Estrangement, the widespread and stigmatized condition describing cutting off one family member from one or more family members, is becoming increasingly common. Estrangement can mean cutting ties completely with no contact or little contact with emotional distancing.
When an adult child cuts ties from one or both parents, they choose to disconnect from a relationship they believe is unmanageable. Estrangement is painful and usually talked about behind closed doors. But in recent decades, there are many resources for the adult child to recognize unhealthy patterns and choose to separate.
Parents confronted with losing the relationship status with their adult child go through grieving and finding a way to reconcile.
Estrangement is a grueling matter, complicated and ambiguous. The arrangement hurts all involved parties. Research studies have yet to catch up to the demand for information to illuminate and make sense of this harsh condition.
We know there is a great divide in perspectives between the estranged and their parents. Some estranged family members’ struggles involve addictions, mental illness, abuse, and toxic behaviors. Unraveling generational dysfunction and its impact on individuals requires professional support. Parents and adult children sometimes must remain estranged to preserve their well-being.
On the other hand, some families have intense histories, including numerous contributors, and can move forward. Parents and willing adult children find their way to reconciliation, often with the help of a professional.
Then there are those parents and adult children who remain emotionally or physically distanced for years.
Within this range are parents and adult children who, regardless of the relationship status, come to acceptance and learn to live again. These individuals processed the emotions of grieving, invested in their well-being, exercised their empathy muscles, and intentionally stepped forward. They embraced alternative perspectives, including those of their kids.
When parents gain insight into the context in which their adult child cuts ties, it opens the door for parents to move forward. For parents, this means they move into the spectrum of acceptance, acknowledge their role in the estrangement, and grow their empathy muscle.
We define intrapersonal issues as those where the adult child severs ties with their parents because of crucial personality factors. For example, if the parent struggles with mental illness, it might cause unwanted strife in the relationship, finally pushing the adult child away so far as to become estranged.
A mentally ill parent might not notice how their behavior affects their relationships, but that might not be enough to keep the adult child in the connection. Personality traits that may push adult children away also include self-centeredness, narcissism, and immaturity.
If the parent is unsupportive and unaccepting of the adult child’s feelings, the latter will likely internalize the relationship as low value and choose to estrange.
A widespread intrapersonal issue is personality differences. Adult children who do not feel accepted in their sexuality, gender identity, and religious ideals are more likely to separate from parental relationships.
Interfamily issues refer to forces outside the family – for example, objectionable relationships imposed upon the adult child by a divorced parent. The adult child can choose not to be a part of that new family dynamic if they wish.
Other reasons may include influence from a third party, such as a controlling or abusive spouse. The adult child’s spouse pressuring behaviors work to dismantle the family relationship, which may result in estrangement to keep the peace within the marriage. Alternatively, the adult child’s parents may not like the choice of spouse and therefore create distance and conflict.
Negative behavior, abuse during childhood, and sustained rigid or distant parenting styles can eventually cause the child to cut ties. Someone who has suffered mental, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse as a child can choose to separate from their parents in adulthood for self-preservation.
Other examples include:
It is not unusual for an adult child to recognize these behavioral patterns as detrimental to their well-being and choose to cut ties in their adult life.
With the newfound loss of stigma surrounding therapy and mental health, adult children are becoming keen on their circumstances and how their environment has contributed to their lives. If the relationship stops benefiting them or never has, they can choose whether or not to stay.
They are not responsible for their parents’ happiness and decide to put themselves first. The bare minimum isn’t enough anymore. Some agree that family is not a permanent state; it can grow and expand as family members age or come to a complete halt if so chosen.
Parent and adult children relationships tend to thrive when there are no expectations. The adult child can feel loved with no conditions and supported without fear of judgment. Unfortunately, adult children report feeling disrespected by parents who disregard their agency and adulthood.
Dr. Joshua Coleman, in his book Rules of Estrangement, discusses the shift away from the obligation to parents towards honoring one’s needs to be happy. Adult children who find their parents difficult and disrespectful can distance themselves or cut ties entirely.
What intrapersonal, interfamily, and intrafamily contributors discussed in the Carr et al., 2015 study
elaborates on the complicated nature of estrangement. Also, understanding that an adult child’s perspective can be highly different yet valid. Parents who hope to reconcile are willing to step away from their versions of the estrangement story and empathize with their adult child.
Do you think it is important to empathize with your adult child’s perspective? What resources have you found to be the most supportive? What do you do regularly that helps you nurture your wellbeing?