How to Mend a Family Rift

A new, research-based book takes a deep dive into family estrangement.

Posted Jan 18, 2021

Руслан Галиуллин/Adobe Stock
Source: Руслан Галиуллин/Adobe Stock

We often think of family bonds as unbreakable, no matter the circumstances. But, in fact, most American families experience an estrangement that leads to anger, sadness, and heartache. 

A new book – Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them — by Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer takes a deep dive into why family rifts occur and how to heal them.

Pillemer conducted the first-ever national survey on estrangement, in which he queried more than 1,300 people. He found about 27 percent of the U.S. population, or about 67 million people, are currently living with an active estrangement in their family, and the majority find the experience emotionally distressing.

In addition, Pillemer conducted in-depth interviews with 100 people who have repaired rifts in their families. He used these interviews to create a roadmap for reconciliation.  

Pillemer found that there are many reasons that family members reach a point of estrangement. Among the most common were conflicts over money and inheritance; conflicts with in-laws, especially if someone is forced to choose between his or her spouse and family of origin; a difficult childhood that included harsh parenting or favoritism; divorce; and discrepancies in values and lifestyles, such as a child coming out as gay or lesbian or rejecting a parent’s religion.

Pillemer found that the consequences of estrangement can be devastating. Unresolved rifts often create chronic stress for all family members involved. The evidence clearly demonstrates that this type of stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and even manifest itself in physical health problems.

Such rifts often involve what Pillemer calls “collateral damage,” when other family members who are not involved in the argument are pulled into the rift and cut off from loved ones. And rifts create a loss of social capital, cutting people off from the emotional support and the resources of family members that can help carry them through difficult times.

There are some circumstances where estrangement is necessary and healthy, Pillemer writes. For example, cutting off a family member who is abusive, threatening, or engages in illegal activities may be necessary.

But for most people who have experienced estrangement, calling a truce is beneficial for everyone involved. According to Pillemer, for reconciliation to work, the following key elements are important:

  • Give up rehashing past arguments or trying to insist other people see things your way. Instead, try to focus on moving forward with the relationship.
  • Spend some time thinking about the least you can accept in the relationship. Are you willing to see each other during limited times or in controlled circumstances?
  • If you are interested in repairing the rift, reach out periodically to attempt to build a bridge. Situations change over time and anger often dissipates. It’s worth checking in with your family member to see if he or she is ready to engage.
  • Think about setting boundaries. If you are going to reengage with an estranged family member, it is helpful to spell out specific terms that will allow some sort of relationship. For example, an adult daughter might tell her mother, “You are welcome to visit, but you cannot criticize my parenting choices.”

Overall, Pillemer found that people who find a way to reconcile are usually happy that they did.

The take-home message: Family estrangement is more common than most people realize, but it is possible to reconcile with estranged family members and rebuild these important relationships.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.

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