Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. For the rest of the hour, we're going to be talking about a topic that's really hard, but affects a lot of us. Family estrangement, being isolated from somebody in your family, because of any number of reasons. It's something we don't talk about a lot, even though some experts think it may be as common as divorce in this country, and we asked you your thoughts on it, and you had a lot to say.
Jim: I am Jim from South Orange, New Jersey. I think that estrangement from family members can actually be a very healthy choice that most people are far too reluctant to make. I think that just because someone is the blood relative does not mean that you should not rule out the need to exclude someone from your life if they're toxic. There are plenty of people who have blood relatives, parents, brothers, sisters, who are hyper-critical, negative, possessive, physically violent, psychologically abusive, who should be excised from their lives.
Bailey: I've done no contact with my mother for over two years. She has a personality disorder. She can't help but be abusive to the people around her, and she refuses to seek treatment. I finally decided that my life is more important to me than maintaining a relationship with an abuser. The impact has been significant. For the first time in my life, my thoughts are clear. I know who I am and what I want.
I don't feel like I'm steeped in chaos. My brain used to be so scrambled that I would lock my keys in my car on a weekly basis. I haven't done that in two years. I wasn't able to buy a house. I have more energy in general, but specifically more energy to devote to my small business, which, by the way, my mother always told me I wasn't cut out for. I'm flourishing without my mother's destructive influence. I will never let her back into my life. Not ever. I'm Bailey and I'm in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Peterson Toscano: My name is Peterson Toscano. I'm calling from Lake Huntington, New York. When I was a teenager, I became a born again, conservative, evangelical Republican Christian. Now, my much more liberal, Roman Catholic, Italian-American family didn't exactly know how to respond to this. Now, we were never completely estranged. Definitely my church, at the time, encouraged me to create a barrier between my parents and me. The world became a distinction between the saved and the unsaved. The church very much tried to take the place of my family, and in many ways I let them.
Now, this whole time I was also struggling with being gay and Christian. I kept my family at arm’s length for almost 20 years when I went through conversion therapy. When I finally came out as gay, the church family, that I thought I was a part of, no longer had any room for me, and it was my real family that was able to embrace me, and it helped me as I struggled to come out, but still years later, it's amazing, the pain, the shame, the hurt that has remained. It's definitely taken a long time to rebuild.
Meg: This is Meg from Austin, Texas. I've been estranged from my father, basically my entire life, since I was even just a child. Really, my parents had split when I was young, but what really led to the estrangement was my father spending all of my trust fund. That really broke down any kind of trust and any kind of relationship that we had at a very, very young age, and haven't spoken to my father since.
Garth: Hi, this is Garth from Boston, Massachusetts. My family is full of estrangement. Thankfully, all of them are a generation or two older than me, but that still means I'm juggling my own relationship with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Reconciling that with how my normal relationships with them might make my parents or grandparents feel, it's a strange unnecessary table to manage. I just wish all those estrangers considered that collateral damage.
Debra: Hi, my name is Debra. I was calling about being estranged from my youngest daughter for over a year. We hadn't spoken and it hurt me because my grandson was estranged too. I was calling to leave that message, and out of the blue, she called me today. I guess I don't need to leave that message anymore. We picked up as if no time had gone between, and it was wonderful. Thank you.
Tanzina: We're talking about family estrangement, which for a long time has been a taboo topic, but that may be changing as we see more and more research examining why and how estrangement happens to often define it as a situation in which one family member voluntarily and intentionally ceases contact with another. For more on this, we're joined now by Kristina Scharp, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Kristina, welcome to the show.
Kristina Scharp: Hey, thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina: Karl Pillemer is a Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and author of "Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them." Karl, welcome to The Takeaway.
Karl Pillemer: Hi, it's great to be here.
Tanzina: Karl, let's start with you. How do we define estrangement today?
Karl: There are many definitions. Sometimes we, researchers, have to be a little more restrictive than others. There's a wide range of definitions, though, that sometimes includes emotional estrangement or distancing. In my own work I focus on people who really have cutoff contact. That is, it's not about the reason, it's not about why it's someone who says, "I'm done, it's over," and in this hyper-connected society is able to truly seize having contact with someone else for a period of time.
