What Is Family Estrangement? A Relationship Expert Describes the Problem and Research Agenda

Yves here. I’m using our posting glitch due to Jerri’s presumed WiFi fail to provide a venue for discussing topics outside our normal span of topics. And I have to confess to finding family estrangement one of personal interest and has made the stressful task of managing my aging mother even more difficult.

One perverse plus is our family has never been sentimental about being a family, so there isn’t any desire on either side to reconcile.

By Kristina Scharp, Assistant professor, Department of Communication, University of Washington. Originally published at The Conversation

Holidays are often a time of strengthening family bonds and relationships. But for those who have difficult relationships with siblings, parents and extended family, it can be a stressful and upsetting time. We asked Kristina Scharp to explain why family relationships sometimes break down – and some things to consider when talking to those in this situation.

What Is Family Estrangement?

Family estrangement occurs when at least one family member intentionally distances themselves from at least one other family member because of a negative relationship – or the perception of one.

Research suggests that at least 27% of adults experience family estrangement that either they or another family member initiates. This means that almost 70 million people in the United States report being estranged from a family member.

What Family Estrangement Is Not

As a researcher dedicated to understanding relational distancing, one of the most common questions people ask me is, “What counts as family estrangement?”

Perhaps the confusion comes from a common misconception that estrangement is a particular event or outcome. My research shows that family estrangement is a process, one that is ongoing and varies in degree. Put simply, family estrangement is a continuum where it is more accurate to characterize people as more or less estranged, as opposed to estranged or not estranged.

Estrangement is voluntary. This means that at least one person desired the distance as opposed to a situation where a third party intervened, like the foster care system or criminal justice system.

Estrangement is intentional. The distance between family members was not an accident or an instance of people losing touch.

Estrangement is often based on ongoing issues. It is less likely that family members suddenly decide they want distance. Rather, people report a long history of conflict and negativity.

Nevertheless, there are some instances when estrangement can be more sudden. For example, sometimes parents might reject a child if they come out as LBGTQ.

Estrangement occurs because of a perceived negative relationship. People do not simply desire distance without reason. Research suggests that reasons are typically severe – abuse, neglect and substance issues, for example. Even if the family members disagree about what has happened or the state of their relationship, at least one person perceives the relationship as negative.

Taken together, estrangement is a distinct process from other instances when family members might find themselves distanced, as is the case with adoption, military deployment and migration.

One related but distinct concept is parental alienation. Although the outcome of estrangement and alienation looks similar, the reasons for distance are different.

Parental alienation occurs after divorce, when one parent intentionally harms the relationship their child has with the other parent. Nevertheless, both estrangement and alienation are major family disruptions.

How Do People Accomplish and Maintain Distance?

When I began researching family estrangement, my primary question pertained not only to what estrangement was but also how people made it happen. Based on my research, adult children who distanced themselves from their parents described eight characteristics of estrangement:

Communication quantity: The extent to which adult children communicate with their parents.

Communication quality: The extent to which that communication is meaningful.

Physical distance: The extent to which parents and children physically distance from one another.

Presence/absence of emotion: The extent to which adult children feel emotion when thinking about their parent/estrangement.

Positive/negative effect: The extent to which those emotions are positive and/or negative.

Reconciliation/desire to be a family: The extent to which adult children hope to reconcile.

Role reciprocity: The extent to which family members behave and care for one another in expected ways.

Legal action: The extent to which adult children have taken any legal action against their parents, like emancipation, name change or changes to legal documents.

When considering these questions, one of the most important things to remember is that not everyone wants the same amount of communication, proximity and emotion. Thus, I like to think about estrangement as the gap between a person’s lived reality, as it pertains to the eight characteristics, and what their preferences would be if they had an ideal relationship.

Lessons Learned

Although research into family estrangement is still burgeoning, here are some of the most important takeaways from my systematic research program:

Estrangement is stressful and stigmatizing.

Many people discuss not wanting to talk about their estrangement because they fear negative reactions from others. If an estranged person decides to disclose the circumstances surrounding their estranged relationship, I encourage people wanting to provide support to refrain from immediately expressing sorrow or recommending a reconciliation. Rather, consider asking them how they feel about the distance.

Estrangement can be a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment.

Often, estrangement can be a productive way for people to eliminate a toxic relationship. Just because people are biologically related does not guarantee a loving and supportive relationship. Sometimes, gaining distance is necessary for a person’s emotional and/or physical safety.

Maintaining distance can be even harder than accomplishing it.

Because we live in a culture where “families are forever,” people not only have to accomplish distance but also maintain it. This maintenance is often a heavy burden, not only because people consistently recommend unwanted reconciliations but also because of both media representations of family and internalized feelings about familial obligation. Thus, even though estrangement can be a positive change for someone, it is nevertheless a difficult one.

Despite what scholars have begun to learn about family estrangement, there is an incredible amount of research still to be done. In conducting it, we might learn more about different perspectives, different catalysts for distance and the outcomes associated with it.

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66 comments

  1. tegnost

    There was a giant wall constructed between myself and my family after I refused to vote for hillary. In their eyes there is basically no difference between a MAGA hat and a BernieBro.
    Get in line.

    Reply
  2. TimH

    A good friend is someone who’ll drive 100 miles at 2AM to pick you up when SHTF.

    I’ve always found it easier to ask a friend for help than family.

    Reply
  3. bassmule

    Wow. I was going to comment on this, but I too fear being stigmatized, even here. I heartily agree with this: ” Just because people are biologically related does not guarantee a loving and supportive relationship.”

    Reply
      1. Brunches with Cats

        Same here, to the tenth power.

