Why Family Estrangement Is Roughest at the Holidays
Severed ties and communication between parents and adult children is common
(This story was originally published on Next Avenue in 2017.)
When you’re about to ask a friend or a colleague whether they’re going home for the holidays this week, think twice.
The holidays — so often tied to family and tangled in questions of going home — are not always so happy when you are estranged from a parent or child. They're even more difficult when well-meaning types push you to bury the hatchet for the sake of peace in this theoretically joyous season.
Kristina Scharp, an assistant professor at Utah State University and director of the Family Communication Lab there, has published extensively about parent-child estrangement. She defines estrangement as occurring when at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally distances himself or herself from another because of an ongoing negative relationship. And she notes that estrangement is complicated for the people experiencing it.
“Sometimes estrangement means a clean break, a fight and that’s it, but it can also be a chaotic disassociation, a relationship that’s on and off again over the years,” Scharp explained.
Estrangement is not simply needing to distance oneself from a parent and not coming home for the holidays one year, added Leah Bryant, an associate professor from DePaul University who teaches Family Communication and the Dark Side of Human Relationships.
“There’s a difference between wanting a hiatus or wanting space for awhile and deciding that your life would be better without them,” Bryant said.
How Estrangement Happens
Bryant notes that estrangement is not usually a mutual process, and the circumstances depend on who is doing the estranging.
“With adult children, it is often based on prolonged psychologically damaging interactions — mistreatment, abuse or just indifference — with their parents, and they finally have the fortitude to put some distance between themselves or sever that relationship,” Bryant said.
Parents often don’t know why their child is estranged from them, though most people have heard stories about children of narcissistic moms who severed ties or "casually cruel" parents who severed for their own sanity and self- preservation as well as that of their loved ones. Scholars point out that this type of estrangement is sometimes healthy for both people in the relationship.
“A lot of parents have no idea why their grown children don’t talk to them anymore, and it’s devastating to them,” said Scharp. “It’s this weird thing where it feels terrible, but it’s probably also helpful because often, the other person (parent or child) might not be good for them.”
Although there are varied reasons cited for parents severing ties with their adult children, Bryant said much of the research cites parental disapproval of their child’s love interest or sexuality. In these cases, the estrangement can become mutual, she said.
Coping With Estrangement
As difficult as it might be to believe, both scholars pointed out that estrangement is often a good outcome for the family members in estranged relationships.
“Estrangement is often a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment,” Scharp explained. However, it can be difficult to come to terms with placing intentional distance between yourself and your family, she said.
Part of this comes from guilt from people who are estranged.
“They’ll think, ‘What kind of person doesn’t love their mother? Or what kind of person is not loved by their mother?’ ‘Am I a bad person? Are they bad people?’” Scharp said.
In many cases, she said, maintaining estrangement is difficult because a person is overtaken by guilt for not being with his or her family. In those cases, the person might attempt to communicate or even reconcile with family. Often, though, the same problems that drove them apart the first time will resurface and they will become estranged again.
Scharp said that participants in her research have often found ways to construct an alternative to family to make up for the fact that they are no longer in touch with their own. “Many people with estranged family relationships build their own family with friends and others who they surround themselves with,” she said. “Often, they won’t even think of the estranged family as their real family.”
One woman who participated in her study said of her mother: “I don’t even call her ‘Mom’ anymore. She’s just Sara. She’s been stripped of that title for me.”
Keep Your Good Intentions to Yourself
Much of the guilt that estranged people feel about not being with family stems from a cultural notion of what family is. Narratives about family are taught very early in life, Scharp points out. “Everyone knows the sayings: ‘Blood is thicker than water’ and ‘A family is forever,” she added.
“There is an idealized image of what families are like, and it’s a constant reminder now that the family is broken, and they worry that maybe they themselves are broken,” Bryant said. “But estrangement is so common and people just don’t talk about it. It’s very normal and every day.”
In fact, one research study cited by Scharp noted that 12 percent of parent-child relationships in the U.S. are estranged. That's likely a conservative estimate because the study looked only at mothers and daughters. Another study said parent-child estrangement is nearly as common as divorce in some segments of American society, Scharp said.
Estrangement might seem rare because estranged people are sometimes embarrassed to discuss their severed relationship or have simply moved on and don’t speak of the person from whom they’re estranged, Bryant said.
“Once you make the decision not to have that relationship anymore, you aren’t going to talk about that relationship anymore,“ she said.
Why Estrangement Bothers the Rest of Us
So, why do we get so upset to hear about estrangement between parents and kids?
Scharp pointed out that the topic of family is personal and emotional — and no one likes to see what they perceive as a tragic ending to a relationship.
“Feelings about family are so overwhelming. People in these kinds of relationships get advice to reconcile all the time because outsiders just feel like the situation is so sad,” Scharp said. “Culturally, we have a hard time swallowing estrangement.”
Often, friends and others with good intentions can’t help but push for them to reconcile, but Scharp advises they hold themselves back.
“You would never tell an abuse victim — like an abused spouse in a domestic violence case — that they should give their spouse another chance. But in a lot of cases, that is what people do with those who they know are estranged and they don’ t have any understanding of the situation,” Scharp said.
But we should know — especially over the holiday season — that estranged relationships are complicated for the people who experience them. Scharp said we should try to respect estranged people’s privacy and intentions.
“The people who participated in my research often said, ‘We don’t want to be reconciled, and I don’t want to tell you why I’m estranged.’ And this is often a healthy decision for them,” said Scharp.