Why Estrangement from Toxic Parents Is Sometimes Inevitable

Discernible patterns explain why reconciliation is out of reach for most.

Posted Jun 26, 2020

Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash

Long a taboo subject and one attended by a great deal of cultural shame, adult child-parent estrangement is finally getting the attention of researchers in the United States and abroad. I will admit at the outset that my point of view isn’t objective; I cut ties with my sole surviving parent, my mother, after close to twenty years of trying to fix or change the connection. In my case, the decision to estrange fully—which I had done numerous times only to reverse myself—was occasioned by the impending birth of my one and only child. I could not tolerate either my mother bad-mouthing me in front of my daughter or, more horrifyingly, treating her as she had always treated me.

What Research Reveals About Estrangement

It’s not nearly as rare as the culture would have you believe. Richard Conti, in a 2015 study comprised of a sample of college and graduate schools, determined that 43.5 percent had been estranged at some point and that 26.6 percent reported extended estrangement. Not surprisingly, his study also found that estrangement from one parent leads to estrangement from other family members; my own research, all anecdotal and drawn from interviews for my book Daughter Detox, confirms that. His conclusion was that estrangement “is perhaps as common as divorce in certain segments of society.” Across the pond in Great Britain, Lucy Blake interviewed 807 people and found that 455 were estranged from their mothers—an even higher percentage.

Researchers have begun to plumb the reasons for estrangement, who generally initiates it, and much more. It’s as though a door has been opened and one of our society’s most closely held secrets is finally getting a full viewing.

The Sustaining Mythologies That Induce Shame

Chief among these are the myths pertaining to mothers and motherhood which include the notion that women are by nature nurturing (they aren’t); the idea that mothering is instinctual (for humans, it’s learned behavior); the conviction that all mothers love their children (alas, not true); and that maternal love is always unconditional (nope).

The main myth about estrangement is that it’s almost always done in a fit of pique or anger, on the spur of the moment. The reality is that the preponderance of adult daughters and sons who end up going no contact have spent years and often decades trying to avoid it; estrangement is often preceded by efforts to set boundaries, initiate discussion, and limit contact in significant ways. What’s attributed to the character and personality of the estranged adult child is also mythological; while a parent who initiates no contact is presumed to have good reasons and is widely supported, the adult child is often maligned and labeled as an ingrate and disloyal, selfish and narcissistic, impossible and difficult, a bad person, and, often, just plain crazy.

Not one of these myths is true.

The Attitudes and Behaviors That Facilitate Full Estrangement

Again, despite the myth that the cut-off is an impulsive act, the deliberation is often agonizingly slow, filled with worries and misgivings, and researchers have confirmed that there’s often a pattern of estrangement followed by a hopeful reinstatement of connection, and then another cut-off.

In my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, I call this back-and-forth “going back to the well;” intellectually, you know the well is dry but emotionally you are once again hopeful that it is not.  It’s also impossible to overstate the power and flood of emotions that accompany an act which is tantamount to self-orphaning; it is never seen as a solution but an effort to stop the cycle of pain, neglect, or mistreatment.

The following patterns of parental behavior which end up advancing estrangement are drawn from interviews for Daughter Detox and the many comments and stories shared with me on Facebook.

  • Unwillingness to discuss or hear the adult child out

Many adult children—and I include my younger self in that number when my mother was still alive—discover that there’s no conversation to be had, and that they are shut down almost immediately even if they have made every effort to be calm and measured. On the few occasions that I hear from estranged mothers, they usually insist that the cut-off came out of nowhere but, then, upon examination, it usually turns out that their adult children did try to talk to them but they subverted the effort or shut it down.

Parents often blame-shift as part of deflection (“You’re too sensitive and always have been,” “Your brother doesn’t bitch about me so it’s on you, dear”) or simply gaslight (“What you are saying never happened,” “Look at the photos. Would a neglectful parent dress you that way?”). They may also be direct, saying that they simply refuse to talk about it. My mother did.

  • Defensiveness and threats

Any efforts to set boundaries are often defended to the max, with the mother or father asserting that you have no right to order her or him around; the pushback can include threats such as cutting you out of a family inheritance or telling you that you won’t be welcome at family gatherings if you don’t stop what you’re doing. Sometimes, the parent begins a smear campaign at this point or preemptively cuts the adult child off. (It’s thought that 12 percent of estrangements are initiated by parents.)

Once it becomes clear to the adult child that it’s not going to be possible to institute any kind of meaningful change to the relationship, she or he is inevitably pushed to consider estrangement.

  • Denial and refusal to take responsibility

It’s important to recognize that while adult children are shamed by the mother myths, so are mothers; controlling or abusive treatment is always rationalized as being necessary so admission would require a complete about-face. If the mother actually dislikes the child (yes, it happens) or deep-down knows she doesn’t love her, shame will force her to deny the truth at all costs.

  • Inflexible ideas about respect and filial duty

There’s not just that Commandment requiring that we honor our mothers and fathers but parents with set ideas about the pecking order in families, who is always deserving of respect, and the rigors of filial duty (“Just look at all I have done for you!) will justify a refusal to talk. This is the most frequently reported parental stance.

Estrangement is a last-ditch effort to stop parental abuse. It gives you room to heal, although it doesn’t heal per se. It never comes out of nowhere.

The ideas in this post are drawn from my books, Daughter Detox and The Daughter Detox Question  & Answer Book.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2020

References

Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.

Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf

Rittenour, Christine, Stephen Kromka, Sara Pitts, Margaret Thorwart, Janelle Vickers, and Kaitlyn Whyte, “Communication Surrounding Estrangement: Stereotypes, Attitudes, and (Non) Accommodation Strategies, “Behavioral Sciences (2018), vol.8 (10), 96-112.

Scharp, Kristina M. and Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, “Family Marginalization, alienation, and estrangement: questioning the nonvoluntary status of family relationships,” Annals of the International Communications Association (2017), vol.41 (1), 28-45.

Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.

Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf

Rittenour, Christine, Stephen Kromka, Sara Pitts, Margaret Thorwart, Janelle Vickers, and Kaitlyn Whyte, “Communication Surrounding Estrangement: Stereotypes, Attitudes, and (Non) Accommodation Strategies, “Behavioral Sciences (2018), vol.8 (10), 96-112.

Scharp, Kristina M. and Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, “Family Marginalization, alienation, and estrangement: questioning the nonvoluntary status of family relationships,” Annals of the International Communications Association (2017), vol.41 (1), 28-45.