Sometimes my work feels more like ministry than therapy. As a psychologist specializing in family estrangement, my days are spent sitting with parents who are struggling with profound feelings of grief and uncertainty. “If I get sick during the pandemic, will my son break his four years of silence and contact me? Or will I just die alone?” “How am I supposed to live with this kind of pain if I never see my daughter again?” “My grandchildren and I were so close and this estrangement has nothing to do with them. Do they think I abandoned them?”
Since I wrote my book When Parents Hurt, my practice has filled with mothers and fathers who want help healing the distance with their adult children and learning how to cope with the pain of losing them. I also treat adult children who are estranged from their parents. Some of those adult children want no contact because their parents behaved in ways that were clearly abusive or rejecting. To make matters worse for their children and themselves, some parents are unable to repair or empathize with the damage they caused or continue to inflict. However, my recent research—and my clinical work over the past four decades—has shown me that you can be a conscientious parent and your kid may still want nothing to do with you when they’re older.
However they arrive at estrangement, parents and adult children seem to be looking at the past and present through very different eyes. Estranged parents often tell me that their adult child is rewriting the history of their childhood, accusing them of things they didn’t do, and/or failing to acknowledge the ways in which the parent demonstrated their love and commitment. Adult children frequently say the parent is gaslighting them by not acknowledging the harm they caused or are still causing, failing to respect their boundaries, and/or being unwilling to accept the adult child’s requirements for a healthy relationship.
Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” the historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”
The historian Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, made a similar observation in an email: “Families in the past fought over tangible resources—land, inheritances, family property. They still do, but all this is aggravated and intensified by a mindset that does seem to be distinctive to our time. Our conflicts are often psychological rather than material—and therefore even harder to resolve.”
In The Marriage-Go-Round, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin wrote that starting in the late 19th century, traditional sources of identity such as class, religion, and community slowly began to be replaced with an emphasis on personal growth and happiness. By the second half of the 20th century, American families had gone through changes that, Cherlin said, were “unlike anything that previous generations of Americans have ever seen.”
Deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy to achieve that happiness. While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualizing the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth as it is commonly done today is almost certainly new.
Of course, not all individuals base their ideas of family on these more individualized principles. “Most immigrant families, especially those in the first generation, still value interdependence and filial duty,” Mintz noted. “However, in recent decades the majority of American families have experienced weakening [extended] kin ties and high rates of mobility and dispersion. I would argue that these factors have made the opportunities for familial alienation greater than in the past.”