COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Bells, bows and gifts: For some people, these images will be sharp reminders of distance between them and important family members.
A Cornell University study shows that 27% of Americans 18 and older report cutting off contact with a family member, although not necessarily with a parent.
“Estrangement is a process in which a family member creates greater distance between them and other family members. So some estrangements are like a total cutoff, where there’s no contact between the family members, but others are just a distancing and reduction in contact,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a psychology professor at Ohio State University and a board member of the Council on Contemporary Families.
Schoppe-Sullivan was the lead author on this study of 1,000 mothers examining reasons why the rifts happened.
NBC4’s Cynthia Rosi and Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan discussed navigating the holidays and family estrangement — and whether a person who wants to resume contact should reach out.
Rosi: What is the percentage of people right now in our modern world who declare themselves as being estranged?
Schoppe-Sullivan: It’s been hard to develop those kinds of estimates until relatively recently. This is not my research, but it’s research out of Cornell University. … This was the first large-scale national survey of estrangement, and the figure quoted is that 27% of Americans aged 18 and older reported had cut off contact with a family member. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean a parent. It could be a sibling or it could be an extended family member.
Rosi: What are the holidays going to mean for these people?
Schoppe-Sullivan: For parents who are estranged from their children — and sometimes that also means they are estranged from their grandchildren — the holidays are very very difficult, very challenging. Because it brings up a lot of feelings of sadness, anger, grief, and also shame.
You know, talking about estrangement can be difficult for folks. Folks don’t want to say, I haven’t spoken to my daughter, or my son, or I haven’t seen my grandchildren because we’re not talking.
And so advice for parents who are estranged from their adult children is to say that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you haven’t seen your children or grandchildren. You can try to change the subject. You don’t have to go into depth on the situation if you don’t want to. Just because people are casually around the holidays asking about get-together with families and things like that.
Rosi: What happens to people who do want to talk about their grief and loss? Perhaps it’s a new estrangement.
Schoppe-Sullivan: I think a friend could support someone going through estrangement by listening, and taking a nonjudgmental stance, which can be very difficult. Just trying to empathize with the person, just listening and … reflecting back to the friend about what they are going through. Without judging — I think that’s important — and without providing advice like, “You need to call your daughter up right away and apologize.” … Just try to listen without judging, and without … the stance that you ought to be solving a problem, just listening to them.
Rosi: What if you’re in the position of being somebody who wants contact during the holidays and you have an estranged relationship?
Schoppe-Sullivan: If you’ve done some work, perhaps been in therapy yourself and you feel like you’ve made some progress on whatever your own contributions might be to the estrangement, I think you could potentially reach out.
One of my collaborators works with parents of estranged adult children, and there’s a whole process that he guides them through in order to get to those kinds of points. But if you do choose to reach out, I think you have to accept the fact that they may not respond. And that’s ok. And you might have to wait again, and maybe wait until next year and reach out again — you don’t have the expectation that you’re going to get a positive response.
And the other thing I’ve been thinking about a lot too, is that for estrangements where it’s not a total cut off, times that folks are more likely to see each other, or run into each other at a family party or something like that, would be around the holidays. I would just caution folks to really be careful and really moderate their expectations.
It could certainly, with all the images of happy families out there, think that — oh well, if I reach out, if we see each other maybe everything will be great and bygones will be bygones, and everything in the past will be forgotten. But I think that’s highly unlikely to happen. What’s more likely to happen is that you know, you get into an argument about issues that still haven’t been resolved. So I would say just proceed with caution.
I don’t think it’s a bad idea to reach out if you feel you’re in a place where you can do that. But I wouldn’t expect … I would really, really try to moderate ones expectations for where that might go. And if you don’t get a response but you’re continuing to work on yourself and so forth, maybe try again after another period of time has passed.
Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan emphasizes that professional help is key to navigating estrangement, that it’s very difficult to do without an independent party such as a counsellor or pastor.
Useful articles from her collaborator, Dr. Joshua Coleman are:
- Why rifts happen and how families can heal
- Estrangement — is it time to reach out and begin healing?
- When should estranged parents stop reaching out?
- Family estrangement: problem hiding in plain sight
- Family estrangement over the holidays
- How to Re-Establish Contact with an Estranged Family Member