        Ironic thing about feeling stigmatized: Even though the traumatic upbringing marked me for life, destroyed my sense of self-worth, ability to have meaningful relationships, etc., I was never shy about talking about my estranged family. Then there was my sister. While working in D.C. many years ago, I brought her to an office party. She was absolutely horrified that some of my coworkers knew about our family background and ordered me to keep it secret, so as not to damage her good reputation. We pretty much stopped speaking after that. A few years later, I moved to the West Coast. I knew almost instantly that putting 3,000 miles between me and the multiple siblings (parents had both passed by then) was the best thing I could have done for my mental health.

        Reply
    1. JEHR

      I was going to comment, too, but the situation is too complicated to reiterate. I did, however, compile a 79-page booklet of letters, back and forth, between me and members of the health bureaucracy who treated my request for information as being a sign of estrangement from my mother and, hence, they did not need to reply to my request or take heed of me personally. Estrangement indeed!

      Reply
    2. Joe Well

      If someone is abusing you emotionally, or has done something cruel that destroys trust, then their being family makes it worse, not better. “Reconciliation” just means more abuse.

      Reply
    3. Ozz

      I have far better friendships outside of my family now that I am older I listen to many people talk about parents and family. I know I missed alot by not havung a good family relationship. Best thing ever was when I did distance myself from them.

      Reply
  4. Raymond Sim

    How does it go? All happy families are the same, every unhappy family is unique?

    My mother was problematic. My brother eventually estranged himself from her, while I made sure to maintain ties, because I didn’t want her to die alone. On the few occasions when I’ve discussed this with outsiders I’ve made a point of explaining that I think he did the right thing. Nonetheless, my interlocutors always evinced hostility towards him, and then even towards me if I defended him further.

    Reply
    1. jr

      I cannot tell you how many times I have friends and even strangers tell me how I need to patch things up with my parents before it’s “too late”. When I tell them I look forward to “too late” they really don’t know what to say. Some will say something about letting it go but then I tell them I don’t want to let it go, I’m perfectly happy hating them. They richly deserve it and it doesn’t effect my life in any real way. In fact, I think of it as disrespecting my younger self who had to suffer through it all.

      I don’t know if it’s just typical moronic “positive thinking” armchair psycholomigizing on their part, as American as apple pie, or if it speaks to some undercurrent of dissatisfaction in their own individual lives. Some need to pretend they are alright by asserting how I should feel. I can tell you this, I have known a >lot< of people who should have told their parents to go to #ell a long time ago.

      They talk on for hours and hours about all the wrongs they have suffered. I ask them if they are waiting for the inheritance. If not, I ask them why they are still trying. Sometimes it's for other family members, it's never a clean situation. But many just cannot make the leap to walking away, they just continue to get treated like garbage year after year. They take it out on friends and other family members, on themselves, on easy targets, but never on their parents.

      Reply
      1. Susan Mercurio

        I can’t understand those who continue to put themselves in harm’s way with their families. I developed toughness of mind early in life through having to defend my psyche from my mother’s gaslighting. Later, I was able to walk away from her easily.

        Reply
  5. Home nurse

    After our mother past away my sibling and I cut ties with our father. At first we tried to maintain a line of communication with him, but it was not possible. For whatever reason he just was and is what he is.

    Reply
      1. Raymond Sim

        “Not many sibs would think this way, imho.”

        Yeah, but he and I are the only sibs with her for a mother. It puzzles me that people are so averse to taking my word for it.

        On the other hand, aside from gleeful children, happy people often make me irrationally uneasy, so I guess it cuts both ways.

        Reply
  6. PKMKII

    I’ve had estrangement from my dad for about 20 years, haven’t seen him in that long, about 15 since I last spoke to him. Definitely not alienation per the definition in the article; my mom went out of her way to avoid saying bad things about him in front of me. Wasn’t even that big of a disagreement, I just told him that I didn’t want to have any further relationship or interaction with the woman he re-married to. I was fine with, and told him as much, continuing to have a relationship with him. But he clearly stopped trying after that to maintain the relationship, and this was an issue with him generally; my older sister once asked him, why aren’t you calling my younger siblings to talk to them? His response (mind you I was probably about 9 at the time) was, well they have my number. So for me, it wasn’t so much a huge rift so much as, why should I expend the emotional labor needed for someone who clearly isn’t going to reciprocate. And I don’t feel sad or angry about it, just a tad cold.

    Reply
  7. Rick

    Hmm, not sure about the “negative relationship” qualifier. For me, the estrangement from my family of origin on both sides was more one of ennui. Nobody much cared to keep up except me. I have first cousins I have never met and nieces and nephews nobody has heard from in decades.

    Even when there was a connection decades later it soon petered out. This has gone on down the generations, my children have only rare contacts with a few members of my side of the family.

    I sympathize with Yves, taking care of my mother in her final, difficult years fell entirely on me, my siblings couldn’t be bothered to help.

    Reply
    1. t

      one family member intentionally distances themselves from at least one other family member because of a negative relationship – or the perception of one.

      Or the perception of one. That caught my eye. I know of someone who suddenly went no contact with her entire family, right about the time she became extraordinarily wealthy. They seem baffled, or are too polite to voice any suspicions.

      Reply
  8. jr

    My parents demonstrated a long time ago that I was a mere accessory in their lives, to be used and then set aside when not needed. Usually so that either of them could “play family” for their public images. Always getting the crappy X-mas gifts, always emotionally and materially abused, always the butt of the extended family’s joke with no defense from my parents. Always a second-class family member.

