Maintaining a strong and healthy relationship with some family members can sometimes be particularly challenging, and the notion that “blood is thicker than water” doesn’t seem to be supported by the results of a recent survey by Cornell University. Researchers found that 22 percent of respondents had severed contact with at least one family member, including parents, siblings, or adult children, believing the relationship had a negative impact on emotional well-being. The fractures affect everyone — parents grieve the absence of children and possibly grandchildren; family members that act as bridges between disputing factions feel the strain of remaining neutral or risk being seen as disloyal; and those who end a relationship are often forced to do so only after painful experiences. In some cases these divisions can become so severe that over time, a family member can seem like a stranger. The reasons that lead to such an estrangement can vary widely, and solutions aren’t always easy.
How Family Bonds Can Break
Estrangement is often a cumulative process, especially among family members with a history of unsuccessful tries for a better relationship. While fractures might occur after a significant event, such as a wedding or holiday, it’s usually because those occasions simply exposed unresolved problems. Once estrangements occur, they can endure for years and even lifetimes.
Two large-scale studies from 2015 sought to better understand what causes estrangement, including one out of Cambridge University in England, where researchers collaborated with a support group that works with estranged adults called Stand Alone; and the other led by Kristen Carr, of Texas Christian University. Some of the reasons cited for estrangement in the two studies: abusive family dynamics, conflicts over new partners of family members, differences in values, the effects of divorce, mismatched expectations, mental health or substance abuse concerns, and traumatic events. Parents tend to blame the effects of outside parties or divorce; while adult children tend to cite abuse by the parents, conflicts over values, or role expectations.
Children Often Cite Abuse and Neglect as the Cause for Estrangement
Adult children estranged from parents cited toxicity, being unsupported or unaccepted, and abuse or the failure to protect against abuse as their top reasons. Emotional abuse from mothers was a top five factor in the Cambridge University/Stand Alone study (known as the “Hidden Voices” report), as was maternal neglect. When it came to fathers, more than half of adult children cited abuse, and almost 40 percent cited neglect. Feeling rejected, devalued, misperceived, or violated by someone you depend on can be devastating. When new bonds are formed in adulthood, they may be the catalyst for further estrangement from the family.
Parents Can Blame Their Child’s New Relationships
A least a quarter of parents in both studies blamed estrangement on their adult child’s new partner — more the case for sons’ partnerships than for daughters' in the “Hidden Voices” report — while 10 percent of adult children cited parents’ dislike of their partner as the cause of estrangement. But the new bond is usually the result, not the cause.
Conflicting Values Can Also Lead to Estrangement
Religious beliefs, lifestyle preferences, political choices, and geographic and career decisions are more potential sources of conflict. Another 2015 study about estrangement found that value differences between mothers and their children were a strong predictor of estrangement — in fact, mothers were more accepting of their children's drunken driving convictions than they were of value differences such as getting a divorce.
How Mismatched Expectations of Family Members Can Play a Role
Adult children in the “Hidden Voices” study gave “mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships” as a major cause for estrangement from a mother or father, who may think their considerable investment of time and money would keep a child close — geographically and emotionally. Many parents also assume that investment would ensure the child would continue to rely on the parents for guidance as they grew older and prioritize the family in decisions and how they spent their time. Renegotiating expectations can be particularly challenging for people who immigrated from countries with different cultural beliefs.
The Effects of Divorce on Estrangement
Parents often blame estrangement on the effects of divorce more than their adult children do. It was the top factor of five cited by parents in the "Hidden Voices" study; it didn’t even make the kids’ top five. Still, divorce can increase the risk of estrangement if the adult child blames one parent, if one parent poisons the relationship with the other, or if the addition of spouses and other family members destroys a bond with the parent, says Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco area expert on estranged families.
How Mental Health Concerns Can Factor In
Nearly half the adult children in the “Hidden Voices” survey put mental health problems among the top five reasons for estrangement from a mother, and roughly a third of parents cited mental health issues for their daughters. Mental health problems were not among the top five reasons for sons or fathers — possibly because mental illness in females is perceived as more disruptive to family cohesion, or because it is less tolerable for females to challenge the family dynamics.
The Effects of Trauma on Family Estrangements
About a third of sons and daughters in the “Hidden Voices” study cited traumatic family events as a reason for estrangement from a father. That includes a wide array of issues, from domestic violence, volatility, addiction, physical and sexual abuse, and the disclosure of abuse. Some families might respond with increased resilience and cooperation, but the issues might splinter and destroy others.
