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Family Dynamics

Why Is Estrangement So Painful?

Research identifies four threats of estrangement to mental health.

Why does family estrangement even matter?

Yes, I mean that as a serious question. Given that I have just published a book about estrangement, asking it may seem odd or absurd. But the question is worth considering because the media have lowered our expectations for family life. We hear reports that traditional family bonds have broken down, that the extended family is a thing of the past, and that we have entered a “post-family” era.

Given this state of affairs: Does estrangement still matter in our more fluid and less structured society? The answer, based on my research and the work of other social scientists and clinicians, is a resounding yes. It profoundly matters. I learned that people who are estranged from a family member feel deep sadness, long for re-connection, and wish that they could turn back the clock and act differently to prevent the rift.

It’s the kind of pain expressed by one of my interviewees over her estrangement from her daughter:

I have a scar on my chest from heart surgery. OK, it’s healed, it's a scar. But the estrangement is an open wound. Every day, I have to wrap myself and insulate myself and protect myself, because it’s an open wound. You can't fix it; you can't change it. It’s still there every day. You can't recover from it. I will tell you: I went through divorce; I went through heart surgery—piece of cake compared to losing a child like this.

Why, in our rapidly changing culture, does estrangement have such a strong effect on human happiness? If you are not in a family rift, you may have asked yourself: “What’s the big deal anyway? Why can’t people just get over it and move on?” And if you are in the midst of an estrangement, your question is probably: “Why does this bother me so much, even after years?” When confronted with the powerful negative emotions that result from an estrangement, people wonder: “What’s wrong with me?”

I went to my hundreds of interviews to shed light on why estrangement matters so much. By combining my data with research findings on family and other close relationships, I identified four factors that lead people to suffer so acutely from a family rift. It is not abnormal or even unusual to experience estrangement as a crushing blow. I call them the “Four Threats of Estrangement,” because individually and cumulatively, they threaten mental, social, and physical well-being.

One core principle underlies the four threats: Human nature is such that our happiness depends on reliable, secure, and predictable social relationships, and without them, we feel lost. We naturally become attached to family members, and disruptions in our ties to them create a devastating result. Let’s look at how estrangement threatens our basic sense of security and well-being.

Living With Chronic Stress. Studies show that chronic stress depletes your physical and mental resources, grinding you down on a day-to-day basis. It occurs in situations where demands are unrelenting, and we do not see a way to break free from the causes of the stress. People describe estrangement in precisely these terms: a form of chronic stress that never goes away. The effects of chronic stress are very serious; it lowers your resistance to other life problems, worsens your daily mood, and impairs your physical health. So it is for many individuals living in a family rift.

Like a chronic illness, in estrangement, flare-ups are followed by periods of relative calm but colored by worry that things could easily take a turn for the worse. Persistent rumination and “awfulizing”—imagining that the situation is the worst it can possibly be—thus add to the chronic stress. This is the experience of people like one of my interviewees, who is deeply depressed over the estrangement from her daughter for several years. She told me:

My feelings haven’t changed. I love her. I’m in a state of bewilderment. I don’t know what to do. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. It matters to me. I’m just in the same pathetic place I was last year, basically. I make a conscious effort to accept it, but I know I haven’t because even if I manage to shove it out of my mind during the day, I dream about it at night. It’s like I’m sabotaging myself. The longer time goes on, the less hope I have, so the more sad I feel.

Broken Attachment. The biologically-based process of attachment has enormous effects over the entire life course. People to whom we have lifelong attachments serve as a secure base when we are in trouble, protecting us when needed physically or psychologically. Because of the intensity of these early attachment experiences, we continue to want family members to provide comfort and support when we need it. When these bonds break, we can experience profound emotional reactions.

Losing someone—in this case through estrangement—activates what psychologists call the “attachment system.” Based on the old bonds, the person’s absence leads to grief at the loss. Because family members are specific, irreplaceable individuals, our attachment leads to feelings of separation anxiety, yearning for the relationship, and disruptions in our other social relationships. The human bonding that occurred over years of childhood makes us feel deeply insecure about the loss. It’s one main reason why estrangement matters so much to so many people.

The Pain of Rejection. Research shows that losses involving social rejection have especially damaging effects. Rejection is especially stressful because human beings have a fundamental drive toward social inclusion and belonging. Being rejected threatens our evaluations of ourselves, causing us to feel worthless and even lowering our self-esteem. The double whammy of a threat to self-esteem and a lack of ability to control the situation make social rejection one of the most harmful things we experience.

The Perils of Uncertainty. If there is one thing we humans like, it’s certainty. Research shows that we are made uncomfortable by situations in which we are stuck in ambiguity with limited information to guide us. The lack of clarity freezes the process of grieving, blocks coping, and hinders decision-making. So it is with estrangement, when the person is physically absent but psychologically often intensely present.

For individuals on the receiving end of estrangement, the ambiguity compounds the other threats, making the stressful effects chronic and risking repeated rejection. These themes were eloquently summed up by one of my respondents, who has cut off and reconciled with his difficult brother several times. Unable to let go entirely, he vacillates between connection and distance:

There are times when I see him and I have brotherly affection for him. I see him from a distance, and think “there's my brother, who feels like an ex-brother, but still there’s my brother.” Because I’ve oscillated back and forth between accepting who he is, and just saying, “OK, that's the way he's going to be, I’ll just cope with it.” But then he does something that just really irritates me or saddens me or whatever, then I say, “No, it's better off that I don't have anything to do with him.”

The ambiguity of estrangement creates a continual struggle for some individuals. The unfulfilled striving for certainty and closure forms a key part of this chronically stressful experience.

What’s the Takeaway from These Research Findings?

First, if you are in an estrangement and deeply distressed by it, you are not alone. The chronic stress of a family rift can wear you down and affect your other relationships.

Second, don’t hesitate to get professional help. Many of the respondents in my studies found counseling to be transformative in either coping with the estrangement or working toward reconciliation.

Third, professionals who work with individuals and families need to be aware that estrangement is a powerful underlying cause of psychological distress and should be prepared to address it with their clients. As I learned in my studies, few people willingly talk about family rifts, but they form a dominating presence in many of their lives.

Facebook image: FGC/Shutterstock

References

Karl Pillemer. Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. New York: Avery, 2020.

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