    I’m physically distanced and will stay so as long as I live. Emotionally, I hate them as much as I did since I walked away. That will carry to my end as well.

    Now they are in their almost-80’s and I understand they miss me. I knew years ago this would come to pass. I enjoy hearing of their angst and I know it will sharpen as their time draws near. I don’t let it rule me but I don’t push it away either. All this threw my sister and I apart years ago but we have managed to mend a lot of that.

    There is a saying in the Army: No one will fu(k you like family. I’ve known soldiers who got out of training and went home on leave to find their family has moved. No word, just gone and their childhood home sold to strangers.

    Reply
    1. The Rev Kev

      True story from Oz. My wife told me the story of a high-school girl in her area, when she was growing up, who came home one day to find that her parents had moved and the entire house was empty. My wife’s mother helped take care of her for a while but who does that to a teenage girl?

      Reply
    2. Whatdoiknow

      You better go and visit your parents and apologize no matter what.
      You sound like a mean and nasty person. God help your soul.

      Reply
        1. Whatdoiknow

          Your parents are in your 80s, you know they miss you, and you enjoy their angst in your little vengeful world. Why?
          If you didn’t write your text as a joke, that is the most despicable thing I read in a long time.
          One day you will be 80 and you will understand and regret it but it will be too late.
          What a sad life to carry and nurture so much hate within yourself, it’s a terrible burden. You are burning down your house to kill a rat.

          Reply
  9. David in Santa Cruz

    In my personal experience, the familial relationship is one of the only human relationships that is truly economic in nature. Every homeless person living on the streets had parents and grandparents.

    Children are born in need of the material and emotional support of their parents, and compete with their siblings for a “fair” share of whatever parental support may be available. Through these relations develop deeply-held personal feelings based on entitlement, resentment, gratitude, and duty that play-out as children transition into adulthood and autonomy, and which can become entrenched for a lifetime.

    The unique thing about familial relations is that these relationships transition from being dependent to being voluntary once children become autonomous adults. However, it’s absolutely correct that our sense of how others outside the family perceive us as worthy and honorable human beings plays a role in whether we voluntarily maintain our familial relationships once we achieve autonomy.

    Ironically, in adulthood the material and emotional support issues are often reversed. The difference is that family estrangement has made it more socially acceptable to abandon dependent parents and other adult family members than it is to abandon dependent children. Perhaps things shouldn’t be that way, but there you have it.

    A thought-provoking discussion, to be sure.

    Reply
    1. Kris Alman

      Children are born in need of the material and emotional support of their parents, and compete with their siblings for a “fair” share of whatever parental support may be available. Through these relations develop deeply-held personal feelings based on entitlement, resentment, gratitude, and duty that play-out as children transition into adulthood and autonomy, and which can become entrenched for a lifetime.

      Well put. Imagine growing up with 8 siblings, as I did.

      Grown adults tend to turn on childhood tapes when getting together with estranged family members (never mind those involuntarily cast out of the tribe, far beyond estrangement), reverting to those feelings of inadequacy or superiority (depending on the pecking order).

      I guess it all comes down to the energy that creates today’s nuclear family: fission or fusion?

      Reply
    2. fresno dan

      David in Santa Cruz
      October 14, 2021 at 2:23 pm
      Good insight. Once you become an adult, you really don’t have to put up with anyone…including family.
      I saw a forensics file epidode where a women killed her two hunbands. As the police closed in, she tried to poison her eldest daughter to make it look like a suicide, and composed a note from the daugther confessing to have killed both husbands (bear in mind, the daughter would have bee 12 with the first husband died) – she TRIED TO FRAME HER DAUGHTER FOR MURDER.
      Most mothers and relatives are not so mentally ill…but some are. There are no parental licenses – ANYONE can be a parent

      Reply
    3. Yves Smith Post author

      Terse and astute.

      And in light of competition among siblings. one remark in Dune by Paul then Atreides meant to provoke:

      “I enjoy watching the flights of birds on Arrakis,” the banker [a Guild Bank representative] said, directing his words at Jessica. “All of our birds, of course, are carrion-eaters, and many exist without water, having become blood-drinkers.”…

      Paul had marked the falseness in his dinner companion’s voice, saw that his mother was following the conversation with Bene Gesserit intensity. On impulse, he decided to play the foil, draw the exchange out. He addressed himself to the banker.

      “Do you mean, sir, that these birds are cannibals?”

      “That’s an odd question, young Master,” the banker said. “I merely said the birds drink blood. It doesn’t have to be the blood of their own kind, does it?”

      “It was not an odd question,” Paul said, and Jessica noted the brittle riposte quality of her training exposed in his voice. “Most educated people know that the worst potential competition for any young organism can come from its own kind.” He deliberately forked a bite of food from his companion’s plate, ate it. “They are eating from the same bowl. They have the same basic requirements.”

      Reply
  10. PhilHart

    Money and education differences are what I have observed in our extended family and among peers. People with lots of money grow distrustful and fearful of poor relatives, poor relatives harbor jealousy.

    The football game as cultural zenith family member has little to offer the well educated and vice versa.

    Siblings harbor resentment toward the older brother or sister as often they got “more privileges” and the younger got away with murder in the family.

    Miscegenation is a family relation killer also.

