At our holiday table this winter, no one stalked from the table in a huff or went home crying. My husband and I, my 86-year-old father, our younger daughter, home from grad school, and another couple shared a lovely and low-key dinner. And we have family estrangement to thank for that.
Ten years ago, after decades of bitter fights and lukewarm reconciliations, I finally got the courage to cut off my mother completely. Our relationship brought me nothing but nuclear-level angst. After even the smallest interaction — an email or text message — I’d have panic attacks that lasted weeks. I’d stop sleeping, eat too much, fall through a wormhole into utter self-loathing.
Deciding to estrange from my mother wasn’t an easy decision. For me, as for most people, it took an exchange so toxic, so far outside the boundaries of what’s acceptable, that something snapped inside me. My older daughter had been very sick with anorexia and my mother emailed me to say her illness was my fault and I should be grateful she was telling me this because it showed she loved me. But I was done with her.
Well-meaning family members called to warn that someday I’d regret cutting the tie. “You only get one mother,” they said. “What if she dies and you’re still estranged? How will you feel?” My mother died three years after our official estrangement, and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier. Much, much earlier.
The cultural narrative around estrangement is that it’s a problem that needs to be solved. We see and feel the supremacy of the genetically connected family in a thousand ways throughout childhood. By the time we’re adults it literally goes without saying. And so there are websites and books and articles meant to help families reconcile, with advice on everything from how to phrase an apology to how to take legal action. For some families, that helps.
But for the rest of us, that pressure to get back together makes everything worse. For us, estrangement isn’t a problem; it’s a solution to a problem, a response to an otherwise unsolvable dilemma. It’s a last resort when you’ve tried everything else over and over, when you no longer trust the relationship. When — as Ann Landers once wrote — you’re better off without the other person in your life.
I’ve interviewed more than 50 people who have estranged themselves from family members, and I have yet to meet a single one who regrets it. They regret whatever situation made it necessary. They regret not having a parent/sibling/family member they could come to terms with. They regret that their problems were severe enough to make estrangement look good. But they don’t regret doing it.
More than three-quarters of the participants in one study felt estrangement had made a positive difference in their lives. One woman I talked to who initiated an estrangement said her main feeling was relief, even liberation. Another told me it was as though she’d lived under a cloak of silence that had suddenly been lifted. A third said, “There really are cases where estrangement is the better course. It’s horrific, it’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s better than the alternative.”
It’s also a lot more common than you might think. When researcher Kristina Scharp of the University of Washington first floated the idea of doing her dissertation on family estrangement, her PhD committee tried to talk her out of it because they thought she’d never find anybody. But when she put out her research call she was deluged with people who’d been through family estrangements and wanted to talk about their experience.
The most recent research suggests that up to 10 percent of mothers are estranged from at least one adult child, and that about 40 percent of people experience family estrangement at some point. Most people, though, fall somewhere less definitive on the estrangement continuum, a term coined by Scharp, one of the few researchers who studies the phenomenon. “Estranged sounds binary, like I’m either pregnant or I’m not pregnant,” she explains. “But I find that people are just more or less estranged.”
Some families talk by phone but never visit. Some email but never talk. Some see each other once or twice a year but keep their relationships superficial. Many sustain long periods of silence punctuated by brief reconciliations.
What they don’t typically do is talk to other people about being estranged from their families, for all sorts of reasons. Victoria, 44, one of the people I interviewed and who asked that her last name not be use to protect her privacy, says she used to tell people she and her husband spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with “family and friends,” even though she was estranged from her family. She worried that people would judge her for not having family to visit on those two days a year that you’re pretty much required to spend with blood relations.
And many people would. In my experience, estrangement makes people deeply uncomfortable. They wonder what’s wrong with you when you can’t get along with your family. They worry that if you can estrange yourself, maybe their parents/children/siblings could do that to them. Estrangement seems to threaten the primal order of things and opens the door to a lot of questions most of us would rather not think about.
Which explains, in part, why there’s so much pressure to reconcile, especially during the holidays, when we’re all trying to live up to the Hallmark version of reality. But that pressure usually does more harm than good, guilting people into unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships just because they share DNA.
“Imagine for a moment that these people have good reasons” to be estranged, says Scharp. “Telling them to get back together is not helping them.”
Estrangement, on the other hand, just might be saving their lives.
Harriet Brown is a professor of magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and the author of “Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement.”