Do you have a close family member with whom you currently have no contact?
If you said yes, you’re not alone. Almost one-third of Americans (27% to be exact) are estranged from a close relative.
Here’s how family estrangement currently breaks down in the United States:
- 10% are estranged from a parent or child
- 8% are estranged from a sibling
- 9% are estranged are other relatives
As a therapist specializing in family estrangement, there’s something not so obvious if you’re the one who’s been cut off: No matter what side of the estrangement equation you’re on, there’s pain. No one escapes it.
If you’re a parent estranged from your adult child, there’s usually an extra heaping of embarrassment and shame added to the stigma. You’re not only dealing with rejection, but it’s rejection from the last person on earth you ever thought would reject you.
There’s Plenty Of Pain To Go Around.
It’s easy to understand how painful it would be if your own kid cut ties with you — completely and permanently.
But I find that the person initiating the estrangement is often quite conflicted. It’s a different kind of pain, but I’ve noticed it’s no picnic for them, either.
But hey, they initiated the estrangement, right? They have the upper hand, don’t they?
While that’s true, there seems to be plenty of suffering on all sides of family estrangement. I’ve noticed that “I’m done” is often a last-resort attempt to stop the pain.
No wonder there’s a reluctance to acknowledge family estrangement. No wonder researchers believe estrangement numbers are probably underestimated.
No wonder almost every estranged family member I encounter shows up with a sense of being on their own in dealing with it.
The sense of aloneness can be particularly profound for parents estranged from an adult child. You’re acutely aware that your life clock is ticking, accompanied by a sense of urgency to resolve the rupture before it’s too late. Holidays, birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day are particularly vulnerable times that can trigger intense emotions of confusion, helpless rage, grief, and guilt.
Being ghosted only seems to intensify an estranged parent’s desperation to relieve the uncertainty about the status of the relationship. How do you even begin to heal the rift if you’ve been completely cut off?
The Brain Science of Estrangement.
If there’s one thing our brains don’t like, it’s uncertainty. I don’t understand why this is happening. When will this be over? Are things ever going to get back to normal — or at least get better? I don’t know how to make it better.
Being a tribal species, rejection quickly gets our survival brain’s attention. Being shunned elicits strong emotions that can overwhelm your physiology. That means your rational thinking brain goes offline, and your survival brain takes over. Its instinctual hair-trigger reactions are a great help in life-and-death situations.
But relationship conflict with close family members? Estrangement from your adult child? Not so much.
Your survival brain has no obvious black-and-white answers or quick fixes for dilemmas like the ones expressed by parents estranged from an adult child: When I retired, I thought I was going to be a grandmother. Now my daughter has cut off all contact with her and my grandchildren. Who am I now?
Recent Research on Estrangement
Fortunately, some light is now shining on the “hiding in plain sight” problem of family estrangement. The Cornell Family Reconciliation Project is the first large-scale national survey on estrangement.
Researcher and Cornell sociologist Dr. Karl Pillemer’s groundbreaking research provides a blueprint of evidence-based ways estranged family members have navigated the choppy waters of reconciliation.
The study focused on 200 participants over a ten-year period to identify the following:
- Study participants who reconciled with an estranged family member.
- The strategies the “reconcilers” used to overcome past hurts and build a new future with a relative.
- Science-based guidance and practical tools for reconciliation, based on the experience of those who have “been there.”
From Rejection to Reconciliation.
The Cornell study revealed a surprising strategy that almost all reconcilers adopted. I’ve broken it down into some simple dos and don’ts.
First, here’s what the reconcilers didn’t do:
- Reconcilers didn’t require the estranged relative to accept their version of the past.
- Reconcilers didn’t require an apology from the estranged relative.
- Reconcilers didn’t try to change the estranged relative.
These strategies square with the encounters I witness or hear about from my clients. Like the mind-blowing exchange one mother had when her adult son called from out of the blue following four years of no contact:
Son: My wife asks me why I never want to call.
Mother: I figured it was because you thought I was too needy and desperate.
Son: Actually, I told her it’s because I thought you blamed me for everything that’s happened.
Mother (shocked): That’s the last thing I thought you would say! I’m so sorry it came across that way. It wasn’t my intention.
In that case, an apology wasn’t required, but its delivery was spontaneous and heartfelt. It set the stage for Mother to learn more about Son’s perception of how he felt blamed, which helped to move the process forward quickly.
Instead, here’s what the reconcilers did do:
- The reconcilers focused on the present and future of the relationship.
- The reconcilers forged a new relationship based on more realistic expectations about the estranged relative.
Here’s how one estranged mother handled this delicate transition with her adult daughter:
Mother: I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Are you thinking you may want to have some kind of relationship?
Daughter: Yes… I want to have… something.
Mother: I know I want something… but what do you want?
Daughter: Well, one thing that I need is… I don’t want to talk about stuff from the past.
Mother (pauses): I can do that. I couldn’t have said that before… but now I think I understand.
From Rejection to Resilience: Get a Grip on Yourself.
I like sharing the success stories because they can be inspiring, motivating, and create hope.
You’ll need that. Here’s why:
- Working your way through estrangement is not for the faint of heart.
- On top of that, you’ll need access to every ounce of your capacity for rational and prosocial thinking in the newer, more evolved part of your brain.
- And one more thing: You’ll have to learn some life skills you were probably never taught.
Yeah, it’s tough.
Sometimes attempting reconciliation isn’t possible or even a good idea, especially in cases of violence or abuse.
And there are no guarantees. Not everyone in the Cornell study made it. About half of the 200 participants were able to reconcile with an estranged family member.
Not all the reconciliations were perfect, but most participants reported they were glad it happened anyway.
Even when reconciliation attempts were unsuccessful, some participants reported greater peace of mind for having tried.
Sometimes they end well. Like it did for a man who expressed his concern to a distant relative after a ten-year estrangement from his siblings:
Man: I’m not sure anyone would be interested in having contact with me.
Distant relative: I’ve spoken with your brothers, and they want you to know they would welcome you with open arms.
That’s why I want to be a part of it.