    Reply
  11. begob

    Very interesting 45 min interview with Amanda Curtin, a group couples therapist – she goes with the inner child trauma concept, similar philosophy to Gabor Mate, and has a well developed method of figuring out triggers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlmuP64wJMk

    A few interesting points: Parents are 50-50 responsible for childhood influences. Trauma can set in simply through neglect. It is not stored in the timeline of the memory, so can return as if fresh. It plays out in later life particularly hard on a partner, and a mutual reinforcement of triggering can take over. Awareness is not sufficient – acceptance is necessary. In role-play the unconscious accepts what it’s given, which is why directly addressing the problematic person from the past may not be necessary; and often what needs to be said would be too damaging in any situation other than role-play. Repressed anger needs to be released physically. Also an intriguing practice of using the non-dominant hand to write responses from the inner child.

    Gabor Mate is interesting, but his approach to addiction is no more than a philosophy, which is necessarily unverifiable. So it’s interesting to hear Curtin explain her method developed from a similar approach.

    Reply
    1. Whatdoiknow

      The devil was walking one day in the Libyan Desert and he saw a monk being tormented by some of his demons.
      And he approached, and the demons bowed in front of him and said, ‘Master, for 39 days and 39 nights, we have tried to tempt this holy monk away from his god, and his religion.
      We have offered him powers and principalities, we’ve offered him the joys of the flesh, we have offered him wine, and food, and riches, but he has turned us down.
      There’s nothing that we can do to win this holy man to our cause.’
      And the devil said, ‘Out of my way,’ and he whispered in the monk’s ear.
      And instantly the monk took the pectoral cross around his neck and snapped it, and filled the air with hideous curses against his god, and his church, and his religion, and swore he would never follow Christ again.
      And the demons fell down in front of the devil and said, ‘Master, what can you have said in one second that we could not?’ The devil said, ‘Oh, it was very simple.
      I just told him his brother had been made Bishop of Alexandria.

      Reply
  12. Sue inSocal

    Thanks for this, Yves. Not only do I think estrangement is a process, it’s often repetitive in families without the actors’ knowledge. My family has charted an unwittingly course with the estrangements, freeze outs, scapegoatings and betrayals that literally go back many generations. Can’t break that pattern! What’s left of my family now is so chaotic I have withdrawn. It’s a rare family that can step away from original childhood roles. I had one sib, and it took forever to accept I would never have a relationship with her, primarily due to the early and continuing actions of our mother. That “back and forth” trying to make a relationship meaningful (while walking on eggshells) and ultimately giving up, I can very much relate to. When people show you who they are, believe them.

    Reply
  13. Watt4Bob

    I have 4 sisters, the oldest of which is a high functioning sociopath.

    My family is culturally a matriarchy, and from my perspective, my Mom and sisters comprise a coven.

    My oldest sister is already functioning as my Mom’s replacement in the hierarchy, and has created tension with my wife since we married.

    Family get togethers are tense because my oldest sister always starts the conversation with what feels like an aggressive interrogation of my wife concerning her job and then each of my other sisters must add a question, and they all feel like an attempt to put my wife in her place, what ever that means, and where ever that is.

    When we bought our home we were poor as church mice, we splurged on some nice furniture for the living room, and my sister went out and purchased the same stuff.

    We have a big family, and so a complicated Christmas with a long-standing schedule.

    At first we took the only open spot on that calendar, everyone was welcome at our place on Christmas day.

    That lasted 2 years, and then my sister decided that she would host an elaborate breakfast on Christmas day.

    When we decided to visit my wife’s family on Christmas day rather than my sisters event, it became a ‘thing’.

    My second oldest sister suffers from schizophrenia, and the oldest takes delight in torturing her with behavior intended to push her into an ‘episode’. She knows all the things that her sister misinterprets in her paranoia, and makes sure to string them into a display that drives her over the edge.

    She’s careful to keep my mother from witnessing this.

    I’ve explained the problem to each of my ‘innocent‘ sisters, and explained that I am open to one-on-one relationships with all of them, but I, we, my wife and I have had it with #1.

    The problem is, the female side of my family cannot be divided no matter what they say to the contrary, in every group interaction they operate as a single unit with a common mind, and that common mind is led by #1, and she is sick.

    I’ve long ago made peace with the notion that in order to have the contented life I have come to value, I have to limit our exposure to my birth family.

    I visit my mother several times a year, by myself, the rest I see once or twice a year, and #1 as little as possible.

    I am lucky to have a wonderful wife and kids, and good friends to boot.

    Like I commented above;

    Friends are Gods way of making up for your family.

    Reply
    1. Sue inSoCal

      Watt4, I can relate. No pun intended. One’s children can even unwittingly step into the roles of family of origin members and treat one (despite your best intentions to stop estrangement patterns) as “less than.” When the disrupters form what I call a “clot” (you call a coven), best to back away slowly and save your health.

      Reply
      1. ArvidMartensen

        My partner comes from a family of 8, with 5 siblings, and maintains contact with a brother.
        They all grew up with the father dominating the family through a mix of bombast, threats, cold snubs and secrecy. The mother variously undermined,capitulated and bad-mouthed him, and also played favorites with her children doling out affection on whim. When her children married, she took delight in scapegoating one of her daughters-in-law.
        The father had very little to do with his own parents and siblings. The mother wrote regularly to her mother and sister but rarely visited them. In public they were the very picture of devotion, charming and hospitable.
        My own partner vowed and declared never to be like either parent. And then proceeded to be an irresponsible and selfish partner for years, determinedly, until traumatic events caused deep reflection and change.
        Because so much was hidden and taboo in that family, it took me years to realise that these children had grown up in a perpetual warzone, and so just thought of marriage as a never-ending battleground for supremacy. Not knowing any alternative, they inflicted this on their own partners. While denying their own obvious poor behaviours.
        Consequently, out of the 6, there has been 1 long term cohabitation, and 8 marriages, with 5 or 6 divorces. The remaining 2 marriages have been rocky. 3 siblings now live alone in retirement.
        My point is that the absorption of toxic relationship beliefs can be so deep and so enduring that in spite of wishes and protestations of being better, unconscious assumptions can take over and ruin any hope for a happy and successful union.
        I take great care these days to find out the background of my own children’s prospective partners. Which is very tricky territory indeed.

