Why Parental Estrangement Is Such a Powerful Taboo
Opening the cultural cupboard of secrets, ever so slightly.
Posted Apr 24, 2019
Culturally, we like to think of adult child-parent estrangement as rare and unusual, but that’s just another cultural myth in a grab bag full of them, including those that are specifically about mothers. (They include the myths that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual and inborn, and that all mothers love their children.) Of course, if you believe in those three, you would be bewildered as to why an adult would ever go no contact with his or her mother.
These beliefs also underscore the untested conviction that if there is estrangement, the adult child must somehow be to blame. Thanks to a commandment that reminds us to honor each of our parents, it’s pretty easy to rain shame and accusations of ungratefulness on the adult progeny.
This time, it was news from the Sports section that shone a light on estrangement. Media coverage of Patrick Reed, the 28-year-old who tried and failed to recapture his last year’s win at the Masters tournament, was largely focused on the fact that he hasn’t spoken to his parents or sister since 2012, the year he decided to marry the girl he loved, a move which apparently wasn’t met with parental approval. (I say “apparently” because neither he nor his family has commented on the reasons for the split.) His parents were not invited to his wedding, nor have they met the two children born of Reed’s union. He appears neither to have spoken to them nor to have set foot in their house for seven years. But that hasn’t stopped them—father, mother, and sister—from attending Reed’s tournaments. Yes, indeed. In fact, they even traveled to Paris to see him compete in the Ryder Cup, which is a long way from where they live in Augusta, Georgia. (I Googled it, and it’s just under 4,300 miles.)
What ratcheted up the coverage of the estrangement was that they live where the Masters was being played, and there seemed to be a possibility that they could show up. In a sport where concentration and focus are key, looking up to see your estranged parent behind the ropes is not a good thing, and that was something the young golfer was worried about. This wasn’t a paranoid fantasy on his part; the parental units were escorted out of the U.S. Open in 2014, when security officials noticed the senior Mr. Reed appearing to intimidate his estranged daughter-in-law. Mind you, nothing prevents them or anyone else from attending a golf tournament if they have a badge.
Initially, his parents declined to comment to The New York Times and other media outlets reporting on this story, but they did tell media eventually that they would not attend, so they could host people who had “opened their homes for us during Patrick’s junior and Amateur journey.” Because accommodations get expensive during Masters week, the senior Reed described staying at home as “paying it forward.” To those readers who are estranged from parents (and I was one of them when my mother was living), it will surprise no one that the sympathy vote has been won hands-down by his parents. And of course, the father’s public comment served to underscore “all” that they’d done for their son’s career; they apparently also maintain his childhood room filled with trophies, even though he hasn’t set foot in it for seven years.
On message boards, most commentators posted “Shame on him” in response and alluded to other incidents which underscored his volatility and flakiness; my reaction is admittedly rather different.
When there’s estrangement, it’s always the adult child who’s on trial in the court of public opinion. You don’t actually have to be a pro golfer to qualify.
Estrangement isn’t particularly rare, in truth
Our culture likes to think of adult child-parental estrangement as anomalous, but, recently, the curtain is getting pulled back on the subject. In December 2017, the Times published a piece by Catherine Saint Louis called “Debunking Myths of Estrangement.” In the last five years, researchers have actually begun to look into estrangement in an organized way, and the subject has begun to make its way out of the cultural cupboard where secrets are kept. A 2015 study by Richard Conti that was based on college and graduate students, primarily female, showed that more than one-quarter reported extended estrangement, while close to 44 percent reported being estranged at some point. The percentage of those estranged was even higher in a British study conducted by Lucy Blake, with more than half reporting estrangement and some 77 percent stating that emotional abuse was the cause. Other researchers, notably Australian social worker Kylie Agllias and American Kristina Scharp, have examined the underlying drivers of estrangement in detail. Needless to say, their findings do not support the cultural vision of adult children acting on impulse or being flaky or simply ungrateful louts. My own research for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, consistently revealed that estrangement was usually considered for years, if not decades, and carefully so.
A review of the existing research in various fields published by Lucy Blake in 2017 sought to answer specific questions about estrangement as it’s been explored: How is parent-child estrangement described and understood? How prevalent is it? What factors contribute to it? How is parent-child estrangement maintained? And what are the consequences of estrangement? She turned up a rather mixed bag, finally concluding that there was little agreement on the definition of estrangement (Is it physical or emotional, or both? Is it a continuum of experience? Is it largely a pattern in communication?) or how prevalent it is. She notes that the research tends to ignore all the different ways family members can communicate and stay in touch—through Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.—and defines no contact very narrowly. Finally she points out that the studies focus on daughters and mothers; we know little about the experience of estrangement when it comes to fathers and sons.
My own research as a writer for over more than a decade (I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist) underscores the fact that estrangement by an adult daughter is a last-ditch effort to provide some relief from the continuing emotional pain of interacting with her mother. While she may mistakenly believe that no contact is a solution, the emotional turmoil that accompanies the act will soon disabuse her of the idea. The reason estrangement doesn’t heal her—it gives her a bit of a respite, some breathing room to regroup and figure out what’s next—is that it doesn’t resolve what I call the core conflict in my work. The conflict is between the daughter’s growing recognition of her emotional pain and who caused it, on the one hand, and her continuing need for her mother’s love and approval. Not surprisingly—as research confirms—it’s pretty common for a daughter to initiate estrangement and then to initiate a reconciliation, and sometimes more than once. I personally spent close to two decades cycling through estrangement and reconciliation in this way.
