An illustration of a tree with a heart in the middle, which is ruptured.

The Pain of Family Estrangement

Gerontologist Karl Pillemer discusses how to cope with a rupture from a close relative

It’s a travail that’s surprisingly common, but which many sufferers are too ashamed to disclose: estrangement from a close relative. These often heartbreaking ruptures have seldom been the focus of academic research—a lack that prompted human development professor Karl Pillemer to conduct the first national survey about it a few years ago.

He was, he says, “absolutely stunned” to find that 27% of the 1,300 U.S. adults it queried were currently suffering an estrangement. “That translates to 68 million people,” says Pillemer, also a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Numbers don’t always speak for themselves, but in this case they kind of do; it’s much more prevalent than most people imagine.”

Pillemer went on to launch the Cornell Family Reconciliation Project, which interviewed 300 people who’ve endured estrangements, including 100 who were able to re-establish relations. He also published a book on the subject, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.

Pillemer speaking at an event on campus.
Pillemer speaking at an event on campus. (Photo by Cornell University)

First off, could you define “estrangement”?

For our study, it means no contact—or as little as you can have in this hyper-connected society. There’s something qualitatively different between a bad, distant, or conflictual relationship and one where a person is cut off entirely—where somebody, despite family ties, obligations, and social norms, says, “I’m never going to see you again.”

What are some of the most common reasons for it?

Often it has to do with divergent values and poor communication. We also found that violated expectations are key: one archetypal example is, “Mom gets sick, daughter is looking after her, and brother and sister won’t help.” And we found some common situations that moved a negative relationship into estrangement.

One is inheritance and money. A second is what I call the problematic in-law: a spouse—either in the child generation among siblings, or parents who remarry—is incompatible with the rest of the family.

A third I call the “long arm of the past”—a history of harsh parenting, parental favoritism, vicious sibling rivalry. In many estrangements, too, we found that a single, transformational event, conversation, or moment precipitates the final break.

You coined the term “defensive ignorance” regarding the reasons for estrangement. What’s that?

Over and over in my interviews I heard estranged people say, “I have no idea why this occurred”—and then they’d list a lifelong history of conflict, unmet expectations, and criticism of the other person. People are so disturbed by the estrangement that they become extraordinarily defensive, and it becomes an almost insurmountable barrier to reconciliation. The people who reconciled worked their way through that and were able to understand the role they played in the estrangement.

You’ve observed that it’s easier for a child to cut off their parent than the other way around. How so?

Parents have invested time, resources, and emotion in producing these kids and have a great stake in receiving emotional and physical support back from them; in contrast, adult children are moving on with their lives and have many other relationships. Not that the children don’t care about the relationship, but there’s a strong bias that parents care more.

I found that many parents don’t think about that. They believe that by having provided a decent childhood, their kids will stay with them no matter how they behave. But if they’re going to draw a line in the sand—insist that their expectations be fulfilled, or demand a certain kind of relationship with their child—they need to know that they could really lose out.

I don’t usually prescribe advice, but before people begin a family rift, they should think about the collateral damage.

How do estrangements affect other family members?

One of the strongest recommendations I’d give to someone who’s having a fight with their brother or sister and decides that it’s over is this: think about the effects on ensuing generations. If it’s over between you, it may very well be over between your children and their cousins.

In my own family, there was a rift in the grandparental generation that cut us off from an entire side of the family. I don’t usually prescribe advice, but before people begin a family rift, they should think about the collateral damage.

One source for your research was Facebook groups, both for parents estranged from their kids and vice versa. What role do they play?

These groups provide some support but often can inhibit reconciliation. The adult children reinforce each other’s views that their parents are narcissists; for the parents’ groups, it’s that the children are spoiled, ungrateful, or uncaring. There’s a whole lot of name-calling on both sides.  

What are some of the common denominators among people who successfully reconcile?

Typically, they abandoned the idea that they needed an apology and that they and their estrangement partner had to agree on everything that happened in the past. And they often re-entered the relationship with clear terms or limits. For example: “Mom and Dad, you can come back into my life if you don’t criticize my spouse and my childrearing, and when you visit you don’t stay at our house.” And finally, most of them revamped their expectations and accepted the other person for who he or she is.

Why do people so often let estrangements linger?

Because the estrangement freezes the relationship; people don’t see how others are changing and improving. So when they get back together they say, “Why didn’t I do this a long time ago?” Reconciliation clearly isn’t for everybody, but I found that no one regretted it.

Along those lines, another reason for reconciling was anticipated regret—people worry that it will be too late, that their relative is going to die before they have a chance to reconcile. Even though we don’t have hard data, I think we’re seeing this pattern even more during the pandemic.

In a world where people record most of their lives on social media, this is one problem that nobody really wants to talk about.

You’ve tackled some tough subjects, including elder abuse; how does this compare in terms of being challenging to study?

In a world where people record most of their lives on social media, this is one problem that nobody really wants to talk about. People in estrangements feel isolated, ashamed, guilty, and stigmatized. And the truth is, if we hear a parent say, “I no longer have contact with my child,” often in the back of our minds we wonder what’s wrong with them. I’m immensely impressed and grateful that hundreds of people were willing to open up about this topic in my studies.

What has studying this taught you about families that aren’t estranged?

We live in a world where supposedly the family is breaking down, where we have a postmodern array of relationships and families aren’t important anymore. What I learned from studying the estranged and the reconciled is how important the family still is—that in a world where things are so fluid, the relationships with our families of origin are the most stable and important that most of us will ever have.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published October 5, 2021


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