite the cheery view of family depicted in media, in reality ‘most people have an ambivalent experience’, he says. As part of the research for his earlier book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (2012), Pillemer asked the elderly about life lessons they valued most. ‘A surprising number … talked about family estrangements as the most disruptive [and] distressing’ events of all, he says. Finding almost no existing research on the topic, Pillemer stepped into the breach, launching a series of studies including a national survey and in-depth interviews. These people, who’d been through estrangement, were ‘despondent’, says Pillemer. But as the interviews continued, he ran into a minority who had successfully reconciled after 10, 20 or even 30 years. ‘For them it was so powerful, it was such a transformative experience’ that Pillemer shifted his focus to them, culling their wisdom into his new book Fault Lines.
Is reconciliation worth it? ‘There’s no magic bullet here … some of these are intractable situations,’ Pillemer tells me. ‘But unless it’s a dangerous or abusive situation,’ it’s generally better for people to at least try to reconnect. Why? Because without reconciliation, he writes in his new book, estranged relationships become ‘like mementos in a scrapbook … frozen in time but open to endless interpretation’. But without access to the other, the people involved can never explore, change and grow, he told me. So ‘unless it’s so painful that it’s impossible,’ Pillemer concludes, ‘I am pro.’
What to do
Before getting into specifics, the most important tip for any reuniting relatives, Pillemer says, is to resist the urge to recreate the past instead of building a new future. After you determine your own role in the breakup, don’t hash over what happened 40 years ago – instead, find activities you love now. Move ahead.
If your adult child has cut you off
I’m talking here about the kind of cut-offs that emerge when a person chooses to walk away after bearing mounting grievances, such as a sense of belittling or criticism from their parent, or when their life choices around sexuality, career or a particular spouse are unsupported, disparaged or dismissed (cut-offs can also be a response to blatant physical or sexual abuse during childhood and are mostly beyond the scope of this Guide).
Consider a man I interviewed who’d struggled to keep a job while being sick with Lyme disease. He lived at home with his mother, who couldn’t understand why he didn’t spend evenings with her instead of falling off to sleep. ‘Unless I completely capitulated, she would be aggressive,’ he told me. Eventually, he found somewhere else to live and didn’t talk to his mother for three years. He reconnected with her only after the death of a beloved family friend, but then the final straw came another three years later when, during his painful divorce, his mother dismissed his marriage, saying: ‘You were just clinging to each other in the ocean so you wouldn’t drown.’
‘That one line stood out,’ he said. Taken alone, it might have been possible to forgive such insensitivity, but the problem was, it was emblematic of his mother and her treatment of him through the years. ‘I said: “Okay, gotta run, call you later.” That was 2009.’ His mother tries to call or email him every year or so, but he never answers. He’s even changed his Skype handle so she can’t catch him unawares online.
If you find yourself in this kind of situation as a parent, suddenly cut off from a child you raised, here’s what to do based on Coleman’s reconciliation therapy:
- Recognise that you likely have more riding on reconciliation than the adult child who has walked away, Coleman says. To come together, try if you can to see problems through that adult child’s eyes and with their emotional health in mind. View their complaints with empathy and without defensiveness. Don’t react in an aggrieved or negative way to complaints from estranged adult children, or you will continue to feel toxic to them and provoke an ongoing emotional allergy. So instead of defending yourself, step outside of your own hurt feelings and become a co-investigator to look at what went wrong together.
- Support the adult child’s feelings by taking the high road and making amends for blind spots you might have had while they were growing up. Try saying something like: ‘I am sorry I hurt you so much. I didn’t realise it.’ Offer to evolve or go to therapy so that the same issues don’t recur. If your calls or texts go unanswered, you could consider sending a letter of amends, in which you take full responsibility for the problems that arose during childhood and offer to help grow a new, more separate and more positive relationship today.
- Keep in mind that an aggrieved person often doesn’t want an apology for specific things. Instead, they often feel a more general sense of grievance about their entire childhood, or how you related to them. (Coleman believes a claustrophobic kind of parenting encouraged many among the Boomer generation of parents to place an unhealthy burden on their children, who now find it liberating to walk away, supported by memes of liberating happiness and independence.) For these reasons, an apology alone is often just a first step, and rarely enough – more important is the promise of making true change. If a reconciliation depends on new boundaries to the relationship, respect those boundaries explicitly. Try to resist using toxic words or acts that could cause an estrangement again.
