Family estrangement: Why adults are cutting off their parents

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Dec 6, 2021, 10:28:37 PM12/6/21
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https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20211201-family-estrangement-why-adults-are-cutting-off-their-parents

MILY TREE | HOW WE LIVE
Family estrangement: Why adults are cutting off their parents
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(Image credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)
By Maddy Savage
1st December 2021

Polarised politics and a growing awareness of how difficult
relationships can impact our mental health are fuelling family
estrangement, say psychologists.
I
It was a heated Skype conversation about race relations that led Scott
to cut off all contact with his parents in 2019. His mother was angry
he’d supported a civil rights activist on social media, he says; she
said “a lot of really awful racist things”, while his seven-year-old son
was in earshot.

“There was very much a parental feeling like ‘you can’t say that in
front of my child, that's not the way we're going to raise our kids’,”
explains the father-of-two, who lives in Northern Europe. Scott says the
final straw came when his father tried to defend his mother’s viewpoint
in an email, which included a link to a white supremacist video. He was
baffled his parents could not comprehend the reality of people being
victimised because of their background, especially given his own family
history. “‘This is insane – you're Jewish’, I said. ‘Many people in our
family were killed in Auschwitz’.”

It wasn’t the first time Scott had experienced a clash in values with
his parents. But it was the last time he chose to see or speak to them.

Despite a lack of hard data, there is a growing perception among
therapists, psychologists and sociologists that this kind of intentional
parent-child ‘break-up’ is on the rise in western countries.

Formally known as ‘estrangement’, experts’ definitions of the concept
differ slightly, but the term is broadly used for situations in which
someone cuts off all communication with one or more relatives, a
situation that continues for the long-term, even if those they’ve sought
to split from try to re-establish a connection.

“The declaration of ‘I am done’ with a family member is a powerful and
distinct phenomenon,” explains Karl Andrew Pillemer, professor of human
development at Cornell University, US. “It is different from family
feuds, from high-conflict situations and from relationships that are
emotionally distant but still include contact.”

The declaration of ‘I am done’ with a family member is a powerful and
distinct phenomenon – Karl Andrew Pillemer

After realising there were few major studies of family estrangement, he
carried out a nationwide survey for his 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured
Families and How to Mend Them. The survey showed more than one in four
Americans reported being estranged from another relative. Similar
research for British estrangement charity Stand Alone suggests the
phenomenon affects one in five families in the UK, while academic
researchers and therapists in Australia and Canada also say they’re
witnessing a “silent epidemic” of family break-ups.

On social media, there’s been a boom in online support groups for adult
children who’ve chosen to be estranged, including one Scott is involved
in, which has thousands of members. “Our numbers in the group have been
rising steadily,” he says. “I think it’s becoming more and more common.”

The fact that estrangement between parents and their adult children
seems to be on the rise – or at least is increasingly discussed – seems
to be down to a complex web of cultural and psychological factors. And
the trend raises plenty of questions about its impact on both
individuals and society.

Past experiences and present values

Although research is limited, most break-ups between a parent and a
grown-up child tend to be initiated by the child, says Joshua Coleman,
psychologist and author of The Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children
Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. One of the most common reasons
for this is past or present abuse by the parent, whether emotional,
verbal, physical or sexual. Divorce is another frequent influence, with
consequences ranging from the adult child “taking sides”, to new people
coming into the family such as stepsiblings or stepparents, which can
fuel divisions over both “financial and emotional resources”.

Clashes in values – as experienced by Scott and his parents – are also
increasingly thought to play a role. A study published in October by
Coleman and the University of Wisconsin, US, showed value-based
disagreements were mentioned by more than one in three mothers of
estranged children. Pillemer’s recent research has also highlighted
value differences as a “major factor” in estrangements, with conflicts
resulting from “issues such as same sex-preference, religious
differences or adopting alternative lifestyles”.

Both experts believe at least part of the context for this is increased
political and cultural polarisation in recent years. In the US, an Ipsos
poll reported a rise in family rifts after the 2016 election, while
research by academics at Stanford University in 2012 suggested a larger
proportion of parents could be unhappy if their children married someone
who supported a rival political party, which was far less true a decade
earlier. A recent UK study found that one in 10 people had fallen out
with a relative over Brexit. “These studies highlight the way that
identity has become a far greater determinant of whom we choose to keep
close or to let go,” says Coleman.

Children can also be affected by severed ties, as they lose out on
relationships with their grandparents (Credit: Getty Images)

FAMILY TREE
This story is part of BBC's Family Tree series, which examines the
issues and opportunities parents, children and families face today – and
how they'll shape the world tomorrow. Coverage continues on BBC Future.

Scott says he’s never discussed his voting preferences with his parents.
But his decision to cut them off was partly influenced by his and his
wife’s heightened awareness of social issues, including the Black Lives
Matter movement and MeToo. He says other adult children in his online
support group have fallen out due to value-based disagreements connected
to the pandemic, from older parents refusing to get vaccinated to rows
over conspiracy theories about the source of the virus.

The mental health factor

Experts believe our growing awareness of mental health, and how toxic or
abusive family relationships can affect our wellbeing, is also impacting
on estrangement.

“While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a
desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualising the estrangement of a
family member as an expression of personal growth, as it is commonly
done today, is almost certainly new,” says Coleman. “Deciding which
people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy.”

Sam, who’s in her twenties and lives in the UK, says she grew up in a
volatile household where both parents were heavy drinkers. She largely
stopped speaking to her parents straight after leaving home for
university, and says she cut ties for good after witnessing her father
verbally abusing her six-year-old cousin at a funeral. Having therapy
helped her recognise her own experiences as “more than just bad
parenting” and process their psychological impact. “I came to understand
that ‘abuse’ and ‘neglect’ were words that described my childhood. Just
because I wasn't hit didn't mean I wasn't harmed.”

