Family estrangement is painful and isolating. What are the reasons that family members cut each other off? How can we cope with or prevent broken family ties?
Family estrangement is one of my most requested topics from listeners and readers coping with the loss and isolation they feel when someone cuts family ties. In a way, the grief of family estrangement can be more painful—or at least more complicated—than the grief over a loved one who has died. When a family member voluntarily walks away, you may miss them and feel confused, ashamed, frustrated, and disappointed, especially if the hope of reunification is dashed.
So why do people excommunicate their family members? Are there any ways to cope or remedy the situation?
Four things researchers have learned about family estrangement
There hasn't been much research about family estrangement, in part because it’s a difficult thing to study—many people don’t want to talk about their parents or children cutting them off. But in recent years, researchers have been paying more attention, especially to estrangements between parents and adult children. Here are some things they've learned:
1. Estrangement between parents and adult children is more common than you probably guessed
Given how much we talk to each other about family—in the news, in the movies, in our daily getting-know-each-other small talk, and even in our complaints about holiday disputes—you would think that almost all families are intact, even if there is conflict.
About 17 percent of college and graduate students at universities in the northeastern US experienced estrangement from an immediate family member.
A large survey of young adults, all college and graduate students at universities in the northeastern US, found that about 17 percent experienced estrangement from an immediate family member, most commonly from the father. Surveying older adults found that about 12 percent were estranged from a child or children.
It’s the adult children that usually cut off contact, while only about 5-6 percent of parents initiate excommunication. This is possibly because, from a parent’s perspective, a child is almost always the strongest bond. But for a child, they grow up to meet a partner or have children of their own, and their responsibilities and bonds shift primarily to their own nuclear family.
2. Parents cut off children usually because they object to their kids' other relationships
In the rare cases where the parents cut off the child, the most common reason is that they object to another relationship that their child has—a spouse, someone they’re dating, their in-laws, or a stepparent. Less commonly, they felt that their child was ungrateful or entitled, or they truly didn't know the reason for the estrangement. These findings are from a large interview study with almost 900 participants, both parents and adult children, who have experienced estrangement.
One thing to keep in mind that, possibly, parents have other common reasons for cutting off their kids too, but that those parents did not volunteer to participate in a study.
3. Adult children mostly cut off parents because of abuse, ongoing toxic behaviors, or feeling unaccepted or unsupported
On the other hand, adult children usually had different reasons for cutting off their parents, including:
- Abuse, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in childhood
- Ongoing toxic behaviors, including anger, cruelty, disrespect, and hurtfulness
- Feeling unaccepted/unsupported, including about their life choices, relationships, disability status, and other things important in their life
One participant in the study poignantly said, “The cumulative pain because of the past never went away, never was reconciled, never was discussed, never was apologized for, never acknowledged, nothing. I hoped I could let it go, but it never went away.”
4. Estrangement usually doesn’t last forever
Another thing that differed between generations is that while the vast majority of adult children feel confident that they never want to reconnect with the parent that they’ve cut off, parents are unlikely to feel that way.
Only 29 percent of children who had cut off their mothers maintained those estrangements with an unbroken history. Most of them had cycles of estrangement and reconciliation.
But when it comes to actual actions, a major research report on family estrangement found that a minority of estranged relationships actually stay so, especially when a mother or daughter is involved. For example, only 29 percent of children who had cut off their mothers maintained those estrangements with an unbroken history. Most of them had cycles of estrangement and reconciliation.
How to reconnect broken family ties
Knowing what we know now about family estrangement, how can we try to remedy the situation? Many people, especially parents, deeply yearn for reconnection. Here are some tips for coping, reconnecting, and preventing broken family ties:
During family estrangement, accept what you can’t control but be ready for second chances
I wish there was a magic bullet piece of advice I could give to people who yearn to reconnect with a family member. The truth is that relationships, especially close ones, are so complicated that it’s impossible for me to reassure you with a broad stroke that reconnecting is possible. And because it takes two to tango, like in any relationship or lack thereof, the first thing to understand is that you can't fully control the outcome.
Because it takes two to tango, like in any relationship or lack thereof, the first thing to understand is that you can't fully control the outcome.
It’s easier said than done to accept your lack of control. If your heart yearns so strongly, surely there's something you can do! That something may be to make peace within yourself by acknowledging your responsibility in the relationship rupture, and by finding genuine compassion for the person you lost and for yourself.
If you can be honest and accepting like this, you will be ready to take up any second chances you are offered, which may very well come at some point, given what we know about how people usually cycle between connecting and estrangement.
If you’re offered a chance at reconciliation, be willing to acknowledge, accept, and change
What should you do if your family member reaches out and you get an opportunity to reconnect? Or what if you’ve never been estranged from your parent or child, but there is so much hurt in the relationship that it seems headed that way?
To heal or to prevent broken ties requires similar types of effort. Given what we know about why adult children walk away—namely: lack of acknowledgment about a past hurt or trauma, lack of acceptance, and toxic behaviors like judgment and control—we can try to reverse-engineer these behaviors by doing the opposite:
Acknowledge and apologize for past hurts and traumas. Even if you were not the person that directly inflicted the trauma, sometimes your denial of someone else’s wrongdoing is just as painful. Or it’s possible that you don’t think you’ve inflicted trauma, but your loved one sees it that way. Now is not the time to split hairs on definitions—denial of what the other person feels deeply to be true is a sure way to build the estrangement wall higher. A simple acknowledgment of their experience, without being defensive, can bring the most powerful catharsis.
Ask yourself: What do I want more—for this person to conform to my standards, or for this person to be in my life?
Accept the person just as they are. Nobody is perfect, and most of us are far from it. There are also lots of reasonable disagreements between reasonable people about the right and wrong ways to live. So, between all this ambiguity and human frailty, ask yourself: “What do I want more—for this person to conform to my standards, or for this person to be in my life?” Make your best efforts to demonstrate that you’re willing to listen and learn, even if you can’t completely change your worldview overnight.
Change behaviors that your loved one finds toxic. Usually, we don’t do things to hurt our family members intentionally, or even knowingly. Perhaps you’ve always thought you were a responsibly strict parent, diverting your child from what you thought were risky ways. You were sure that once your child became an adult, they would appreciate your efforts. But sometimes what you intended as helpful is experienced as quite hurtful by the person on the receiving end. So be open and non-defensive if your loved one tells you that your behavior hurt them. You have a right not to be attacked, of course, and to maintain your sense of dignity. You can work on building this mutual respect in the long run. But for now, the most urgent thing is to show that you’re open to change, because opportunities for reconciliation don’t last forever.
Opportunities for reconciliation don’t last forever.
There is support for people who are estranged from family
Now that social workers and healthcare providers are becoming more aware of the deeply impactful issue of family estrangement, there are more and more resources for helping people to cope. For example, Stand Alone is an organization based in the UK that conducts research, offers support, and raises awareness about this issue. It may also offer you a place for community when you are feeling isolated from family estrangement.