- Research suggests that parent-child estrangement may be as common as divorce, and that when initiated by a parent, it's typically by a mother.
- Dissimilar values may be the strongest predictor of estrangement between mothers and daughters.
- Adult children may cycle in and out of estrangement from a parent for years.
- Boundary disputes, scapegoating, and estate debates are among the factors that spur estrangement.
Long a taboo subject and wrongly considered rare, adult child-parent estrangement is finally getting the attention it deserves, thanks to new research. And it’s much more common than you’d think; in fact, one researcher, Richard Conti, has opined that it may actually be as common as divorce, a finding which is echoed by other research conducted in the United Kingdom. Blood, it turns out, isn’t always thicker than water. Each estrangement is, of course, unique in its own way but research has unearthed broad generalizations about the process, the reasons behind it, and who initiates it.
The reality is that most estrangements are initiated by the adult child; some 12% of estrangements are estimated to be set in motion by parents, most usually mothers. It’s worth saying that cultural attitudes very much depend on who engineers the rupture; a mother who cuts an adult child out is often given the benefit of the doubt because of the myths pertaining to motherhood and its sacrosanct bond. People cluck and murmur, sympathize and listen, figuring there must be a very good reason indeed.
A study by Megan Gilligan, Jill Suitor, and Karl Pillemer found that dissimilar values held by mothers and adult children were the strongest predictor of estrangement. As we shall see, the “good reason” part is certainly open to debate. (Please note that I don’t pretend to be neutral surveying the terrain. I write about toxic mothers and their daughters as an advocate for the latter. Also, I am not writing about adult children whose mothers and fathers have battle fatigue because of continued drug use, unlawful acts, stealing, and the like; those estrangements are about something else.)
In contrast, the adult child who goes no contact is immediately labeled an ingrate—after all, who fed, clothed, and sheltered you?—and is thought to be impetuous, immature, or selfish. (This isn’t a surmise, by the way; it’s what researchers Christine Rittenour, Stephen Kromke, and others found in their survey of American adults and the stereotypes pertaining to estrangement.)
Based on my own research and that of others, the reality is that adult children spend years thinking about the decision, usually choosing to set boundaries and limit contact before moving to estrangement. They are, moreover, likely to “cycle” in and out of estrangement, as research by Kristina M. Scharp and others shows; I did it myself for close to 20 years.
Is it really the lack of shared values or disapproval of an adult child’s choices that drives a mother to cut that child off? Keep in mind that there is shame associated with estrangement in any case—a deviation from the norm is always uncomfortable—so it’s worth wondering whether that disapproval may sometimes be just a cover for deeper, more toxic tensions. That was the case for “Jordan,” age 50, who answered the questionnaire I sent readers, writing that her mother was extremely judgmental and that no discussion was brooked in the household, and that her mother cut ties when she got engaged to a fellow law student of mixed race:
I honestly think my marriage was the excuse she was looking for. My mother is a my-way-or-the-highway person and my dad is her wingman. Both of my parents come from working class backgrounds and are very conservative. She always mocked me for my ambition. She was against my going to college so I left home at 18, worked, and went to school at night. I set boundaries and shared little of my life with either parent because the barrage of criticism was endless and discouraging. They were disparaging and not proud when I went to law school and my mother accused me of feeling superior to them and my brother who became a roofer like my dad. We limped along until I got engaged and she began a full-fledged smear campaign. She thought she had a good reason to cut me off, one that her friends and family could agree with, and it worked. Yes, it hurt but I didn’t want any part of it. My husband and I, and our two kids, have built a good life without them.
Even though they are anecdotal and not scientific, stories shared by my readers illuminate possible currents that may underlie a mother’s taking action and sending a family member into permanent exile; it’s uncommon, no matter who initiates the estrangement, that any extended family ties are maintained. Not surprisingly, family members take sides, especially since they are often urged to. It’s relatively rare that someone can hold on to a position of neutrality.
