The Stigma of Family Estrangement

How to Conduct a Family Estrangement (and Why They're Awful):

Sometimes parenting an adult child is smooth and simple: The son or daughter who was hypercritical of everything you did at 15, and who seemed charged with excess irritability by your very presence in the room, is, at 25, willing to hear you out. They are perhaps even interested in what you say and willing to learn from what you do. It takes a while for it to dawn on you that there has been a sea change, that you no longer have to hesitate before you speak, lest you say “the wrong thing” or have your greeting met with a growl. So gradually that you cannot pin down when it happened, your child has become an adult who finds it easy to show that she or he returns your love.

But things are not always like this.

All too often, the inevitable glitches between parent and child become magnified rather than reduced in the transition to adulthood. Instead of a passing phase, the adolescent’s irritability and frustration become the adult daughter’s or son’s ruminating anger and resentment. Or, the problems may generally be manageable, yet from time to time, old issues become storms and threaten to destroy even the good stuff: “You don’t know when to leave me alone,” and, “You just don’t see the person I’ve become,” reverberate through every exchange. As Denise, the mother of 29-year-old Riley, said, “I feel this relationship is a tune I cannot sing.”

Yet there is a silence, possibly a stigma over these difficulties, particularly if they lead to estrangement. If you complain about a teenager your sighs will resonate with others. There will be books and TV shows and routine news items offering sympathetic company. But speak about problems with your adult child—how accusations seem to come from nowhere, and how past parental errors harden into perceived crimes—and your voice is likely to meet with either a steely silence or a masked show of sympathy that loudly proclaims an unwillingness to hear more.

Estrangement from family is among the most painful human experiences. We are born into a close family tie, and our continued inclusion is literally a matter of life and death. Without an adult’s attention, care and love, we cannot survive infancy. This basic need does not go away, even when we are able to look after ourselves. Instead, that early dependence grows into an emotional attachment that makes us feel, even as grown-ups, that our lives depend on connection to the people we love.

A new report explores the hidden tragedy in which a fundamental attachment has ruptured, a bloodline version of divorce that leaves us with phantom limbs. “I no longer speak to my mum,” 34-year-old Joe tells me, “I don’t take her calls, either. But every day I hear her voice inside my head, and every day I ask myself whether I’m doing the right thing, for me. Over and over again, scenarios play in my mind. I picture us coming back together, but as that reel plays on, I hit the wall of her anger and criticism. But I never make peace with the separation.”

As one person the report quoted says, “I wish I had a mother that loved me and wanted the best for me.”

“Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood,” published earlier this month, is a collaboration between the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge (U.K.) and Stand Alone, a charity that offers support to adults who are estranged from their family. More than 800 adults, ranging in age from 18 to over 60, contributed to the research by revealing personal experiences of family estrangement, either from their entire family, or from a key member such as a parent or adult child. Previously, they may have suffered in silence, feeling humiliation and shame from rejection. Some even thought other people avoided them because of their family problems. This British study revealed that people estranged from a family member sought but found little support. Some complained that social services were “useless” while the clergy’s urge to be forgiving fell wide of the mark. A quarter of those who asked advice from a doctor said she or he seemed ill-equipped to provide it.

They spoke of common triggers that spike even dormant estrangement pain. Being around another family can highlight one’s own exclusion. Birthdays can chill with the reminder that people who would normally delight in the simple fact that we exist have cut us out of their life. But the most common trigger of estrangement pain is the holiday season, which nine out of 10 people who suffer family estrangement report finding “challenging.” Quintessential times of family gatherings, communal hopefulness, gratitude, and celebration become hollow-eyed reminders of continuing emotional loss.

Family ties are fundamental to our emotional and psychological make-up. Why would anyone shun one of their own? One imagines extreme cruelties of physical or sexual abuse—and indeed, these are reasons some people in the study gave for instigating estrangement. But there are other reasons, too, less extreme but very common, such as mismatched expectations about family roles and obligations, or about the meaning and expression of the family relationship. In writing about adult sons and daughters who faced dilemmas in their relationships with a parent, I found that about 20% said that the relationship constantly seemed at risk. A difficult parent is that which the daughter or son experiences as being at the cusp of rejecting the child, or casting them out as a result of disapproval, disgust, or disappointment. When a daughter or son made the difficult decision to sever the relationship, it was usually because they felt that maintaining it was too emotionally costly, that they had to distort their soul into shapes that did not feel right to them in order to please or pacify a parent.

The results of the Hidden Lives survey suggest, however, that most estrangements result not from the instigation of a disapproving parent, but of a son or daughter. And they suggest that this happens not in the heat of irritable adolescence, but between the ages of 24 and 35. From my own research, I hypothesize that family members instigated estrangement only after years of attempts to achieve approval and comfort, that the adult child felt that a deep estrangement lay at the heart of the relationship, and that any apparent harmony or affection based itself on showing a false self to the parent.

While family estrangement is sometimes temporary, an adult child who instigates estrangement is likely to believe that a functional relationship with a parent—a relationship that does not involve pain and humiliation, or bring with it a sense of betrayal—will never be possible. Hidden Voices reminds us of the high cost of estrangement pain, and the extent of the tragedy that impacts the well-being of everyone involved, whoever instigated the rupture. The fractured family members long for things to be better, even just a little better, enough to stem what feels like an ever-increasing tide of loss. There is never a scar, but always an open wound.

When researchers asked what did provide comfort to someone who was estranged from a close family member, people said “having someone listen” to them, “being seen as normal,” having someone telling them that they were “an okay person,” and hearing that others had similar experiences all eased the pains. But the strong underlying message is that the complexity of parents and their adult children deserves greater prominence.

Terri Apter Ph.D.

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