The public face of estrangement
Memoirs that explore familial dysfunction and include estrangement stir up the same cultural pushback but also provide rare support for readers who have chosen estrangement and still feel the onus of cultural shame. The mega-bestseller Educated by Tara Westover is one such book, detailing a childhood that is so brimming with dysfunction and gaslighting—not to mention physical dangers—that, at some level, Tara’s transformation and escape are less awe-inspiring than the fact that no one in the family died. That said, her ultimate estrangement (detailed in the closing pages of a very long book) is similar in many ways to the stories I’ve heard over the years. It’s full of ambivalence, guilt, pain, psychological anguish, a breakdown, worry, and yes, loss. While she makes it clear that she had to save herself—she describes how it’s ownership of her mind that’s at stake—her losses remain immense, and her need for her parents’ love unabated.
All of that gives the lie to the cultural myths about estrangement being an act of spitefulness or unconsidered. It’s probably no accident that Westover, now in her early 30s, has chosen to put an ocean and a piece of a continent between her and her parents. As for her parents, they had a lawyer speak for them when Educated was published who advised that people read it “with a grain of salt.” On her mother’s Facebook page, after asking how she was dealing with the memoir, published over a year ago but still riding high on the bestseller lists, LaRee Westover wrote: “Being hammered by people who don’t seem to see the glaring inconsistencies and blatant lies. Should be getting used to it by now but . . . not so much. Thanks for asking.”
As often happens, the Westover family split into two camps, with various diagnoses proffered and shared by both sides, unsubstantiated by professional opinions; members of the extended family hew to one side or the other. This is typical of the mobilization of support and the initiation of smear campaigns that often pop up in the wake of estrangement.
Social media has given the subject of estrangement a platform, and there are support groups on both sides of the issue; a Reddit group called “raisedbynarcissists” has 393,000 members, while Anne McCrae’s Narcissistic and Emotional Abuse Facebook page has 279,000 likes. Angry grandparents who have been “wrongfully” and “unnaturally" alienated from their grandchildren also populate Facebook, declaring themselves to be the unwitting victims of unwarranted adult child estrangement. They seem remarkably sure of themselves, as sure as the daughters who declare themselves abused and unloved.
Are there always two sides of the story?
I will readily admit that I have a dog in this race, in part because it’s impossible to ignore the fact that a mother (or father, for that matter) has all the power for at least the first 18 years of the parent-child relationship; until the child reaches majority, the parent is literally in charge. Since children are hardwired to need and want their mother’s love, attention, and support, and not vice versa, parents have more than a home court advantage there too. As their children reach adulthood, the culture grants them leeway, confusing giving their children the bare basics—shelter, food, clothing, education—with what children actually need to thrive emotionally and psychologically. If there’s estrangement, as I mentioned before, the adult child is always on trial.
Recently, I spoke to a widow in her 60s whose adult son and daughter are no longer speaking to her. She is, understandably, devastated and hurt, but mainly she’s bewildered; she says she was a perfect mother to both of her kids, and that they were always close until, out of nowhere, they demanded that she “change.” I asked what they meant by that, and she said she had no idea. I asked whether they’d ever talked to her about things that bothered them about the relationship or perhaps her behavior. She was absolutely categorical that they had not. When I told her that, in my experience at least, it was unusual for adult children to cut ties without explanation, especially with only one surviving parent, she was adamant, summoning up example after example of all she’d done for her kids. Then I told her the story of the golfer and his parents, and how they’d showed up at his tournaments. “Isn’t that what parents are supposed to do—be supportive? I think that’s lovely,” she said. I countered by saying he’d broken ties with them years ago, and it felt more like stalking to me. She looked shocked and answered: “Stalking? That’s silly. They had every right to be there after all they did for him, and they were being supportive. He’s being disrespectful.”
This woman’s inability to recognize the adult child’s right to set boundaries spoke volumes. It’s worth noting that most adult children go no contact after repeated efforts to set boundaries with a parent or parents have failed.
Why we need to pry the doors of the cupboard open
It’s high time that we give up on idealizing adult child-parent relationships and acknowledge that even when they are very good, they take work and effort on the parts of both parents and adult children. When adult children have grown up feeling loved, supported, listened to, and seen as individuals in their own right, the foundation is laid for a relationship strong enough to weather moments of crisis, conflict, and even disapproval. These relationships have long-established open lines of communication, enriched by mutual and earned respect on everyone’s part.
Did you see the words “mutual and earned respect” in that last sentence? Let’s talk about that, shall we?
Estrangement is often the result of a parent’s inability to pivot and to recognize the adult child’s right to make his or her own choices, no matter how different they are from the ones the mother or father might make. A parent used to being in control or being obeyed will obviously have much more difficult pivoting, as will one who sees his or her child as an extension of him or herself. The culture murmurs that we must respect our parents simply because they are our parents, but as adults, it doesn’t really work that way. And as adults, we are owed respectful behavior even from those who put us on the planet.
It’s high time we started acknowledging that.
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Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.
Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf
Agilias, Kylie. “Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents, Australian Social Work (2015) 69:1, 92-104.
Agllias, Kylie. “Missing Family: The Adult Child’s Experience of Parental Estrangement,” Journal of Social Work Practice (2018), vol. 31(1), 59-72.
Blake, Lucy. Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: A review and discussion of the Literature. Journal of Family Theory and Review (2017), vol.9, 521-536.
Westover, Tara. Educated: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2018.