Family Estrangement: “Fault Lines”

Family estrangement becomes a hot topic as we approach the holidays, and sociologist Karl A. Pillemer‘s groundbreaking new book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them is all too relevant. From the publisher:

Fault Lines shares for the first time findings from Dr. Pillemer’s ten-year groundbreaking Cornell Reconciliation Project, based on the first national survey on estrangement; rich, in-depth interviews with hundreds of people who have experienced it; and insights from leading family researchers and therapists. He assures people who are estranged, and those who care about them, that they are not alone and that fissures can be bridged.

How common is family estrangement? James Dean, Cornell: “…Pillemer found that 27% of Americans 18 and older had cut off contact with a family member, most of whom reported that they were upset by such a rift. That translates to at least 67 million people nationally – likely an underestimate, Pillemer said, since some are reluctant to acknowledge the problem.”

The statistical breakdown?

  • 10% reported estrangement from a parent or child
  • 8% from a sibling
  • 9% from extended family members including cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, nieces and nephews

Possible reasons include the following:

  • Childhood experiences with harsh parenting, parental favoritism, and parental divorce
  • Tensions with in-laws
  • Disputes over money, inheritances, business deals, etc.
  • Value differences
  • Unrealistic expectations

In an interview with Paula Span, New York Times, Pillemer affirms his description of estrangement as “a wound that won’t heal”:

People experience estrangement as isolating and shameful. They often experience guilt. And there’s stigma attached. Other people think there’s something wrong with your family.
Analyzing the survey data, there were correlations between being estranged and feeling anxious or depressed or isolated.

“Cutting someone off may have brought immediate relief from conflict and negativity, but most people longed for a return to the relationship and felt that the rift stood in the way of achieving a life well-lived,” states Pillemer, who isn’t necessarily advocating for reconciliation, merely reporting what he found.

But what about the possibility of reconciliation? States Dean, “Among those who were able to reconcile, Pillemer said, almost all employed one strategy: They abandoned a need for the estranged relative to accept their version of the past and to apologize. They instead focused on the present and future of the relationship, adopting more realistic expectations about the other person rather than trying to change them.”

Additionally, it’s noted that establishing new boundaries is a common strategy for moving forward with the relationship.

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