        Reply
        1. Watt4Bob

          Thanks for your comment about protecting your children. It reminds me of one of the major reasons my wife became a target of my sisters ire.

          Very early in my daughters life, my sisters assumed they had a right to come over and pick her up to spend the day with them. When my wife refused their requests they became livid.

          One of my sister’s boyfriends once asked me, in an aggressive way; “Do your kids even know your family?”

          My sisters, when observing my kids during visits, would often comment, in front of my wife, about how much they resembled our family. ( My son looks very much like a cross between myself and my father in law, and my daughter’s looks, do not strike me as confirming their opinion.)

          This behavior looks like “gaslighting” to me, and really gets under my wife’s skin.

          Both my wife and I considered their requests to take our daughter to spend the day as a sort of kidnapping, with the intent to indoctrinate her in the “sisterhood“.

          Our kids are grown, independent and I can clearly see how their lives are better for having avoided the indoctrination.

          Reply
  14. Eustachedesaintpierre

    Just one of my sisters, the Tory wife who plotted to put my Mum in a dump of a care home, which not long after got hit bad by Covid. A long time building & she was not always that way & she puts me in mind of those women described as the disappointed in the film Frankie & Johnny – grown bitter like cankered fruit.

    I wish I could do something about it, but if I contact her I know how that would go & her fat well tailored turd of a husband doesn’t want me around as apparently I make him nervous.. I lost another sister who died of despair last year who I only really knew as a child & perhaps it was that tragedy that makes me wish I could put things right between one of the two still here – the other remaining sister is my best friend.

    Reply
  15. Susan the other

    There are a zillion perversions that can get in the way of a family “relationship” – that is, a good one. The best quote I ever found (forgot the author) was that “Home (or family) is where things are left unsaid.” The quiet understanding we all have of our close family members is like telepathy. And, most often, imo, it’s a form of resilience. With friends there is much less baggage. Maybe a little; and relating to friends requires an effort to engage on both sides; whereas families (good ones mostly) are institutions of avoidance. I recently realized, going through old photos, that I never had a conversation with either one of my parents. Even tho’ I observed them closely. I didn’t much like them and I honestly don’t think they liked me much either. And that’s OK; if they called me from the netherworld and asked me for some earthly help I’d give it to them in a heartbeat. I kinda think we have some exaggerated stereotypes about love these days.

    Reply
  16. Brian H

    I’m 50 and cut ties with my parents about 3.5 years ago. It was and continues to be a difficult and painful decision, but it’s also the best decision I’ve ever made. They were physically and emotionally abusive to me and my two older sisters, and their extremely manipulative personalities wreaked havoc all who came within reach. After decades of contemplating cutting ties, what finally convinced me to take that drastic step was starting my own family. I began to learn things were even worse than I thought just by developing a relationship with my wife’s parents. While certainly not perfect, they are good people and created a safe and supportive environment. The next step was having two little girls, now 10 and 13. Every day, sometimes every hour, I am presented with a situation where I am doing exactly the opposite of what my parents did. Having my own children opened my eyes to just how evil my parents were. I just couldn’t comprehend how they treated me the way they did, and I couldn’t imagine doing that to my own kids. I am proud and thankful that I was able to break the cycle, but it was obvious that my family wasn’t safe until Grammy and Pops were completely out of our lives. They had not changed, they weren’t going to change. Any and all attempts to change them were turned right back on me and my family, their manipulative abilities should be studied.
    My sisters still continue a relationship with our mother, our father died early last year. Both sisters are very supportive of my decision, to the degree that they understand it. My oldest sister even told me she wish she had my courage. I keep my relationship going with my sisters by not discussing the details of my decision. We could probably read in a textbook that it’s unhealthy for us to not hash out the different directions we’ve headed as siblings, but we recognize that we’re different people who have handled abusive parents in different ways. So far we’ve been able to respect those differences, likely because we all survived the same hell.
    It’s hard, but I don’t regret it. The closest I get to regret is recognizing, as I learn how to be a good parent, just how many opportunities my parents missed by being such utterly awful people.

    Reply
  17. jr

    This discussion has me thinking a lot. Why is there such a disparity between what people
    seem to think families are supposed to be like and why they are not not that way. I think it’s safe to say there are more “bad” families than “good” families. At least that has been my experience.

    If that’s so, why is so much effort put into maintaining illusions? Why don’t people just walk away? Or at least stop pretending? I know a lot of them do but a lot don’t without any good reason to continue to try. They put up with years and years of abuse, oftentimes public abuse, to maintain what? I have a pal whose mother is a real piece of it, treats her terribly but always wants to have Christmas together, got drunk at her wedding and made a total fool of herself, hits on her 30 something friends at 60 years of age. The mother has some trash-ball boyfriend who acts the fool as well, always making a scene.

    There is no money coming, that’s being spent before her eyes. Her sister hates the mother my friend isn’t trying to keep the family together for anyone but herself. I ask her why she keeps going back and she just gets like “Oh, I don’t know, blah blah blah…” She gets indignant about the abuse but then turns right around and runs back every. single. time. I stopped listening to her about it a while ago. Once, in a fight, I suggested she actually enjoyed the drama and she blew up. But she never blows up on good old Mom.

