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Family Dynamics

What Research Tells Us About Family Estrangement

This study quantifies the deep emotional pain behind these family divides.

Key points

  • Factors that drive estrangement include mismatched expectations, clash of values, and emotional abuse.
  • Estrangement is not necessarily permanent; some cutoffs range from less than six months to more than 30 years.
  • Adult children wish their parents were more positive, unconditionally loving, warm, and emotionally close.
Source: rune stock project/Pexels
Source: rune stock project/Pexels

Until the last decade or so, the topic of estrangement in families has been grossly unacknowledged and underinvestigated. Some data suggest that as many as one in four people are estranged from at least one family member—yet, despite this high incidence, few studies have examined the complicated roots and consequences of estrangement, especially sibling cutoffs.

The entire area of sibling relationships has been largely ignored by psychological researchers since the field came into being more than a century ago. Even Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, makes just five references to the sibling relationship in his two dozen volumes of work. Only during the past two decades have researchers conducted meaningful studies on how siblings shape one another’s lives.

A major reason for the paucity of studies examining family estrangement is the shame and humiliation that often accompany a breakdown in a relationship with an important family member. These nearly universal emotions make it challenging to find people who are willing to participate in studies or even discuss the topic.

Some people are uncomfortable admitting that they are estranged or sharing their thoughts and feelings for professional scrutiny. The estranged often have a sense of failure, and they don’t want to see words on a page that make the abstract concrete. Some worry about having their private thoughts open to the public; some fear that answering a questionnaire would stir up too many negative emotions.

Estrangement separating family members violates the norms and ideals with which society regards family unity, explains Kylie Agllias, an Australian social worker and scholar who is one of the foremost experts on the subject and author of the internationally acclaimed, groundbreaking book Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective:

“Family estrangement is larger than conflict and more complicated than betrayal. It is entwined in contradictory beliefs, values, behaviors and goals and is the result of at least one member of the family considering reconciliation impossible and/or undesirable. The cessation of familial relations, whether that involves rejection or deciding to leave, can be an inordinately traumatizing experience.”

One British organization, Stand Alone, has focused on young adults who are experiencing family estrangement. The organization has supported groundbreaking research that uncovers the numbers and statistics behind the painful psychological consequences of family breakdowns.

In its most significant study in the last 10 years, Stand Alone collaborated with Lucy Blake from the Centre of Family Research at the University of Cambridge in England. The research surveyed 807 people—mostly from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and Australia—who identified themselves as being estranged from their whole family or a key family member, such as a mother, father, siblings, or children. Here are some of the key findings.

Why Estrangement Occurs

The factors cited most often as leading to sibling relationship breakdown include:

The factors cited often most as leading to adult children estranging themselves from parents include:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships
  • Clash of personality and values
  • Neglect
  • Issues relating to mental health problems
  • Traumatic family event

Length of Time of Estrangement

Estrangements are not necessarily permanent. The variation in the length of estrangement ranges from less than 6 months to more than 30 years.

  • Estrangements between respondents and their fathers had gone on for the longest period of time, averaging 7.9 years.
  • Estrangements between respondents and their daughters had lasted the shortest length of time, averaging 3.8 years.

Estrangement Cycling

Family members often cycle in and out of estrangement:

  • Respondents who cut contact with a parent reported doing so at various ages across the lifespan, with most having done so in their late 20s or early 30s.
  • Eighty percent felt there had been some positive outcomes of their experiences of estrangement, such as greater feelings of freedom and independence.

The Stigma of Sibling Estrangement

Sixty-eight percent of respondents—across genders, ages, and all kinds of estrangements—felt that estrangement carries a stigma. Among the reasons are the following:

  • Judgmental opinions and assumptions surrounding fault and blame
  • A contradiction between expectations of family life and reality: “Blood is thicker than water,” regardless of intolerable conditions
  • A lack of understanding or life experience

What the Estranged Are Looking for in Their Relationships

Adult children wished their mothers were:

  • More positive, unconditionally loving, warm, and emotionally close
  • More loving and respectful, less judgmental and critical
  • Able to recognize their hurtful behavior.

Adult children wished their fathers were:

  • More positive, unconditionally loving, warm, and emotionally close
  • Willing to stand up to an offending spouse, partner, or other family member who supports divisiveness
  • More interested in them

Sisters wished their siblings were:

  • More positive, unconditionally loving, warm, and emotionally close
  • In closer contact, to show concern for how they’re doing
  • More understanding, more respectful, less judgmental, and less critical

Brothers wanted a more loving relationship, with a sibling who:

  • Is more positive, unconditionally loving, warm, and emotionally close
  • Maintains closer contact
  • Communicates better

Other aspects of family estrangement are examined in this study, which also provides comments from participants who have experienced family breakdowns. This post is intended only to summarize and spotlight the commonalities of the experience.

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Blake, Dr. Lucy; Bland, Dr. Becca; Golombok, Dr. Susan; (2015) Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood, Stand Alone and University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research.

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