Unhappily married for many years, Peter (not his real name) waited until his children were grown up before he divorced their mother. He hoped this would make the experience less upsetting for them. Yet in the six years since, he has not seen either of his two sons. He speaks to the younger one, who is in his 20s, once or twice a year; the eldest, in his 30s, has cut off all contact. His middle child, a daughter, has at times tried to act as go-between, an experience she has found distressing. “For me it has been completely devastating,” he says. “I get on with my life, but I get teary when I think about them.” Losing contact with children is like bereavement, he says, but with the painful tug of hope that they might one day be reconciled.
Though people tend not to talk about it much, familial estrangement seems to be widespread in America. The first large-scale nationwide survey, recently conducted by Cornell University, found that 27% of adult Americans are estranged from a close family member. Karl Pillemer, a professor of sociology who led the research and wrote a book about its findings called “Fault Lines”, says that because people often feel shame, the real figure is likely to be higher. The relationship most commonly severed is that between parent and adult child, and in most cases it is the child who wields the knife.
Because family estrangement has been a subject of research only for the past decade there are no data to show whether it is becoming more common. But many sociologists and psychologists think it is. In one way this seems surprising. Divorce heightens the risk of other family fractures. Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and the author of “Rules of Estrangement”, found in a recent survey of 1,600 estranged parents that more than 70% had divorced their child’s other parent (children of divorce are more likely to dump their fathers, he notes). In recent years America's divorce rate has fallen. Yet Dr Coleman reckons other trends are making parent-child estrangements likelier than ever. Other therapists, who do not specialise in family rifts, concur.
Me, myself and I
A rise in individualism that emphasises personal happiness is the biggest factor. People are increasingly likely to reject relatives who obstruct feelings of well-being in some way, by holding clashing beliefs or failing to embrace those of others. Personal fulfilment has increasingly come to displace filial duty, says Dr Coleman. Whereas families have always fought and relatives fallen out, he says, the idea of cutting oneself off from a relative as a path to one’s own happiness seems to be new. In some ways it is a positive development: people find it easier to separate from parents who have been abusive. But it can also carry heavy costs.
More individualistic than most rich countries, America also has a higher divorce rate. This suggests adult-child separation is more common in America than it is in other places. “My impression is that this isn’t considered much of a problem in many European countries,” says Dr Pillemer. Geography also plays a part. Though people move from state to state less than they used to, America remains one of the most geographically mobile countries in the world. The vast distances often involved allow people who want to leave their families behind to do so. Peter reckons that if he and his younger son, who live hundreds of miles apart, still lived in the same city they would have patched things up by now. That, in turn, might have softened his older son. “If two out of three were talking to me, I wonder if he might think again,” he says.
Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word “toxic” in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.
Therapy has played a role too, says Dr Coleman. A lot of therapy in America emphasises the role family dysfunction plays in personal unhappiness. Though it is often a factor, it is also often not, he says. “As therapists we need to do due diligence on what our patients say. Just as I wouldn’t take at face value a parent’s depiction of their parenting as flawless, I wouldn’t assume an adult child’s claim that a parent is ‘toxic’ should be accepted without further inquiry,” he says. He is launching an online programme with a British researcher that helps therapists and others develop techniques for working with those who have become estranged from close relatives.
Raising awareness about the issue in this way is likely to be important, and not only because some broken bonds may be fixable. Parent-child estrangement has negative effects beyond the heartbreak it causes. Research suggests that the habit of cutting off relatives is likely to spread in families. But most immediately, it is likely to exacerbate loneliness in old age.
Dr Pillemer, who is also a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, says the idea for the research was sparked by a one-to-one survey he did of elderly people. “I discovered that dozens had been cut off by their children,” he says. Often, they did not want to admit it. People who work with the elderly should consider the possibility, he says, that an old person is not receiving the support and solace that might be assumed about someone who has adult children. “Mrs Smith may say she has two daughters,” he says. “She is quite likely not to add that she never sees them.”■