The holiday season is traditionally a time to strengthen the bonds between family members. But for many, those ties have been cut because they are estranged from their loved ones.
Kristina Scharp, an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Washington, is one of the few researchers who have thoroughly studied the topic of family estrangement — a process more common than many may think.
"Think of it as a process where at least one family member is voluntarily and intentionally creating distance with another family member or family members, because of an ongoing negative relationship," Scharp tells Here & Now's Robin Young.
While she has been asked whether estrangement is the result of children feeling overly entitled, Scharp says the majority she has talked to who have gone through the process attribute it to "very serious instances of abuse or neglect."
"People don't become estranged for arbitrary reasons," she explains.
On how parents and children each tend to react to estrangement
“It's very interesting when you talk with both sides of that parent-child couple. So, adult children — at least those who I've talked to — know exactly why it happened. Parents are much more likely to say, 'I have no idea how this happened,' and it's just like an emotionally tragic occurrence between them. So it's hard because we're never really able to capture both of the people together. Obviously, a lot of times, at least one of them doesn't want to have anything to do with the other, and sometimes it's just an issue of safety.”
On the experience of estrangement being similar to dealing with the loss of a loved one
“It's something we call ambiguous loss, where even though the person isn't physically gone, they're psychologically gone. And it's extremely difficult, because it accompanies something called disenfranchised grief, which is where this grief isn't acknowledged by people, so oftentimes, these people aren't getting any support because it's very hard to talk about. I'm not a clinician, but I think that it's really important that they surround themselves with people who can offer support without judgment.”
"A family can be more than just blood ties. ... There's nothing to say that family can't be people who we interact with, who we love, who take care of one another. "Kristina Scharp
On estrangement as a beneficial thing for people in unhealthy family situations
“I think that estrangement is — especially for the person who initiates it — simultaneously positive and negative. So estrangement can be a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment. But we also live in a culture where we ask about each other's families quite often, and then the holidays bring up times when we think about being with family. So, a lot of people who I talked to really had uncertainty about whether they were good people. They would say things like, 'Prisoners and rapists probably have I-heart-mom tattoos, but I don't. I don't love my parents, and what does that mean?’ ”
On people who are estranged from their family, who form their own families with friends
“This is where something called voluntary kin is really important, and it's the family that we create for ourselves. … These relationships can become extremely important. And as someone who studies communication, a family can be more than just blood ties — a family can be people who we spend time with, the people who do the behaviors of family. And so, there's nothing to say that family can't be people who we interact with, who we love, who take care of one another. So I think it's really a nice opportunity for people to resist that idea — that you can't choose your family, but you can choose your friends. You absolutely can choose both.”
On estrangement not being completely set in stone, and the difficulty of the process
“I think that's one of the myths of estrangement, that estrangement is a complete cut-off, or it's final. Really, estrangement is more of a continuum, where you can either be more or less estranged, and actually, people often go through multiple times of trying to create distance before they're able to maintain a level of distance that's right for them. And so, it's actually the maintaining of the distance that's often more difficult than accomplishing it in the first place. Sometimes, I can say, 'You know, I don't want to talk to you,' but then the holidays roll around or there's a wedding or a funeral, and then I have to renegotiate that boundary. Am I going to talk to them in this moment, or am I not going to go?
“I think that for each person, it's really individual, and that maintenance is really hard, because the culture is kind of sucking you back in. We're defaulting to this idea that families are together. So it's very hard to maintain that distance even if you're able to create it.
“And it's really difficult actually for everyone in the family. So specifically, we often look at parents and children, but the immediate family is also suffering quite a bit, because people are forced to take sides and also have to negotiate what that is. So if a child decides to distance them self from one parent, oftentimes that means they feel they have to distance themselves from the other parent as well.”
"If our friends told us that they were going to leave an abusive relationship, we'd be so happy for them, but for some reason when it comes to families, we encourage people to return to those relationships all the time."Kristina Scharp
On advice for how to support people who are estranged from their families
“For people who are looking to support people who are going through the estrangement process — even though their first reaction might be to say, 'I'm so sorry. It's so sad' — … these people have often been really courageous in creating this distance.
“Some of the best things we can do is to accept their decisions to create distance and not ask for details that people aren't ready to provide.
“If our friends told us that they were going to leave an abusive relationship, we'd be so happy for them, but for some reason when it comes to families, we encourage people to return to those relationships all the time.”
Ashley Bailey produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on November 19, 2018.