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Can You Divorce Your Family?

New research on family marginalization, parent alienation, and estrangement.

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In a recent article, Kristina Scharp, a Communication Studies professor at Utah State University, and I detail three ways people distance themselves from their family. While none of these is exactly the same as divorce, they are all painful paths that parents and children use to pull away from one another—and they are more common than you might think.


Marginalized family members are commonly referred to as the “black sheep” of the family. Family marginalization is the chronic experience of being treated differently, feeling excluded, or being disapproved of by the rest of the family. The communication of that status to the marginalized person is key in making them feel marginalized. Marginalized family members are told they are not like others in their family, either explicitly or “between the lines” in conversation. These family members are often not treated with respect, and are devalued and judged by other family members for their decisions, actions, and beliefs. Having a black sheep in the family is relatively common: In an Australian study by Julie Fitness, 80 percent of study participants had a black sheep in their family.

Parent-Child Alienation

Parent-child alienation occurs when one parent persuades their child to disown their other parent, often after a divorce. The parent doing the persuading may or may not intend this outcome, but their communication about the other parent results in limiting interaction between the child and that parent. Recent research reports that 13.4 percent of parents are alienated by at least one of their children. The "clinical jury” is out on just how destructive parent-child alienation is for families, but some argue that “brainwashing” occurs, turning the child against one parent for the gains of the other parent (Gardner, 1985), while others argue that the parents’ behaviors can be a completely unintentional outcome of being upset with their ex-partner. Similar to marginalization, communication between parent and child creates and maintains this distancing situation.


Estrangement occurs between parent and child when one party wants to limit interaction or completely end the relationship with the other party. According to Scharp, family estrangement might be as common as divorce in families today. Estrangement is more severe than marginalization and typically occurs as a result of neglect or sexual/psychological/physical abuse of the child. Estrangement tends to cycle, on-again/off-again, with family members making up only to estrange themselves again later. Scharp calls this “chaotic disassociation,” since the cycle creates chaos and uncertainty in the family. Communication is instrumental in managing the distance that parents and children want to keep between them when estranged.

What can we learn from all three of these family distancing processes?

Creating distance in family relationships is a stigmatized desire that is more common than we think. Families that engage in estrangement or marginalization are questioned by those around them. People often assume that the best-case scenario is for family members to make up and mend their relationship, but this is not always the case. Scharp and I argue that family distancing is sometimes the best solution to toxic, unhealthy family relationships. All three types of family distancing are ever-changing, cycling between different levels of involvement. They are also chronic, lacking the sort of cathartic end point that signing divorce papers may offer.

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Communication in the family suffers, no matter the type of distancing. All three of these distancing processes depend on communication. Communication can be the cause of wanting to create distance in the first place, it can provide the means to maintain the distance, and if resolution does happen, communication can facilitate the mending of the relationship.

Last week, I wrote about why it is especially painful when family members hurt us. See that article here.


Dorrance Hall, E. (online first). The communicative process of resilience for marginalized family members. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407516683838

Fitness, J. (2005). Bye bye, black sheep: The causes and consequences of rejection in family relationships. In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. Von Hippel (Eds.). The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (pp. 263-276). CRC Press.

Gardner, R. A. (1985). Recent trends in divorce and custody litigation. Academy Forum: The American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 29, 3-7.

Scharp, K. M. & Dorrance Hall, E. (2017). Family marginalization, alienation, and estrangement: Questioning the nonvoluntary status of family relationships. Annals of the International Communication Association, 41, 28-45. doi: 10.1080/23808985.2017.1285680

Scharp, K. M., Thomas, L. J, & Paxman, C. G. (2015). “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back”: Exploring the distancing processes communicatively constructed in parent-child estrangement backstories. Journal of Family Communication, 15, 330-348. doi:10.1080/15267431.2015.1076422

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