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What Makes People Want to Break Up with Their Family?

Family break-ups are in the news with the latest saga of the British royals.

In the latest installment of the British royal family’s drama, Prince Harry and Princess Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, announced that they want to establish their independence. Although outsiders can never know what’s really going on inside a family, it seems fair to regard their decision as reflecting outside forces acting upon them as much as it does family dynamics.

The fact that the public is so captivated by the story suggests that there is something fundamental to the situation that resonates with ordinary people. In everyone’s family, there are ripples of discontent that can lead its members to seek escape, if only temporarily. When this plays out on the world stage with a family as inherently intriguing as the royals, people are naturally drawn into the theatrics, if not the speculation.

Theories of intergenerational relationships in family psychology and sociology provide some useful insights into understanding why such problematic situations can develop. One of the most well-established approaches to intergenerational relationships comes from what is called the Intergenerational Solidarity Model (ISM) (Silverstein & Bengston, 1997). According to this theory, family dynamics can be classified according to the six dimensions of associational (frequency of interaction), affectual (feelings), consensual (agreement in values, beliefs, and lifestyles), functional (help exchange), normative (commitment to fulfill family obligations), and structural (availability in terms of distance and health).

If you’re seeking to break up with your extended family, the ISM would suggest that the reasons are most likely to involve the affectual and consensual dimensions. You are unhappy with some or all family members and, from a values standpoint, reject their beliefs and views about life. You definitely don't want them telling you what to do.

Turning to a 2014 article by Jessica Lendon and colleagues, a related concept emerges that represents a variant of the ISM. The VA psychologist and her coauthors explored the concept of “intergenerational ambivalence,” which they define as “mixed or contradictory feelings toward a family member in another generation” (p. 272). Indeed, they argue that “irreconcilable demands for opposite behaviors” by family members becomes an “intrinsic property” of relationships with these unfortunate qualities (p. 273). From the standpoint of the ISM, the authors substitute structural (availability) with conflict, defining ambivalence as high levels of both affection and conflict.

Among the factors that Lendon et al. note can contribute to ambivalence are competing obligations and expectations. Parents can feel ambivalence toward their children if they feel their offspring haven’t met their expectations. However, according to the intergenerational stake phenomenon, ambivalence can occur due simply to the structural nature of the relationship. As the authors note, “parents invest emotionally, monetarily, and physically in the raising of their children and thus have a stake in feeling successful in their parental roles; children have a stake in establishing their independence from parents and thus distance themselves by minimizing positive features and emphasizing negative features of the relationship” (p. 275).

There would seem to be no way around the ambivalence represented in the intergenerational stake which, by its very definition, is inherent in the adult child-parent relationship. If you’re at the receiving end of intergenerational stake—i.e. are the child, you’ll see your relationship with your parents, or with the parent generation, as potentially infringing on your own autonomy. This perspective could apply to you whether you’re a member of a large and visible extended family, such as the British monarchy, or a family clan in which older members constantly keep tabs on the young.

To test the idea that parents and children would have different perceptions of the nature of their relationship, the VA-led research team used data from a large three-generational study first investigated in 1971 and then followed until 2005. The sample studied in the 2014 paper consisted of 253 parents matched with 179 unique children. The parents averaged 76 years of age and the children 52 years old. The dyads each responded to questions about the extent to which they felt ambivalently toward each other (direct measures). Indirect measures of ambivalence were also obtained by contrasting scores on measures of affectual solidarity and degree of conflict.

The indirect, but not direct, measures of ambivalence provided support for the intergenerational stake phenomenon, showing that parents had stronger positive feelings toward their children but children had stronger feelings of conflict, especially toward their mothers. The exception to this positivity bias on the part of parents toward their children occurred when the child was unmarried, and when the two generations had differing sets of values.

As the authors concluded, “These findings suggest that parents have a stake in maintaining continuity across the generations and that ambivalence may emerge when expectations for their children are not fulfilled” (p. 281). For their part, children felt more ambivalence the more they interacted with their parents.

The intergenerational stake findings provide, then, some explanation for why conflict may occur in a family when the children don’t seem to be following exactly in the steps their parents intended. Even more serious rifts may occur, however, when an actual divergence of feelings becomes so strong that the generations actually go through a breakup. This situation, referred to as the “developmental schism” involves, as the term implies, a complete rift in which parents and children discontinue all contact.

As identified in an often-cited article by University of Texas psychologist Karen Fingerman (1996), the developmental schism involves divergence between the generations in the extent to which each values the relationship. The parents (usually the mother in Fingerman's work) want to be close to and confide in the daughter. However, the daughter regards the mother as intrusive and resists engaging in mutual sharing of feelings. The developmental schism can have wide-ranging effects throughout an intergenerational family, as members are forced to choose sides.

Thus, as anyone who is part of an extended family can attest, you are not alone when it comes to engaging in conflict with other family members. Your partner, and perhaps your children, are also part of the mix. You have not only your parents to navigate relationships with, but you also must deal with your partner’s parents, other siblings, various cousins, aunts, uncles, and even family friends. All of these moving parts can either improve or worsen the extent to which you and your own progenitors are able to maintain harmonious relationships.

Returning to the situation of the British royals, the findings from the Lendon et al. study additionally highlight the limitations of looking from the outside in when trying to understand what’s going on with a particular family. When family members were asked about ambivalence directly, their responses differed from the questions that asked about their feelings of affection and conflict. This suggests that someone who looks ambivalent to you may not feel ambivalent about family members in terms of the relationship's underlying dimensions.

It's also important to recognize that relationships are not static and what might seem like a reason to step away from your family for the time being may change considerably over time. You may find the pendulum of ambivalence swinging back to closeness from schism when something in your life causes you to take stock of their importance to you. Other family members themselves may change, particularly if they wish to restore family harmony. People die, are born, marry, divorce, and remarry, leading new bonds to form and break over the months and years of a family's lifetime.

To sum up, the story of the erstwhile Prince and Princess of Sussex may not be as atypical as you might think. Everyone gets drawn into family drama, in part to understand their own close relationships. You can use this real-life saga to think about your own bonds with those in your extended network. In the process, you may achieve greater fulfillment in this important area of your life and the lives of those close to you.

Facebook image: Shaun Jeffers/Shutterstock


Lendon, J. P., Silverstein, M., & Giarrusso, R. (2014). Ambivalence in older parent–adult child relationships: Mixed feelings, mixed measures. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(2), 272-284. doi: 10.1111/jomf.12101

Silverstein, M., & Bengtson, V. L. (1997). Intergenerational solidarity and the structure of adult child-parent relationships in American families. American Journal of Sociology, 103, 429-460.

Fingerman, K. L. (1996). Sources of tension in the aging mother and adult daughter relationship. Psychology and Aging, 11, 591-606.

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