It’s the classic image of the holidays: Parents, siblings and their children gather around the family table to feast and catch up on each other’s lives. But it doesn’t always work that way.
After years of discontent, some adults choose to stop talking to their parents or returning home for family gatherings, and parents may disapprove of a child so intensely that he or she is no longer welcome home.
In the past five years, a clearer picture of estrangement has been emerging as more researchers have turned their attention to this kind of family rupture. Their findings challenge the deeply held notion that family relationships can’t be dissolved and suggest that estrangement is not all that uncommon.
Broadly speaking, estrangement is defined as one or more relatives intentionally choosing to end contact because of an ongoing negative relationship. (Relatives who go long stretches without a phone call because of external circumstances like a military deployment or incarceration don’t fit the bill.)
“To the extent you are actively trying to distance yourself and maintain that distance, that makes you estranged,” said Kristina Scharp, an assistant professor of communication studies at Utah State University in Logan.
Last month, Lucy Blake, a lecturer at Edge Hill University in England, published a systematic review of 51 articles about estrangement in the Journal of Family Theory & Review. This body of literature, Dr. Blake wrote, gives family scholars an opportunity to “understand family relationships as they are, rather than how they could or should be.”
Estrangement is widely misunderstood, but as more and more people share their experiences publicly, some misconceptions are being overturned. Assuming that every relationship between a parent and child will last a lifetime is as simplistic as assuming every couple will never split up.
Myth: Estrangement Happens Suddenly
It’s usually a long, drawn-out process rather than a single blowout. A parent and child’s relationship erodes over time, not overnight.
Kylie Agllias, a social worker who wrote a 2016 book called “Family Estrangement,” has found that estrangement “occurs across years and decades. All the hurt and betrayals, all the things that accumulate, undermine a person’s sense of trust.”
For a study published in June, Dr. Scharp spoke to 52 adult children and found they distanced themselves from their parents in various ways over time.
Some adult children, for example, moved away. Others no longer made an effort to fulfill expectations of the daughter-son role, such as a 48-year-old woman who, after 33 years with no contact with her father, declined to visit him in the hospital or to attend his funeral.
Still others chose to limit conversations with a family member to superficial small talk or reduce the amount of contact. One 21-year-old man described how he called and texted his mother, but not his father, after leaving for college. “They still live together so obviously he noticed and that bothered him,” he said.
Estrangement is a “continual process,” Dr. Scharp said. “In our culture, there’s a ton of guilt around not forgiving your family,” she explained. So “achieving distance is hard, but maintaining distance is harder.”
A complete rupture can be years in the making. It’s been three years since Nikolaus Maack, 47, has had contact with most of his family. But he started distancing himself from his parents and siblings a decade before. “I was staying away,” he said. His father’s temper had always kept him on edge, and holidays were particularly uncomfortable and awful, he said, as the meal would be punctuated with his father demeaning his son and everyone else staring at their plates, an account two other relatives confirmed. Eventually, Mr. Maack stopped attending Christmas festivities altogether, rather than going and being left with a sick feeling in his stomach.
Reached by email, Mr. Maack’s father declined to be interviewed but insulted Mr. Maack and said he no longer considered him a son.
Myth: Estrangement Is Rare
In 2014, 8 percent of roughly 2,000 British adults said that they had cut off a family member, which translates to more than five million people, according to a nationally representative survey commissioned by Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged people.
And 19 percent of respondents reported that another relative or they themselves were no longer in contact with family.
Myth: There’s a Clear Reason People Become Estranged
Multiple factors appear to come into play. In a 2015 study, Dr. Agllias interviewed 25 Australian parents, each of whom had been cut off by at least one child. The reasons for the rupture fell into three main categories. In some cases, the son or daughter chose between the parent and someone or something else, such as a partner. In others, the adult child was punishing the parent for “perceived wrongdoing” or a difference in values. Most parents also flagged additional ongoing stressors like domestic violence, divorce and failing health.
A woman once insisted to Dr. Agllias that she had not spoken to her son and his wife in seven years because she asked her daughter-in-law to bring a specific dessert to a family gathering, and the daughter-in-law had deliberately brought the same one she had baked. The mother-in-law saw it as “a symbol of total disrespect,” Dr. Agllias said, yet she revealed other factors that had undermined their relationship, including that she felt her son’s wife sometimes kept the grandchildren from her and didn’t properly take care of her son. The dessert, Dr. Agllias said, became a symbol of the “cumulative disrespect” she felt.
Myth: Estrangement Happens on a Whim
In a study published in the journal Australian Social Work, 26 adults reported being estranged from parents for three main reasons: abuse (everything from belittling to physical or sexual abuse), betrayal (keeping secrets or sabotaging them) and poor parenting (being overly critical, shaming children or making them scapegoats). The three were not mutually exclusive, and often overlapped, said Dr. Agllias, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
Most of the participants said that their estrangements followed childhoods in which they had already had poor connections with parents who were physically or emotionally unavailable.
For instance, Mr. Maack resented that he was routinely left in charge of his two younger siblings, so much so that he decided never to have children of his own.
After years of growing apart, the final straw was his wedding day.
In 2014, he and his longtime girlfriend decided to marry at City Hall for practical reasons: They realized she wouldn’t be able to inherit his pension, otherwise. He didn’t invite his family, in part because it was an informal gathering. But also because a brother had recently married in a traditional ceremony, during which his father had backed out of giving his speech. He worried that his father might do something similarly disruptive. He did not want to invite him and said he didn’t think anyone else would come without him.
“I agonized over inviting them or not, for a long time,” he said, “but in the end, decided, ‘I can’t have them there.’”
His family found out he was married through Facebook. One brother told him he was hurt he wasn’t even told. And his sister and father made it clear they would no longer talk to him, according to Mr. Maack and his wife. Two other relatives confirmed their account.
These days, one brother still talks to Mr. Maack, mostly through Facebook messenger, but they don’t talk about the others.