She agrees with Coleman it’s “becoming more socially acceptable” to cut
ties with family members. “Mental health is more talked about now so
it’s easier to say, ‘These people are bad for my mental health’. I
think, as well, people are getting more confident at drawing their own
boundaries and saying ‘no’ to people.”

The rise of individualism

Coleman argues our increased focus on personal wellbeing has happened in
parallel with other wider trends, such as a shift towards a more
“individualistic culture”. Many of us are much less reliant on relatives
than previous generations.

“Not needing a family member for support or because you plan to inherit
the family farm means that who we choose to spend time with is based
more on our identities and aspirations for growth than survival or
necessity,” he explains. “Today, nothing ties an adult child to a parent
beyond that adult child’s desire to have that relationship.”

People are getting more confident at drawing their own boundaries and
saying ‘no’ to people – Sam
Increased opportunities to live and work in different cities or even
countries from our adult families can also help facilitate a parental
break-up, simply by adding physical distance.

“It’s been much easier for me to move around than it would have been
probably 20 years ago,” agrees Faizah, who is British with a South Asian
background, and has avoided living in the same area as her family since
2014.

She says she cut ties with her parents because of “controlling”
behaviours like preventing her from going to job interviews, wanting an
influence on her friendships and putting pressure on her to get married
straight after her studies. “They didn’t respect my boundaries,” she
says. “I just want to have ownership over my own life and make my own
choices.”

The impact of estrangement

There are strong positives for many estranged adult children who’ve
detached themselves from what they believe are damaging parental
relationships. “The research shows that the majority of adult children
say it was for the best,” says Coleman.

But while improved mental health and perceived increased freedom are
common outcomes of estrangement, Pillemer argues the decision can also
create feelings of instability, humiliation and stress.

“The intentional, active severing of personal ties differs from other
kinds of loss,” he explains. “In addition, people lose the practical
benefits of being part of a family: material support, for example, and
the sense of belonging to a stable group of people who know one another
well.”

Feelings of loneliness and stigma seem to have been exacerbated for many
estranged people during the pandemic. While the ‘Zoom boom’ enabled some
families to feel closer and stay in touch more regularly, recent UK
research suggests that adults with severed ties felt even more aware of
missing out on family life during lockdown. Other studies point to
Christmas and religious festivals being especially challenging periods
for estranged relatives.

“I have my own family and my partner and my close friends, but nothing
replaces those traditions you have with your parents,” agrees Faizah.
Now in her thirties, she still finds the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr
particularly tricky, even though she’s distanced herself from her
parents’ religion. “It’s so tough. It’s so lonely... and I do miss my
mum’s cooking.”

Estrangement, though difficult to navigate, may not be permanent as
people can successfully reconcile (Credit: Getty Images)

Choosing not to stay in touch with parents can have a knock-on effect on
future family bonds and traditions, too. “For me, the biggest regret is
my kids growing up without grandparents,” says Scott . “It’s preferable
to [my parents] saying – gosh, I don’t know what – to them [but] I feel
like my kids are missing out.”

Of course, all of this also has an impact on the parents who have, often
unwillingly, been cut out of their children’s – and potentially
grandchildren’s – lives. “Most parents are made miserable by it,” says
Coleman. As well as losing their own footing in the traditional family
unit, they typically “describe profound feelings of loss, shame and regret”.

Scott says his mother recently tried calling him. But he texted her
saying he’d only consider re-establishing contact with his children if
she recognised her comments had been “horribly racist” and apologised.
So far, he says she hasn’t done that. “Even if all those things
happened, I would always limit what I tell them about my life and
certainly supervise any visits with the kids. Unfortunately, I don’t see
any of that happening.”

Attempting to bridge rifts?

With political divisions centre-stage in many nations, as well as
increasing individualism in cultures around the world, many experts
believe the parent-child ‘break-up’ trend will stick around.

“My prediction is that it's either going to get worse or stay the same,”
says Coleman. “Family relationships are going to be based much more on
pursuing happiness and personal growth, and less on emphasising duty,
obligation or responsibility.”

Pillemer argues that we shouldn’t rule out attempting to bridge rifts,
however, particularly those stemming from opposing politics or values
(as opposed to abusive or damaging behaviours).

“If the prior relationship was relatively close (or at least not
conflictual), I think there is evidence that many family members can
restore the relationship. It does involve, however, agreeing on a
‘demilitarised zone’ in which politics cannot be discussed,” he says.

It’s so tough. It’s so lonely... and I do miss my mum’s cooking – Faizah
For his book, he interviewed over 100 estranged people who had
successfully reconciled, and found the process was actually framed by
many as “an engine for personal growth”. “It is of course not for
everyone, but for a number of people, bridging a rift, even if the
relationship was imperfect, was a source of self-esteem and personal
pride.”

He argues that both more detailed longitudinal studies and clinical
attention are needed to get the topic of estrangement further “out of
the shadows and into the clear light of open discussion”. “We need
researchers to find better solutions – both for people who want to
reconcile, and for help in coping with people in permanent estrangements.”

Scott welcomes the growing interest in adult break-ups. “I think it will
help lots of people,” he says. “There is still a big stigma around
estrangement. We see these questions in the group a lot: ‘What do you
tell people?’ or ‘How do you bring it up when dating?".

But he’s unlikely to reconcile with his own parents, unless they
recognise they’ve been racist. “The whole ‘blood is thicker than water’
- I mean, that's great if you have a cool family, but if you're saddled
with toxic people, it's just not doable.”

Scott, Sam and Faizah are all using one name to protect their and their
families’ privacy

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