Awareness has been brought in the past few years to family estrangement – which is the distancing and loss of affection that takes place over years or even decades within a family
Family estrangement is a relatively young field of research, and the truth about it is that behind the myths and stigma that comes with it, it’s more common than we think. In some cases it’s actually much healthier than the alternative. In the UK there is a non-profit organization – called Stand Alone – that supports people that are estranged from their families. The organization was founded by Becca Bland, who herself is estranged from her parents for a few years now. She says: “I think Meghan Markle and the royal family have definitely made family estrangement news.”
A study made by Stand Alone in the UK found that estrangement affects at least one in five British families, while in the US, a study made on more than 2,000 mother-child pairs found that 10% of them were estranged from at least one of their adult children. While another found more than 40% participants had experienced family estrangement at some point in their lives.
Generally, even though estrangement can be found around the globe, in some societies is more common than in others. For example, in some countries it depends on how supportive the welfare system is, in case it is, people might need their families less, thus giving them more choice over whether to maintain ties or not.
In Europe, older parents and adult children tend to interact more and live closer to each other in countries further south where public assistance is more limited. While in the US, there are racial differences in the experiences of adult children, which can also be influenced by culture and class. “Minority families tend to co-reside more; they tend to be more reliant on exchanges”, according to Megan Gilligan, a gerontologist at Iowa State University.
However, in countries like Uganda, family estrangement is becoming more prevalent and 9% of Ugandans aged 50 and over live alone. Stephen Wandera, demographer at Makere University in Kampala says that families are getting smaller as urbanization increases so estrangement is likely to rise. But this does not mean that governments should limit financial support to older people to encourage stronger families. As proof are countries like Norway, where intergenerational relationships are more amicable because they are chosen and less financially pressured.
Why does family estrangement happens?
There are many reasons for which family estrangement happens, among the most common are divorce – which contributes to the loss of family relationships – especially in the case of fathers. There is also the abandonment of relatives with marginalized identities, or a mismatch in values. Gillian points out in the case of mothers estranged from their adult children: “if the mother really valued the religious beliefs and practices and the child had violated them, the mother… really viewed it as offensive”. So the most cases of estrangement happened when mothers felt their personal values were not being respected.
Other cases would be emotional abuse like persistent attempts at control through humiliation, criticism, or other types of damaging behavior, which more often than not are not recognized as bad behaviors by parents, instead they blame other causes like divorce or mismatched expectations, while parental favoritism is also a significant factor.
The answer is to work together and recognize damaging behavior and look for forgiveness, but willingness to do so has to come both ways. However, in some cases, when one or both parties cannot “forgive and forget”, even clinical literature would say that estrangement is the best choice when dealing with damaging relationships.