- Many adult children might want to reconcile but it remains a theoretical that can't be achieved.
- Repeated efforts at changing the relationship diminish the chances that reconciliation actually happens.
- There really isn't a "middle ground" when it comes to parental mistreatment.
Long hidden from societal view and written off as the result of the actions of an ungrateful or emotionally petulant adult child, adult child/parent estrangement has finally gotten the attention and research it deserves.
I write this as a not disinterested party, having estranged from my one surviving parent at the age of 38; she died 13 years later without either of us making any effort at reconciliation. I have no idea why she didn’t try, although I have some good guesses; I didn’t, having cycled in and out of estrangement for close to 20 years and always coming up against the same brick wall of answers my mother offered up. It was all on me; I was both too sensitive and too difficult at once and, besides, she said or did none of the things I recounted.
It’s worth saying that in all the interviews I’ve conducted for my books, I have never encountered an adult who preferred estrangement to a healthy and functioning relationship with his or her parents; it’s a big world out there and there might be someone who enjoys self-orphaning but he or she would be a rare bird indeed.
What are the chances of adult child/parent reconciliation?
I turned to the work of Joshua Coleman, who is an expert in both estrangement and reconciliation for illumination. The following is drawn from his book, Rules of Estrangement; its intended audience is parents, by the way. (Coleman was once an estranged parent himself; he and I have been writing about the subject from opposite sides for over a decade, and I say that respectfully.)
One of the techniques Coleman uses to facilitate reconciliation is to write a letter or email to the estranged child, asking to speak to him or her. He reports that roughly 60 percent of those he contacts write back and that 20 percent of those say that they aren’t interested, 20 percent write long, angry explanations and tell him to go away, and the remaining 60 percent agree to speak to him. Let’s unwrap those numbers. So four out of every 10 adult children he contacts refuse from the get-go. Of the remaining six adult children, close to three tell him adios. So, that leaves a bit more than three out of the original 10 who will even entertain a joint therapy section with their parents and that hardly guarantees reconciliation.
Obstacles to reconciliation
These observations are anecdotal, drawn from interviews and discussions for my book Daughter Detox and my forthcoming book, Verbal Abuse. It is not an all-inclusive list.
1. Estrangement is a long process. The chances are good that the adult child has spent at least a decade, and most usually more, trying various strategies to deal with the relationship and the history of failures—of not being able to set boundaries, change the nature of the dialogue, or stop parental verbal abuse—will likely persuade the adult child that reconciliation is out of reach and that any effort will just end up in re-establishing the painful status quo.
2. The parental insistence that respect means a lack of criticism. Parents with an authoritarian style aren’t likely to be open to a discussion of what they did right or wrong, especially if they hew to the notion that an adult child shows respect by accepting parental actions without question. That was certainly Joe’s experience, dealing with his father:
“It was his way or the highway and he didn’t brook any criticism, not ever. When I finally confronted him about how he bullied me and my brothers, I was in my thirties and a father myself and he went absolutely ballistic. He threatened to cut me out of his will, expose me to the community. He even threatened to call my bosses. It was crazy. But he also bullied my little boys and that was just not tolerable. So I pulled out of family gatherings and seeing him and my mother defended him. The only way back into the fold was to placate him and I wasn’t going to do that. Not for me, not for my kids.”
Parents high in control, or who are combative by nature, aren’t likely to be open to hearing an adult child’s assessment either; the idea of respect being earned by a parent is utterly foreign to them.
3. Parental commitment to their family narratives. Adult child/parent estrangement is a response to parental treatment and the sad reality is that most of these parents aren’t about to let go of the stories they tell about themselves as parents as well as those they tell about their children. Dysfunctional families have specific narratives—when there’s a scapegoat, he or she is the one stopping the family from being perfect, for example—and parents are not usually willing to make room for a contrarian script. Saying that your story is a product of your imagination (or that you are outright lying) isn’t very unusual.
4. The adult child’s need or demand for acknowledgment or apology. If there’s one universal stumbling block, it’s probably this one, and it usually comes down to one thing: the parent’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of his or her actions. There are many reasons for this stance, including the beliefs that, “They did the best they could,” and that, “Everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect.” The other reality is that however your parent treated you was backed up by both rationalization and denial; phrases such as, “I had to be hard on you so you didn’t get a swelled head,” “I needed to toughen you up because the world’s a tough place,” “I yelled at you because you never listened when I didn’t,” all come to mind, echoes of the many stories I’ve heard.
Most children experience gaslighting in these families, normalize abuse because that’s all they know, and are quick to blame themselves rather than their parents (it’s less scary) so the recognition of parental mistreatment is usually glacial in its pace. The moment of real recognition, often decades into adult life, is a big deal, psychologically, if a painful one. It’s not validation that the adult child seeks from his or her parents but something more important: that the parent take ownership and responsibility for how the child was treated. It won’t surprise anyone that it’s threatening, hard, or impossible for many parents to do exactly that.
Estrangement doesn’t heal you
Unfortunately, estrangement is the last stop for many of us. Just keep in mind that healing from your experiences is a separate process, best accomplished by working with a gifted therapist.
Copyright © 2022 Peg Streep
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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Coleman, Joshua. Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. New York: Harmony Books, 2020.