If you initiated an estrangement and feel it could be time to reconcile
This kind of reconciliation is tough to consider and it’s going to take effort. But if you have the desire, the rewards can be great. Take the case of Lynn (not her real name), an adventure and wildlife writer and photographer. When she was 14, Lynn told me, her mother, a barbiturate addict, died of an overdose and her father, an alcoholic who could be abusive, was unable to step in. Lynn dropped out of high school and left home at 16 to zig-zag around the country in a hippie van. She finally cut off her father in her mid-20s because ‘he was a fuck-up, not caring or helping’. She built a prestigious career, got married, had a son. Then one night 15 years after she’d shut out her father, she had a vivid dream directing her to reconnect. ‘My unconscious remembered a deep fundamental relationship,’ she says. She called him, flew out to see him, and the rest is history. The man who met her had stopped drinking, was thrilled to hear from her, and made a magnificent effort to be fatherly and concerned. They stayed connected and developed ‘a wonderful relationship. We had wonderful conversations’ for five years, until he died.
There are many such inspiring stories but, before embarking on such a path yourself, due diligence is vital:
- Do a cost-benefit analysis before contacting the person you cut off, recommends Pillemer. Ask yourself if you’re ready to reconcile. ‘You have to really sit down and write out the narrative because almost everybody who’s estranged has this narrative of what happened,’ he says. ‘Weigh the pros and cons [of making contact again].’
- Examine your own responsibility in the estrangement, even if you ultimately decide it wasn’t your fault. Almost all the estrangements have two sides to the story, says Pillemer, and, usually, both people play a role.
- Give up trying to align your past with the other person’s past. So you think your brother Bill was a sadist when you were kids? Well, Bill says he was just teasing you, like all brothers do. Now is the time to build a new relationship and leave the past behind.
- Set careful terms of engagement. Pillemer, like Coleman, found that those who successfully reconciled had carved new boundaries. Many of those who reconciled decided to give the relationship a final test run, one last chance, stipulating the minimum behaviour they would accept by setting clearly stated boundaries before estranging again. One daughter got off the phone as soon as her mother pushed her buttons. A newly reconciled son agreed his parents could visit, but had to stay at an Airbnb.
- Consider therapy with care. Coleman says that some therapists might unfairly influence a client against a family member. ‘One of the huge problems is that therapeutic narratives have completely invaded the way we think about ourselves,’ he tells me. Through this approach, any life problem ‘dials back to what the parents did or didn’t do in childhood’, a perspective that can be damaging. On the other hand, Pillemer says, therapy can create a stronger sense of self, allowing you to approach a relationship in a less vulnerable way. Do you need both parties in therapy to work on estrangement issues? Many therapists think you do, but Pillemer’s work suggests that is not the case. In fact, most of his reconciling interviewees had been to therapy alone to gauge their own role in estrangement before trying to reconnect.
- View the reconciliation as an engine for future personal growth. Pillemer’s interviewees viewed reconciliation as a true achievement, and success made them feel on top of the world.
If estrangement seems to be permanent despite your best efforts to reconcile or because you feel the person you cut off is truly unworthy of a second chance:
- Know you are not alone. One in five people is affected by estrangement. ‘This is a problem that, unlike almost anything else in our wide-open society, people don’t talk about,’ Pillemer tells me. Find a support group of peers with whom you can discuss your story and air your pain without judgment, or look for sympathetic friends to spend holidays with – people who will just listen to you with love.
- If you have been wrongly accused of abuse, or if no reconciliation seems possible now, look to ‘radical acceptance’. It means ‘accepting that you cannot change in this moment and may never be able to change,’ Coleman writes in his new book. ‘You feel sad? Feel sad. Don’t judge it, don’t push it away, don’t diminish it, and don’t try to control its passage.’ Along with self-empathy, he notes, ‘time and acceptance can be powerful agents of healing when we let them.’
- Keep the door open, and don’t hold a grudge. You never know when your family member might decide to give it another chance and, if that happens, be receptive to rebuilding a new future instead of endlessly rehashing the past.
Key points – How to repair a family rift
- Family breakups and cut-offs can span the generations of an extended family. In such cases, cut-offs have become an emotional strategy for dealing with discomfort or discord instead of working things through. Other times, break-ups come after egregious abuse. If you’ve experienced an estrangement, it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether to stay estranged or attempt to reconcile, often with rigorous new boundaries in place.
