Family Estrangement: Aberration or Common Occurrence?
Might estrangement be more common than we believe?
Posted September 8, 2014
The concept of family estrangement has increasingly entered the public arena. Media reports often highlight ‘bad children’ who don’t visit their parents, ‘selfish wives’ who alienate their in-laws and ‘abusive’ parents who cast out their children. Estrangement is often portrayed as an abnormal symptom of dysfunctional families, as something that happens to ‘other families’. However, evidence suggests that estrangement is more common – and more complicated – than we might expect.
All members of society will have mild experiences of ‘estrangement’ at some point in their lives, such as being overlooked in a queue, being ignored or unheard in a conversation, or not receiving an invitation to an event. Estrangement – and its close relatives, rejection, ostracism, and exclusion – are often used as deterrents or punishments when people have transgressed interpersonal and social rules. For example, children are sent to the naughty corner, lovers give each other the silent treatment, military personnel are discharged, and church members are excommunicated. We have all experienced or used estrangement at some time in our lives.
However, family estrangement can be one of the most painful and devastating events in one’s lifetime. Family estrangement is generally defined as a reaction to intense emotion or conflict resulting in the distancing or loss of affection between one or more members of a family, where at least one party is dissatisfied with the situation. When family members stop speaking and when they stop contact, this is termed physical estrangement. When family members have infrequent, perfunctory, and often uncomfortable contact, this is termed emotional estrangement. People who are emotionally estranged often compare family interactions to ‘walking on eggshells’. A person might actively pursue estrangement from family members or become estranged because of the decision and rejection of one or more members.
While most of us know someone who has stopped contact with a family member, estrangement tends to be hidden and minimized by ideologies or myths about family. For example, sayings such as “the home is where the heart is” and “blood is thicker than water” represent dominant social expectations that our emotional attachment and commitment to family members are stronger than our obligations to non-family. These ideas also instil and perpetuate embarrassment, stigma and feelings of failure when family members are absent, rejected or rejecting. Indeed my research revealed that many people used techniques to avoid social conversations about estranged family members, and some even lied to keep the reputation of their family intact. Some reduced their social interactions to avoid discussing estrangement altogether.
This is interesting and unfortunate because the small amount of research available internationally, suggests that estrangement is not uncommon. For example, one US study₁ of adult-children found that 7% reported being detached from their mother and 27% detached from their father. Detached relationships were characterised by infrequent or no contact or support, feeling distant from the parent, having different values to the parent and rating family as a low priority. A German study₂ found that over 10% of adults over 40 reported intergenerational family conflict, and half of these stated that they avoided the other person, or had ceased contact altogether. Australian research₃ showed 4.3% of older people had infrequent or no contact with their adult children. Given the stigma associated with reporting estrangement, as well as the difficulty defining it, it is likely that the rates are much higher. Additionally, these studies do not account for the estrangements that occur between siblings, grandchildren and other extended family. These studies fail to record the flow-on effects of estrangement, especially the impacts on children when their parents and grandparents have ceased contact.
As a researcher in the area of estrangement, I am regularly asked, “are you estranged”. I always answer “I live in a normal extended family, complete with estrangements and estrangement-like behaviours. These relationships are intermingled with incredible strong and joyous bonds”. I think it is important to consider and acknowledge this contradiction, while normalising the occurrence of this phenomenon. Estrangement happens in all types of families, and it does not necessary characterise the whole intergenerational – let alone day to day – experience of a family. In closing, I suggest that estrangement is much more common and complicated than it is currently being portrayed. It is an important topic that needs to be broached in the public and professional arena, so that the issue can be addressed without shame and embarrassment . I look forward to opening up this ‘black box of family dynamics’ in a series of upcoming blogs.
Some of this material is drawn from:
Agllias, K. (2013). Family estrangement. In C. Franklin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Work: National Association of Social Workers Press and Oxford University Press.
Agllias, K. (2013). The gendered experience of family estrangement in later life. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 28(3), 309-321. doi: 10.1177/0886109913495727.
1. Silverstein, M., & Bengston, V. L. (1997). Intergenerational solidarity and the structure of adult child-parent relationships in American families. American Journal of Sociology, 103(2), 429-460.
2. Szydlik, M. (2008). Intergenerational solidarity and conflict. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 39(1), 97-118.
3. Simons, L. (9th October, 2007). Personal Communication.
See my new book - Family Estrangement: A matter of perspective
Other good resources
Sichel, M. (2004). Healing from family rifts: Ten steps to finding peace after being cut off from a family member. New York: McGraw Hill.
Sucov, E. B. (2006). Fragmented families: Patterns of estrangement and reconciliation. Jerusalem: Southern Hills Press.