    One guess, at least for US culture, is that there is a strong pressure for everything to constantly be “Ok!” in a lot of people’s lives. “Bright-siding” in Ehrenreich’s words. Don’t be negative. Of course, it’s all horribly negative but then we live in the Age of Illusion where image matters so much more than substance.

    I’m sure media plays a role in this. I’d love to see a study done on how families tend to be portrayed in entertainment. Also, the constant harping in the political realm about the sanctity of family, the inherent goodness of family. Oh, and the advertising and marketing, who here hasn’t been inundated all their lives with images of smiling families at dinner, in the park, on vacation at Disney, etc.

    Reply
    1. Brunches with Cats

      > Why don’t people just walk away? Or at least stop pretending?

      It seems almost like a tribal thing, jr — a vestigial survival instinct. Without the tribe, a lone individual was exposed and vulnerable. Taboos were an effective method of instilling fear, with punishment being banishment and near certainty of death.

      Living in a rural village where families go back generations has been an eye-opener for a girl who wandered three continents without one. While not a taboo in the primitive sense, there does seem to be an unwritten code that leaving one’s family to go it alone will end up in disaster, that “it’s not safe out there.” In fact, isn’t that how the mythological hero’s journey often starts? The hero leaves home, family, tribe, etc., against the advice of those in charge of maintaining the status quo. The end of the first act is usually the point at which a reluctant or vacillating hero is forced to give up the safety of the familiar and step into the unknown.

      Reply
      1. jr

        Great comment BwC, yeah I guess there is a kind of tribalism at work but it seems anachronistic. But maybe when, not if, the SHTF those kinds of bonds will take on their old importance again. We are going to find out. And I salute you, I wondered alone for a long time as well with no one to turn to. I think it has strengthened me. I paid a price for it in the world as it was but I think it will serve me well in the world that’s shaping up. I just hope I can get my loved one’s to make the transition.

        Reply
  18. GramSci

    Lambert had a long link yesterday on “heterozygoticity” (did I get that right?). There’s enough genetic variation in any family so that one can’t count on nurture overcoming the nature. My heart goes out to those who are left with nothing but the tender mercies of family.

    Reply
    1. newcatty

      An airline’s instructions to passengers: To adults accompanying small children: First put on the oxygen mask on yourself, then on your child. This is what one does when choosing estrangement from toxic family members. You are saving yourself, first, then you can create loving and kind relationships with others in your life. Blood is not thicker than water. Children are at the mercy of the parents , or caregivers, as children. As Brian said above, “cutting ties with my parents was the best decision of my life.” For me it was not painful, except for the pain carried from childhood into young adulthood. It takes a realization and understanding that no one is obligated to stay in toxic relationship with any family member. I don’t only choose my friends, I choose who is my family. Every time I chose estrangement it was an act of personal courage. Most of the time met with envy, or scorn or passive-agressive anger. It’s, as is said, their problem. I choose life.

      Reply
  19. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Yves, I actually love the fact that you “went outside the box” with this post.

    It intrigues me that most of the comments are from people born, raised and living in the Anglosphere.

    Having spent a large amount of time with extended families in India (which have their own patholgies, cf. mother-and-daughter-in-law conflict), my anecdata take is that huge amount of the blame for family estrangement can be laid at the foot of nuclear families.

    I grew up in a somewhat extended family (as did many of my peers), and there was always an aunt or an uncle or a cousin to whom I could vent or seek solace from. But the nuclear family has grown ever nuclear, and as is true in physics, when pressure builds up without an outlet, something drastic usually occurs.

    Curious what family estrangement would look like in countries where extended families are the norm.

    I hope the next installment will examine the family dynamics of the paragom disseminators of neoliberalism!

    Reply
    1. Whatdoiknow

      In extended families members don’t have much freedoms, that’s why they are extended to begin with.
      In what planet do you think forcing mother and daughter in law to live together will make for a happy cocktail? It’s a constrained relationship that suffocates everyone but the patriarch .

      Reply
  20. Brunches with Cats

    Wowzers! Thank you for posting this, Yves. It is the most concise, perceptive explanation I’ve ever read of a subject I didn’t know was an area of research. There’s something almost alchemical about being struck between the eyes with a 2×4 of validation.

    > Often, estrangement can be a productive way for people to eliminate a toxic relationship. … Sometimes, gaining distance is necessary for a person’s emotional and/or physical safety.

    As I mentioned in a comment above, moving to the opposite coast many years ago had immediate benefits for my mental health. I’m back in my birth county now, and after enough time and distance for basic healing to take place, feel like I can attempt the final deep dive necessary to recover the the parts of myself thrown overboard in order to survive.

    Reply
  21. PHLDenizen

    Sentimentality is grossly overrated and often blinds you to abominable behavior you wouldn’t dare tolerate from an acquaintance or friend.

    My partner’s family learned she was bisexual in high school. Her sneaky, gossipy, disloyal brother overheard a conversation with her love interest and proceeded to dime her out to her parents. This, being the late 70s/early 80s and in a large city in Kentucky, it was a thing thought scandalous, shameful, sinful, and perverse. So what did her fscking parents do? They locked her up in a loony bin for months to “fix” her. Her mom called it a “phase”. And then they exiled her to a life with zero support for a few years. Dehumanized her. Erased her. Humiliated her. Traumatized her.

    The saddest and most angering thing is watching her yearn for acceptance and love from her family — a family wholly incapable of anything other than vanity, narcissism, and yapping like junkyard bitches about “traditional Christian values”. She cries when her aged mother has health scares. She cries when her sister — who now controls the family business after the dad died — uses the family wealth as a means to control and humiliate. They’re perfectly capable of offering financial support, but instead lecture her about “responsibility” and engage in poverty tourism.

