The Depths Of Estrangement: Why Family Rifts Happen And How To Heal

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A survey by sociologist Karl Pillemer revealed that about 25% of people live with some kind of family estrangement. (Getty Images)
A survey by sociologist Karl Pillemer revealed that about 25% of people live with some kind of family estrangement. (Getty Images)

It's the holiday season, and even in a year where gatherings are small or perhaps remote, it's a time when many feel a yearning for family. It's also a time when family rifts, sometimes chasms, are felt most acutely.

Family ruptures are incredibly common. In fact, a survey by sociologist Karl Pillemer revealed that about 25% of people live with some kind of family estrangement, and those damaged relationships take a toll — mentally and physically.

Through interviewing several hundred people on the topic, the “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them” author discovered how universal that feeling is. “They felt it was a death, an open wound,” he says.

Carrying a sense of shame, isolation and stress were also common among those he talked to. The holidays only heightens the anguish, he says.

Therapist Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” — a situation that happens without closure or that leaves someone searching for answers. Those dealing with estrangement are often physically absent from each other but psychologically present. On both sides, the estrangement might be present in the back of their minds and can take root for years, he explains.

Pillemer says he was able to uncover the different ways in which people get stuck in ambiguous loss. One “key pathway,” he says, is what he calls “the long arm of the past” — a history of harsh parenting, neglect or emotional or physical abuse. It can also be less extreme, such as parental favoritism or sibling rivalry, he says.

"Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them," by Karl Pillemer (Courtesy) 
"Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them," by Karl Pillemer (Courtesy)

Other causes, he says, are “the problematic in-law,” money and inheritance.

“Finally, there's the area of differences in values and expectations. So we really found that expectations can emerge from a disapproval of a relative's core values, which then can turn into outright rejection,” he says.

Estrangements don’t just hurt the ones involved but impact extended family circles, something he calls collateral damage. If one generation has a fight over a business or inheritance, it can spread to the next generation through no fault of their own, he says.

Pillemer has been through the “profoundly difficult” experience himself.

“I experienced this in my own family, in the grandparental generation, where there's a whole side of the family about whom I know nothing, who might have been there to be supportive and wonderful relatives,” he says.

Many of the folks he spoke with expressed dealing with collateral damage from estrangements. His advice is to really think about the potential implications that an estrangement may cause on future generations. Many future generations can be left wondering what happened or repeat the same behavior.

In Pillemer’s book, he relays painful stories, like one woman who fell in love with another woman. Her mother couldn’t accept the relationship and began to show up at the daughter’s house uninvited. At one point, the daughter had to call the police on her mother and decided to estrange herself.

He also talked to heartsick grandparents, estranged from their children and grandchildren, searching on Facebook to catch a glimpse of their grandkids.

“Estrangements constitute a kind of chronic stress because even in situations where the person is very difficult, if you've grown up with a parent or a sibling, you have these irrational bonds of attachment to them,” he says.

It’s also painful because rejection and powerlessness hurts a human's psychological well-being, he says.

More often than not, Pillemer says this “profound sadness” and “sense of incompleteness” pushes people toward the idea of reconciliation with a former loved one.

Except when it's dangerous or emotionally devastating, healing from even some of the worst estrangements is possible, he says.

Pillemer found the No.1 motivator for people to mend relationships was to do it for themselves — not the person who hurt them.

If you are thinking about ending an estrangement, he first recommends to really think if you’re ready to reconcile. A sign you may be ready is if you begin to experience anticipated regret, he says, such as feelings of “will it be too late?” This has been common during the deadly coronavirus pandemic, he says.

Think of key questions — What do you want out of a restored relationship? What if the other person is not willing to reconcile? — develop a plan, and consider counseling, he says.

“I did find that people who successfully reconciled had several things in common. They explored their own role in the estrangement, so they didn't accept blame, but they looked at how they might have been involved and that empowered them,” he says. “We also found that people needed to reduce their expectations, realizing that the sibling or parents are not going to become that ideal person you wanted.”

Being realistic is key, he says. That means you may have to give up on being right. It also means you may have to come to peace with not receiving an apology.

Many times, he found an apology came after a reconciliation was initiated. He also found almost 100% of people who reached out and tried to mend a relationship after estrangement called the act a paramount achievement in their adult lives.

Pillemer’s biggest piece of advice from his studies is that confronting loved ones during a holiday gathering isn’t worth it.

“One thing that many people said is addressing all these family issues at a holiday gathering is not really the right time,” he stresses. “Wait until a more opportune and less emotionally laden time.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young and Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on December 24, 2020.


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Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.


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Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



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