- If you’re embarking on a reconciliation, resist the urge to recreate the past instead of building a new future.
- If your adult child has cut you off, try to see problems through that adult child’s eyes and with their emotional health in mind.
- If you were the one who initiated an estrangement and feel it could be time to reconcile, weigh up the pros and cons of re-establishing contact and be prepared to acknowledge your part in the estrangement.
- Reflect on your best strategy for reconciliation. A slow and careful coming together is often for the best. Consider what are your sensitivities? What boundaries can you set for a safer re-entry? Are you, yourself, ready to let go of past grievances as long as the relationship can be healthy in the here and now?
- Radical acceptance. If you’re unable to reconcile, it’s important to grieve but also, ultimately, to accept the situation to give yourself space and freedom to live your life without a state of constant grief. As the writer Ayishat Akanbi Tweeted: ‘Self-care is also not arguing with people who are committed to misunderstanding you.’ Never give up hope of reconciling, but at a certain point, accept what is.
At the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, based in Washington, DC, the resident experts view estrangement through the lens of family history going back generations. Cut-offs become an emotional strategy for dealing with discomfort or discord and can span the generations of an extended family. Indeed, the centre’s director, the psychologist Anne McKnight, found that the principles played out in her own family when she realised that her father, one of four siblings, had barely mentioned two of them.
One day passing through the town in Indiana that her dad came from, she contacted her estranged family, and gained from them a nuanced understanding of her father as a child and man. This knowledge reverberated back when, right before her mother died, McKnight’s own sister rejected the entire family, apparently for good. McKnight was able to see how patterns from her father’s upbringing, including an outsized intolerance to irritants, played out in hers. It didn’t bring her sister back but it helped her understand. As it turned out, ‘this is about the way the family has handled tension over several generations,’ McKnight says.
Whether or not estrangements run in your extended family, if you’re worried that you might be going down a path of cut-off with a close loved one, there are things you can do to immunise your family against this painful future fate:
- Consider how the hyper-attachment advocated by some theories of parenting might lead to greater estrangement later on. If as a parent you subscribe to the kind of attachment parenting popular among some millennials today, do be sure to engage with your children in activities that are also less intense and more other-directed. Ensure that you and your kids maintain healthy friendships outside of the family bubble.
- Watch out for irritants that might be building in others in response to your behaviour. No two estrangements are the same, Lucy Blake, a family researcher at Edge Hill University, tells me. But most don’t erupt out of nowhere. Her research shows that issues simmer and build until there’s often a straw that breaks the camel’s back. Try not to add that last straw.
- Remember that estrangement appears to be passed down among family members as a coping strategy. Sometimes a person is so toxic and dangerous that they truly cannot and should not be tolerated. But many people are estranged by family for far less. If you use estrangement as a means of dealing with difficult people, close others might absorb that strategy and one day use it as a way to deal with you.
- Examine your extended family for patterns of estrangement; if you’re able to, trace patterns of family estrangement and connectedness going back two or three generations or more. Bowen theory, named after the American psychiatrist and family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen, suggests making an effort to speak with long-lost members, from cousins to aunts. If estrangement is a theme of your family’s story, understanding this history and the emotional backdrop could help you to take irritants from others more in your stride and help prevent the cycle from starting up again.
Links & books
The pioneering British non-profit Stand Alone supports and raises awareness about adults estranged from their family or children. Their site includes information about online support groups and podcasts for estranged parents and offspring.
The Cornell Family Reconciliation Project is a large study focused on what it takes to heal family breaks. Their site gives the opportunity to participate in the research and to read the uplifting stories of those who have healed rifts.
Karl Pillemer of the Cornell Family Reconciliation Project describes his research on family reconciliation in this YouTube video.
The episode on family estrangement from the Annex Sociology Podcast gives an excellent overview of the topic, based on an interview with the communication researcher Kristina Scharp of the University of Washington.
The book Rules of Estrangement (forthcoming, 2021) by the psychologist Joshua Coleman describes his system of mending break-ups, based on seeing one’s role in the problem, carefully constructing letters of amends, and giving lost family members time and space.
The book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them (2020) by the gerontologist Karl Pillemer features interviews with people who have successfully reconciled after family fractures
In her memoir Shadow Daughter (2018), the journalist Harriet Brown explains why sometimes reconciliation after estrangement is not possible.
The book We Don’t Talk Anymore (2017) by the psychotherapist Kathy McCoy explores the ins and outs of estrangement for parents and their adult children.