    Her family has caused all sorts of strife in our relationship. I absolutely despise them. They are loathsome, wretched monsters. Hypocrites. Sociopaths. Not even remotely close to living the Christian values they hang on about. The trauma she suffered at their hands I end up holding the bag for. It’s overwhelming at times. I get furious at her inability or refusal to erect boundaries and prevent that toxicity from infesting our relationship.

    They ate up her narcissistic ex’s lies that she was “bankrupting” the family being a “shopaholic” despite her having zero signatory authority on any accounts and his pathological secrecy about finances. He fscked around on her left and right and her mom’s response was “I told you you should wear lipstick”. When she wanted to get an order of protection during the divorce, her sister flipped out and said “but he’ll get fired!! Don’t you dare do that!” And when she fled the house with the kids because they were all afraid of him, her sister’s response was “you have a house. Go back and live there.”

    I don’t know what it is about the pharma industry, but every single exec I’ve met or heard about (of which her ex is one) are total pieces of trash. Especially in the NYC metro area.

    Reply
  22. Whatdoiknow

    Who knew that Yves readers had so many grievances to air?
    Looks like I am the only one to have a happy family here.
    I am so saddened by the comments.
    I love my parents, my 4 siblings, and the kids, I won’t exchange my family for anything in the world.
    From Plato to Jesus to Marx , family was always the object of destruction. Looks like capitalism is going to finish it off eventually.
    Family is the last refuge of the individual before becoming totally dependent on the state for everything.
    Our proclivity to get offended and triggered by the smallest things shows how enslaved we are emotionally. It’s not conducive to good family relations.
    Then what better and convenient way to proclaim “estrangement “ from his/her old parents when they need you the most and there are better more fun things to do than take care of them?
    They didn’t abandon you when you were a child, you have a moral duty to care for them.
    It’s what makes us human rather than selfish beasts.

    Reply
    1. anon y'mouse

      They didn’t abandon you when you were a child

      actually they did. multiple times. from birth all the way to adulthood. physically, financially, emotionally and in other ways.

      so, what do you know–walk a mile in another’s shoes and realize that the first obligation is of a parent to their child and once that is violated, all bets are off. oh, and the parent has likely screwed that kid up for life, or a lifetime of bad relationships, or a lifetime of therapy trying to make up for multiple complex problems caused by suffering such a thing before one can fully understand.
      laying down the wrong software for human social interactions.

      and you know, sometimes the parent is the one who estranges themselves for whatever reason. sometimes, because they can’t admit guilt over their past actions and move forward to try to have a good relationship in the present and future. or maybe they just never cared to begin with, and also can’t admit that.

      someone who has the good fortune you evince probably can not really imagine such things, though. good for you, but perhaps ridiculing those who have is not the best tactic.

      i guess having a close and happy family does not necessarily result in much empathy. who could have known that?

      Reply
      1. ArvidMartensen

        Yes, from my observations, there is a profound myth in our society about parents, hammered for decades in shows like the Brady Bunch, which goes like this –
        Yes some parents are flawed but nevertheless they did the best they could for their kids to give them a home and good education etc. So good kids have an obligation to visit their parents and care for them in old age. Any kid who doesn’t like/support/visit their parents is therefore by definition a very bad person.

        People who grew up in non-abusive homes wholly subscribe to the myth. Telling these fortunates that one isn’t going “home” for Christmas, generally leads to two outcomes.
        Either the fortunate takes on an air of deepest sympathy and tells the abused that they are sure it will “all work out in the end” for happy families, and just to keep trying.
        Or they look or say something to tell the abused that their attitude is not very nice (ie Whatdoiknow’s comment about selfish beasts)
        It is very much like the rich in the US telling an itinerant that they are irresponsible for not having a full medical once a year.
        In our experience, around these times just make something up re Christmas, parent care and visits, and move on.

        Reply
      2. Whatdoiknow

        Parents gave you the gift of life.
        Cherish it and be grateful.
        You are not entitled to anything else.
        Only parents with mental issues would abuse their children, the vast majority of parents are decent people.
        No parent or anyone else for that matter can screw your life.
        Some of the most successful people in the history of humanity had terrible childhoods , grew orphaned and went through a lot of suffering.
        Make use of the freedom you have as a human being and say no to things you don’t like. You are not an object.
        And if you fight with your parents, no need to go into a Cold War siege for years, stay in touch, things get always mended.

        Reply
        1. ArvidMartensen

          You are indeed one of the privileged ones, and good for you. Life handed you, for free, the gift of a caring loving family of origin.
          But perhaps realising that there are some things that can’t be mended is part of gaining wisdom.
          For instance – in my country every year children are sexually abused in their family, and women die from domestic violence. Many are women who stayed with the abuser for years, putting up with the beatings, the attempted stranglings and shootings, because they had nowhere to go or had lost hope. Even escaping doesn’t make these women safe.
          There have been a number of reports in the last two years where men stalked and then killed estranged partners and/or their own children. You cannot mend this. No amount of wishing and hoping for the best mends this.
          And I am not saying we had this in our family btw, but it comes into our home every week via the media.
          Perhaps you could extend some empathy for people who, through no fault of their own, were born into terrible families and suffered physical beatings, psychological abuse, and worse abuse.
          Charities would love to have someone as fortunate as you working in the local womens refuge or homeless men’s shelter.

          Reply
    2. Raymond Sim

      Hey look! It’s that hostility I was talking about!