Payback for pushback. A large number of women said that they had been summarily cut-off when they either became vocal about how their mothers treated them or insisted that there be boundaries in place; most of them described the cut-off as “punitive” or “retaliatory.” That was the story Alice, now 55, told:
My mother was always intrusive and critical of me but it really escalated with the birth of my first child. She took issue with everything I did as a mother and that continued for years until she started talking to my daughter the way she'd always talked to me. Nothing but heaps of criticism. That wasn’t happening and I called her out on it and noted that she’d never done that to my older sister, Nan. What did she answer? “If you were as good a mother as Nan, I wouldn’t need to say anything.” Anyway, she just wouldn’t stop and I told her I was going to take a vacation from her. She blew up, and stopped talking to me immediately. She trashed me to everyone who would listen. That was 15 years ago and we’ve had no contact since. The last thing I would do is beg to be taken back so she could abuse me and my child again. No thanks.
Just the step after scapegoating. A number of daughters described how they were the family scapegoat growing up and became pretty much the appointed black sheep in adulthood, regardless of their achievements. Norah wrote that “I am by far the most successful of the three of us but you wouldn’t know it by listening in on a family dinner. I am still relentlessly picked on for flaws only my parents and siblings can see.” Most of these scapegoated daughters limited their contact with their families of origin but all of them expressed shock and surprise when, with their siblings’ support, their mothers cut them off without any precipitating incident. Lisabeth was 36 when her mother wrote her a letter cutting her out of the family:
Things had never been good between me and my mother and, yes, the criticism and disdain never let up; I was the family scapegoat growing up. So I did limit my contact with her to emails and small-talk phone calls; my husband and I had moved across the country so there was little opportunity to see her. But her letter came out of nowhere. There was no fight, no nothing, just a nasty letter detailing my flaws and how she didn’t want to see or hear from me anymore. I was devastated and shocked. My husband just couldn’t believe it. My two sisters wouldn’t tell me what happened: They just said ‘Mom has her reasons’—and my father wouldn’t even discuss it. I found out from a cousin, years later, that my sisters’ acting as an echo chamber finally convinced my mother that I didn’t deserve to belong.
Researcher Gary Gemmill has pointed out that the presence of a scapegoat allows a family to believe it would be the picture of perfection if it weren’t for the presence of this scapegoat. Casting that person out serves to solidify the family mythology and unites its remaining members with a shared narrative.
Connected to legacies and inheritance. A number of stories involved aging parents, divorced or widowed aging mothers, sibling disagreements, and—surprise, surprise!—the real estate and other assets of those aging parents. One daughter was flummoxed when, after 15 years of relatively civilized small talk and rare physical contact, her mother blocked her phone calls, emails, and unfriended her on Facebook. She called her father only to have his phone answered by her mother who promptly hung up. It was the call from the family lawyer informing her that she was no longer executor of her parents’ estate or a beneficiary that rocked her to the core.
One daughter didn’t know she’d been disinherited until after her mother died which was a shock of another kind.
Despite our history, I acted dutifully and even took her in for a year, despite the chaos she created for me, my husband, and kids. I moved her into an assisted living facility and visited her frequently which my two brothers did not. There was never a scene or confrontation but her will was a slap across the face delivered from the grave. I guess she finally felt free enough to disown me which, I am guessing, she always wanted to do. I cannot describe the pain I felt but it propelled me into therapy. Now, in hindsight, I realize there is nothing I could have done to change her opinion of me or to get her to love me.
These are all anecdotal, of course, but combined with psychological research they testify to the incredible complexity of the mother-daughter relationship and the forces that may lie behind this particular type of estrangement. Keep in mind that there are other underlying causes as well which I will explore in another post.
Thanks to my readers who shared their stories with me.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2020.
Facebook image: Stockbusters/Shutterstock
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.FinalR…
Gilligan, Megan, J. Sill Suitor, and Karl Pillager,” Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values,” Journal of Marriage and Family, (2015). Vol. 77 (4).908-920.
Ritter our, Christine, Stephen Korma, Sara Pitts. et.al. “Communications Surrounding Estrangement, Attitudes, and (Non) Accommodation Strategies,” Behavioral Sciences (2018), vol. 8(10), doi:10.3390/bs8100096
Scharp, Kristina M,, Lindsay Thomas, and Christina Paxman “’It was the Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back:’ Exploring the Distancing Processes Communicatively Constructed in Parent-Child Estrangement Backstories,” Journal of Family Communications (2015), vol.15 (4), 330-348.
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.