I've found in my research that those situations are different from family conflict or distancing. There really is something unique and different when someone says, "I never want to speak to you or hear from you again," in a family.
Tanzina: It's hard to find a lot of research on family estrangement. Is that starting to change, Karl? I know you do a lot of it, but why has it been such a blind spot for so long?
Karl: Dr. Scharp who's with me is one of the few people who, when I started my studies, had actually done research on it. I believe there are fewer than 20 or so published journal articles.
It really has been a problem that you can say has been hiding in plain sight, not just from society, but also from researchers, even the monumental handbook of family therapy that covers research on this, but doesn't have an entry for estrangement, so it's a situation that is right for this kind of research. I think a key issue, all of our work is about trying to bring this problem out of the shadows, and it's what I tried to do in the book at the end of the light of public discussion, just like you're doing right now.
Tanzina: Kristina, what are some of the most common causes of estrangement? Is it usually an argument that really just upsets people so much? Is it a one-shot thing or are there multiple things that have to lead up to that?
Kristina: I would say that it can depend. Sometimes I more often see a long history of an ongoing, pretty severely negative relationship. Although there could be instances where it is like someone might come out and that might be the family riff, so it can depend, it can vary. Although I would say that the majority of instances that I've seen usually involve some sort of abuse, whether that's psychological, physical, sexual, or some sort of substance abuse issue.
Tanzina: On the part of the person taking themselves out of the picture or in the part of the person being estranged from, I suppose.
Kristina: These are typically reports from people who've said that they have initiated the distance, so it's their perceptions of fairly ongoing negative relationship.
Tanzina: Kristina, there seems to be a lot of shame associated with admitting that you have in estranged relationship with the family. Why is that?
Kristina: I think we live in a culture- and actually this is not just true of US culture, this is somewhat ubiquitous that families are these ongoing, enduring relationships that we're obligated to because we often conflate biology and family and love altogether, and so it's really difficult when someone has a really positive relationship to understand given what we hear about families, that a person doesn't want to have anything to do with theirs.
Tanzina: Karl, what's the scope of estrangement in the United States today? Are we becoming more likely to participate in doing that, or is it increasing or is it decreasing?
Karl: It's a great question. In researching the book Fault Lines, I learned how alone, most estranged people feel. People do think that it doesn't go on, perhaps, as frequently because of the shame they experience, and I decided there was only one way to know how extensive a problem is. I conducted the first large scale population-based random sample survey of 1340 Americans, asking them if they had a relative from whom they are estranged, using that definition.
I found that 27% of the US population, so translated over 65 million adults, reported themselves as experiencing an active estrangement, and in the vast majority of cases, this wasn't just a passive drawing part, it was upsetting for them.
Interestingly also, the rates of estrangement didn't differ by race, gender, or educational level. It's a vast and widespread problem, and it's an equal opportunity problem. In terms of growth over time, I suspected this is increasing as people feel a lowered sense of family obligation. Folks in the grand parental generation now had a sense of sticking with your family no matter what.
In our interviews, comparing parents and children, adult children are much more likely to say now, "If this relationship isn't working out, I'll take a break from it." I think that probably is more widespread, but we don't have the hard data to show it.
Mary: Hi, this is Mary from Philadelphia. I was estranged from my late mother for 11 years. The issue was her lack of support for my desire to leave my husband, for which I would have needed her temporary help in order to give my children safe and decent living conditions. The experience of having my mother leave me out on a limb, while I struggled to deal with my husband's ongoing contempt and verbal abuse, has left a trauma in me that I don't think will ever go away. Plus, I know it had a bad effect on my two children to see me in the distraught and hopeless state I was often in.
My mother died nearly 11 years ago. The rift with her was never really healed. I still can't think of her without feeling pain, even though I'm 76 years old.