      Our proclivity to get offended and triggered by the smallest things shows how enslaved we are emotionally. It’s not conducive to good family relations.

      You dumbfound me. What evidence do you have that people here are talking about small things? The only evidence available is that they’ve taken drastic measures. To me that’s a sign there was a big problem.

      As I said in my earlier comment I’m the ‘good’ son who stuck with our mom when my brother cut off ties. That makes me one of the world’s two experts on why he did what he did, and I say he did the right thing. Praise for my devotion almost invariably turns to hostility if I persist in defending my brother.

      You know what, Whatdoiknow? The people I know who talk the way you are here, they’re typically a big problem in their own families, causing all sorts of offense and hurt, and blaming everyone but themselves for the results. Not saying that’s you, but offical LoyalSon pro tip: If you’ve never pondered the possibility, then it likely is you.

      Reply
  23. The Rev Kev

    There is another form of estrangement where a family member is cut off. While researching family history, I came across records showing how my mother’s grandfather shot through with another woman. When I told my late mother, it explained to her why nobody in her family ever talked about him as in ever and it seemed to be in such cases, that for the family that person ceased to exist. Nobody would talk about them, nobody would mention them in front of others and it was like those Unpersons from the novel “1984.” And it seems to have been a widespread custom in that era with a lot of families. This Unpersoning of a family member for a transgression. It wasn’t so much of a case of we-will-never-talk-to-that-person-again so much as a case of that-person-no-longer-exists. Creepy when you think about it.

    Reply
    1. Raymond Sim

      Actually, I think the creepiness may be a tint imbued by our modern cultural lenses. Betrayal is always hard to cope with emotionally. Discovering you’ve been deeply deceived can leave you unsure of your grasp on reality.

      Today silence on a traumatic topic is usually regarded as unhealthy. But I think a family’s universal silence on a topic that’s clearly painful, and nobody knows how to help with, could just as well be seen as supportive, even comforting.

      Reply
  24. John Beech

    Woo-hoo and here I thought I had a complicated relationship with family. Reading these stories has been eye opening. My only sorrow? The comments ended too soon! I won’t bore anyone by adding to the tales of woe regarding family, leaving it with just, ‘not the same history but a lot of the rhythm and blues.’

    Except for Whatdoiknow (who could be my wife commenting for all I know). This, for seemingly being similarly well adjusted and blessed with a great family (although I have for more than 40 years watched this knowledgeably, wise, and strong independent woman revert to her role as youngest when she and her two eldest sisters get together). Not in a bad way, but it’s definitely the classic older sib, middle sib, and youngest sib dynamic.

    Over the last few years, as my mother has begun losing her mind, she’s pushed me away. To the point she won’t take calls (we’re more than a 1000 miles away). With enough money to buy relationships she manages OK although I dread the day of the call of her passing. I’m sure to cry like a baby.

    Inheritance? A substantial amount (by any measure). And as only child presumably the sole inheritor. This, presuming she doesn’t leave it to the church (the bishop is a sycophant who visits regularly and agrees with her every word).

    Fortunately, I am not dependent financially on her, or anyone (beyond my customers). My efforts to provide have granted us independence from her behavior and dispensing of largess. I watch those surrounding her with amusement. They work ceaselessly to bleed her financially, and am pleased I don’t have to make the effort.

    In a funny way, reading this has been good for furthering understanding with my own relationships. Like a pal in Atlanta who once confided a desire for his mother to just f-ing hurry up and die. She inevitably did and left him a comfortable sum. He doesn’t miss her. He honestly hated her. Good guy so I suspect there was good reason

    Another friend, this one in Birmingham. We’re closer and I know he hated his mother, also. Reading these stories grants me further understanding of this man I’ve been good friends with for 40 years. I recall being shocked to my core of learning this (despite due to decades of friendship meaning I had first hand knowledge of the often execrable things she had said and done, not just as he grew up, but well into adulthood). His hate was totally understandable but nevertheless left me speechless to hear. No longer as she’s since passed. She, incidentally, hung on in her assisted living facility until all her assets had run out and was costing him about $6k per month for a year or two. Showed me he was a better son than she deserved because he shouldered the expense (yes, complaining bitterly) but in all likelihood he could have walked away. Didn’t.

    My postman, a bitter little man a year or so from retirement can’t wait his parents passing so he can inherit. A dreadful soul, I make no claims of friendship and in fact await his retirement with anticipation because his route substitute, a young man of more sound character, will be infinitely more pleasant to interact with going forward. Tick-tock, tick-tock, I look forward with anticipation!

    Finally, a new-ish friend, less than a decade. Best, if truth be told (although he doesn’t know it). Calm, level headed sort, older brother who screwed him on inheriting his father’s stamp collection (father had promised it more than once but as executor, older brother insisted it be valued independently and that he purchase it). He did, not because philately was ‘his’ hobby but in hopes of someday passing it to a family member who may turn out to be. No clue whatsoever f one will appear but making bank for the future as a pure exercise in familial love.

    Perhaps better than anything explains why he’s my friend. Very good guy. Complicated relationship with his sisters. They’re fortunate and may, or may not know it. Kind of guy goes to visit for Christmas and gets dragged into remodeling a bathroom for less economically fortunate sister because her turd of a husband is useless.

    Me? Very glad I grew up as an only child. I get wistful at times wondering what I missed out on but these stories have disabused me of the notion my wife’s experience is normal.

    Reply
  25. Irrational

    Thanks to all, but especially to ArvidMartensen and anon y’mouse, who have given me some additional pieces to the puzzle of my dysfunctional parents and childhood.

    Reply

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