Does Estrangement Run in Families?

It's more common than we realize.

Posted Sep 05, 2019

My parent had a sibling. Both were over 40 when that sibling cut my parent off without a word.

The sibling went, as folks say in recovery, no-contact.

They lived seven miles apart. On any given day thenceforth, they might have crossed paths at a restaurant or the beach, but never did. My parent, weird before, grew weirder—as if squinting through splinters of shattered heart that spun in salted air whose turquoise tenderness now just seemed cruel.

Having none, I saw siblings as spectators, as one sees cells in microscopes and sloths in zoos. Siblinghood clearly could mean living with your lookalike best friend—or with a torturer granted relentless access in toxic proximity. Your would-be witnesses and would-be saviors are the fond parents of your torturer, too.

My parent having been cut off cast us into a permanent, pee-scented pall. We stopped observing holidays, as if we had no right.

The cutoff should have surprised no one. It had precedents. My grandmother cut off two of her sisters. One of them then cut the other off. Together, they had cut their brother off for wedding someone of a different faith.

Estrangement is a leitmotif in half my family tree.

One half—back East and barely known to me—grows dazzlingly branched and bloomed. The half I know, the local half, stands spindly, gouged with suppurating scars from severed boughs.

My great-grandfather and his brother co-owned a store before cutting one another off. Each made his children vow to cut off all their cousins. Whack, whack, slash. An aunt cut off her twentysomething son. Whack, slash.

Whoever hears my story either blinks perplexedly and says How sad or chimes My family too, counting examples on their fingers. Either of these extremes: What? or Whoa, that's us.

Sibling estrangement is more common than we think. Its magnitude is masked by shame. Sixty-eight percent of participants in a University of Cambridge survey said that social stigma worsened their estrangement woes: Society expects sisters and brothers to forgive, forget, look back and laugh.

My cut-off parent never publicly mentioned the cutter-off again, saying forevermore: I am an only child.

Do such estrangements run in certain families? Given how many loving siblings risk death for each other, sacrificing kidneys gladly, what renders shared parenthood so frail in families such as mine? Is it some tendency in our DNA? If so, what glitch do we inherit? Hypersensitivity to perceived slights and rivalries? An inability to bond? Low self-esteem, which spring-loads all of those?

Are sibling breakups the source or the symptom?

Or is it a matter of not nature but nurture, handed down like cake recipes?

Or is it both? Siblings cast sprawling shadows. One study revealed that bad sibling relationships in childhood were associated with a greater likelihood of middle-age depression and substance abuse. Another found that children bullied by their siblings ran a higher risk for depression and self-harm.

Are members of multi-estrangement families meaner and/or more disconsolate than most? Are we less capable of giving and receiving love? Does this "love deficit" impair our tolerance for anyone, even ourselves? Do we attach feebly by default, eagerly detaching at a glance?

Can we members of such families fix this — by some other means than mine, which was: Never have kids?

And when and why and how in history did this tradition or dysfunction start? Did certain ancestors wearing bearskins or hoopskirts tell their children: It is preferable to simply part?