Catherine Saint Louis in The New York Times:
It’s the classic image of the holidays: Parents, siblings and their children gather around the family table to feast and catch up on one another’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 in Australia 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.