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.
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.
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.