Tanzina: Thank you, Mary, for that call. Here to discuss more on estrangement are Kristina Scharp, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, and Karl Pillemer, author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. Kristina, you've heard a lot of our callers, some of whom are very satisfied with their decision, others who still, like our caller, just now, Mary is 76 years old and still feels the lingering pain of her decision to be estranged from her mother. How equipped, Kristina, are mental health professionals to deal with these types of family estrangement issues?
Kristina: It's hard for me to say because I'm not a clinician myself, but I would say that, just as Dr. Pillemer suggested, there hasn't been a lot of research about estrangement, which I think likely could help with counseling, but I imagine that counselors come across this all the time. I know that there's a variety of counselors who specialize in family estrangement. I imagine that this is not something new to counselors, although I'm sure they could do with more research, which I'm sure would be helpful.
Tanzina: Karl, when we hear the callers, like I said, there are some folks who feel really good about their decision, others who have lingering pain, including our previous caller, how do you suggest that people manage the aftermath of an estrangement? Because it feels like in the moment, you can say something, you can feel really passionately about something, but once the dust is settled, there has to be some sort of lingering feeling. No?
Karl: That's absolutely right. One thing we found in these studies is that people typically experience ambivalence. There's relief, and having the conflict and difficulty eliminated at least temporarily, but the bonds have passed estrangement, it's extremely hard to overcome that. Indeed, one of the things that we found, I did for Fault Lines, the largest study ever done of people who had successfully reconciled, and for many of them found that they affected the reconciliation not for the other person, but for themselves. They felt that it was a weight off their shoulders, they were avoiding anticipated regret.
I would say there's a lot of difficulty with ambivalence and coping. I would underscore that counseling is extremely useful for people, and we surveyed family therapists about it, who in general aren't prepared for it. I think, even if your relative can't join you, it's still very helpful. I think that's a major coping mechanism, but often people still long, even if they say or allege that they feel completely unambivalent, often there is this longing for a restoration of the relationship and a desire to move in that direction somehow.
Tanzina: Kristina, there are also people who are caught in the middle of this. Our previous caller and other folks have talked about their own children, for example, but it could be siblings, and others who are caught in the middle. If you're someone that's caught in the middle, how do you deal?
Kristina: I conducted a study about immediate family members who were caught in between, parent and child who were estrange, and I would say that it was really difficult for them, and that they also had to work on setting boundaries, because families are systems and the things that happen to one person affect everybody else. They really have to also work on creating boundaries, so they would tell people like, "Don't ask me to play the messenger in between the parent and the child." Also being able to realize that they have to set boundaries in order to keep themselves doing well during this really tumultuous time.
Tanzina: Karl, there are probably people who are listening and thinking a couple things might be thinking about themselves, being estranged from other family members, or maybe taking that plunge. Are there certain questions that someone should ask themselves before they do that, or certain things they should reflect on before making that decision? It should be noted that some of these estrangements are short term, others are not so short term.
Karl: I think that's absolutely right. One thing we found is, there's a pathway that people go through the reconciliation or as some sort of a cascade of thoughts. Often people begin to experience what we might call "anticipated regret." This is quite common now during the pandemic, will it be too late to actually reconcile? Will I never be able to do it? People also become aware that the circumstances have changed. The in-law who was so problematic has disappeared, or their relative has changed and become a better person, which they haven't noticed as part of the estrangement.
Then people tend to begin to develop a plan, they start to think about what will happen, what risks am I taking. I think that we learned that there are a set of things people do have to think about that make reconciliation more successful. One of those is examining your own role in the estrangement, so not to accept blame, but almost every one of the 100 people I interviewed who reconciled, had at least examine their own partial responsibility. I also found that most people who reconciled abandon the idea of an apology. Those who reconciled learned that an apology wasn't necessary, and it often occurred after the reconciliation.
I also found that that clear limits, along with the concept perhaps of one last chance under very clear limits, worked for a lot of people. I think that people were successful if they did some preparation, thought, and made sure their boundaries were carefully set.
Tanzina: Karl Pillemer is a Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. Kristina Scharp is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Karl and Kristina, thanks so much for joining us.
Karl: Thanks for having us.
Kristina: Thank you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.