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The Causes of Estrangement, and How Families Heal

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The Causes of Estrangement, and How Families Heal

A 21-year-old college student who hasn’t spoken to her mother since high school.

A woman who cannot get along with her daughter-in-law, and who therefore has no contact with her son.

Three siblings who stopped speaking because of a disputed inheritance 30 years ago.

Family estrangement — a topic once so distressing and shameful that people hesitated to discuss it — is drawing more attention as some tell their stories and researchers delve into its causes and consequences.

Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist at Cornell University, has just published “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” a book that provides something rare in this realm — actual data.

He asked participants in a representative national survey, “Is there a relative with whom you have no contact?” Among the 1,340 people who answered an online questionnaire, a substantial 27 percent reported being estranged from a family member. And half had been estranged for four years or more.

During a five-year period, Dr. Pillemer and his colleagues conducted hundreds of interviews with people estranged from their parents, adult children, siblings or other relatives. They also interviewed many who had reconciled, and Dr. Pillemer has passed along their advice in his book.

(Another book on the topic, “Rules of Estrangement” by Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in the Bay Area, is coming in November.)

I spoke by phone with Dr. Pillemer about his findings. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Paula Span: We appear to be hearing more about estrangement, when for so long it seemed to be something people just didn’t talk about.

Karl Pillemer: It was astonishing to me to find so little scientific literature on it.

But high-profile celebrities have brought it to the forefront. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Angelina Jolie, famously estranged from her father, Jon Voight. Tara Westover’s book, “Educated.”

Estrangement may have been less common when families lived closer to one another and there was more routine interaction, a social norm that you maintain contact at all costs. When I interview older people, they often describe hanging in with their families no matter what.

With the baby boomers and younger, there’s more of a sense that if the relationship’s not working out, they can move on.

This phenomenon of cutting off or being cut off from a family member is strikingly common in America.

Plus, you didn’t find differences when considering gender or race or education level — this can happen to anyone. Can you explain what you call pathways, the most common reasons or explanations for estrangement?

One is difficult childhood histories: Abusive parenting, harsh parenting, memories of parental favoritism — people don’t always get over those. They carry them into adulthood.

Second, divorce, no matter when it appears in the life cycle. Children are more likely to lose contact with fathers, the research shows, but the disruption can weaken the ties to both parents.

Also, the problematic in-law. In a striking number of cases, someone in the family of origin thinks you’ve married the wrong person, and the classic conflict between the demands of your own family and your partner can’t be resolved.

Then there’s money. There’s lots of resentment around how inheritances are distributed. You can divide your money among your kids, but you can’t divide tangible property like heirlooms or a summer house. But also business deals gone wrong can contribute, or loans unrepaid.

And unmet expectations. An archetypal example involves caregiving for aging parents: Sibling A is left with all the care and Sibling B doesn’t do anything, so Sibling A says, “I’m done.”

Finally, lifestyle and value discrepancies, especially in parent and child relationships. A kid coming out as gay or lesbian. A religious conversion. Different politics.

You point out that when people look back at what went wrong, they have divergent views of the past. They can’t even agree on what actually occurred or who said what.

Right. It’s not a realistic expectation to believe that a sibling, a parent, an adult child is going to come over to your view of these past events. But it’s an almost indelible wish. People are often in long-term estrangements because the other person supposedly can’t see the reality of the past.

We know from psychology that we love our own narratives and we don’t give them up. You’re not going to align the perspectives of the sister who felt she was emotionally abused and the brother who thought he was just doing normal teasing.

You describe estrangement as a wound that won’t heal.

People experience estrangement as isolating and shameful. They often experience guilt. And there’s stigma attached. Other people think there’s something wrong with your family.

Analyzing the survey data, there were correlations between being estranged and feeling anxious or depressed or isolated.

Your “reconcilers” — about 100 of them in your interview sample — weren’t obviously different from the others, were they?

They were remarkably similar in what caused the estrangement, how upsetting it was and how long it had gone on. If I showed you accounts of how the estrangement occurred and how difficult it was, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between those who eventually reconciled and those that haven’t.

What shifted for these reconcilers? After years of estrangement, what made contact possible?

The situation had changed or the person had changed. If the issue was a problematic in-law and there was a divorce, the barrier wasn’t there anymore.

Or people began to feel the pressure of a limited time horizon. Observing their own or others’ health problems made them think they could no longer put it off.

And just the passage of time. It let some of the angry feelings dissipate. One of my interviewees said, “Boy, the argument that started it seems so trivial now.”

Your reconcilers offered some helpful strategies, one of which was letting go of the past. They don’t mean that you forgive and forget, but that you accept that you and the other person won’t ever have the same view of what happened.

People who reconcile describe the experience as letting go of the attempt to have the other person see the past as they saw it.

They also talk about changing their expectations.

Reconciliation is usually imperfect, even if it’s good. So determining the least you can accept in the relationship was a very useful exercise.

It did involve settling for less, in most cases. It was still worth it to be back in the relationship.

Here’s a popular word: boundaries. How do they work in resolving estrangement?

The reconcilers developed very clear terms, specific conditions under which the relationship could exist. “If you’re in my house, you can’t say anything negative about my husband. That’s the rule.”

I know some readers will respond that they feel fully justified in cutting off contact. And that anyone urging them to reconcile — or simply telling them how to reconcile — doesn’t accept their view that they did the right thing.

I’m not recommending that individuals reconcile. But for the vast majority who do, it turned out to be a positive, sometimes even life-changing experience. They found it to be a major life accomplishment.

The number of people who were completely estranged from a close relative and identified that as a positive event, one they were glad had occurred, were certainly a minority.

I would say to the people who feel that it was the best thing they ever did and they feel liberated as a result: More power to you. But for most people in estrangement, that’s not their experience. They feel there’s something missing from their lives.

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