Sibling Conflict Can Play A Role
Ideally, siblings provide companionship and support over a lifespan, and family continuity after the death of parents. But siblings can perceive their experiences as family members in profoundly different ways, and their estrangement can result from issues of birth order and family roles, gender and freedom, and events such as divorce, economic changes, moves and immigration status, and illness or addiction. Family members adopt various roles, such as surrogate parent, caretaker, enforcer, bully, invisible child, peace-maker, clown, scapegoat, or black sheep, that affect how the child is perceived, rewarded, or punished. These patterns often continue into adult life.
The most endorsed factor for estrangements between siblings in the “Hidden Voices” survey: Conflicting expectations about family roles and relationships. About half of the siblings cited clashes over personality or values; more than one-third named favoritism as a top five reason for estrangement; emotional abuse was cited equally by about 40 percent of sisters and brothers as a top five reason for estrangement from a sibling; and traumatic family events were cited more than 33 percent.
How to Repair the Broken Bonds with an Estranged Family Member
If you are exploring ways to heal an estranged relationship, there are a number of factors to consider. These include examining your own participation in the estrangement, the contributions of the other family member, and the most optimal approach strategy. Here are some steps to help begin the process:
Assess Your Role in the Relationship First
Before approaching the family member, first consider how and why you think the breach occurred, and think about the role that you have played in the relationship. Examine not only the final interaction with the person, but all of the important factors leading up to the estrangement. Here are some other important factors to consider before initiating contact:
- Put yourself in the other person’s experience as best you can. Describe to yourself the events and interactions as they might have been experienced by the other party.
- Acknowledge your own missteps and understand what affected your choices. Consider how you would navigate the issues that prompted the estrangement now.
- Define the relationship you hope to have, without assuming you can go back to what it was — relationships can only go forward.
- Consider meeting with a therapist who can help you identify other relevant factors and blind spots in your perception of events and help you communicate clearly.
Think About How the Family Member Might React
Once you have done your own preparation, consider the other person and how they might respond. There are a number of questions to resolve before initiating contact:
- Is there an incentive to end or perpetuate the stalemate?
- Is there a reason their attitudes may have changed?
- Will they welcome contact?
- Are there any safety considerations?
- How have they responded to other disruptions in their relationships?
- Might it appear you are prioritizing your needs over theirs?
- Has the estrangement helped or hurt them?
Consider Your Options for Reaching Out to the Family Member
In considering how to restore contact, there are pros and cons to different approaches. Here are some possible options:
With a letter
Pros: Letters and emails allow you to say exactly what you want to communicate without interruption and give the receiver time to absorb a message and formulate a response.
Cons: Written messages lack voice tone and body language, which are important in communication. And the other person may choose not to read your letter, or not to respond.
Pros: Increased information about tone and intent can help deliver your message.
Cons: The other person may feel ambushed if they aren’t expecting your contact, and may choose to avoid your call.
Face to face
Pros: Inviting someone to meet in a neutral place gives both of you time to prepare emotionally, and it ensures the most communication value in terms of tone, body language, and choice of words.
Cons: Potential for more conflict.
Consider Using a Therapist
Many estranged family members use a therapist to resolve an impasse. You can offer to meet with a therapist of their choosing — or, failing that, your own or someone new to all. Be prepared to cover the cost of sessions, recognizing that healing may take multiple meetings.
Where to Seek Out Additional Support
For people undergoing estrangement, there are support groups that can help individuals process the experience. Some of those resources include Adult Children of Alcoholics and the 12-step programs Codependents Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous; online communities such as Stand Alone (based in England, but with users internationally), Parents Who Walk Away, and Rejected Parents. There are also Facebook communities such as When the Talking Stops and You’re Not Alone, closed groups you can ask to join.
Deciding When It Might Be Better to Let Bonds Remain Broken
Not every family relationship should be repaired. In the short term, family members who initiated the estrangement may feel relief at eliminating a source of stress or pain, though others could feel suicidal despair as they cope with feeling deeply rejected. Becoming estranged is also a decision revisited repeatedly. It will require love and support from other relationships. It is important to build structures that provide continuity and engagement, such as work and community or school commitments, hobbies, social activities, exercise and self-care, maybe even the presence of a support animal.
Carol Povenmire, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with a practice in Pasadena, California.