Family estrangement is more common than you think

by Margaret Robinson Rutherford ([email protected]) 1,700 views 

The term “cancel culture” burst onto the scene around 2016. It’s defined as the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling to express disapproval and exert social pressure. Its primary venue is social media, but it doesn’t simply pertain to celebrities. It can happen to anyone, and substantial controversy surrounds its use — whether it’s fair, bad or good, even if it’s new or has been around for a while.

Certainly, in families, “canceling” or estrangement has existed for a long time. How is estrangement defined? Parents can distance themselves from their children. Adult children can stop “coming around,” as the term goes. The Latin root of the word is extraneare, meaning “treat as a stranger.” You can choose it — you can choose to distance yourself from someone in your life — or it can be chosen for you, meaning that someone can estrange themselves from you.

Estrangement can be a painful part of any relationship where there has formerly been affection, trust or mutual respect. Yet sometimes, separation is needed. So, it can be painful or an actual relief.

In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor at Cornell University, stated that he “… discovered that family rifts were surprisingly pervasive and often result in long-lasting emotional and physical distress. [A] random survey of 1,340 individuals suggested that ‘about 25% of the population is living with an active estrangement.’ For some of these approximately 67 million people, it doesn’t make much difference, but most people experience the rupture as aversive.”

Dr. Margaret Robinson Rutherford

This figure surprised me even though I’ve heard many stories of grandparents disappearing from their son’s or daughter’s families after an argument or misunderstanding. Best friends parting ways suddenly and who may not even know or remember exactly “what happened.” Neighbors who used to spend holidays together now building literal fences to keep their distance. There can be a lingering wistfulness about a relationship’s demise, or it can be extremely painful.

Why does it happen?

  • Due to memories of abuse, neglect or even parental favoritism that are far too hurtful to ignore.
  • Divorces that have seemed more like vicious battlefields than painful decisions, and families are severed in the process.
  • Through legal and financial disputes where unfairness, greed or malice can rip holes in the fragile framework of a family.
  • Through family or cultural disapproval of who you are or what you’ve become, whether that’s a choice of mate, a religious affiliation, a gender identification or lifestyle.
  • Differences in political stance, where instead of that difference promoting discourse with mutual respect, complete alienations can occur.

What can you do about it? You can take responsibility for whatever part of the dispute or conflict is yours and work through feelings that might preclude reconciliation. What old wounds could you be carrying around?

Of course, you need to decide whether you truly want to re-enter the relationship, and that answer might be “no.” Maybe it feels best to allow the dust to settle even more and move on.

But if it’s “yes,” “I’ve missed them,” or “I don’t even remember how things got so bad in the first place,” then perhaps you could reach out. The other person involved might not reach back; their feelings might still be too bruised.

But it also might be that they’ve been waiting in the wings, missing you, and are quite willing to take that risk. And that can be a meaningful reunion.  w

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a private practice psychologist in Fayetteville. The opinions expressed are those of the author.