Do you have family members you choose not to see or speak with? If so, you probably feel very sad about that, especially at a time of year when most families gather together. But if you're also feeling guilty over it, it's time to stop. Recent research has shed new light on the phenomenon of family estrangement. Here are some of the most surprising findings:

1. It's more common than you think.

In a British survey from 2014, 19 percent of respondents reported that either they themselves or one of their relatives had no contact with the family. That fits with my own experience. I have several friends who either don't talk to at least one of their family members or didn't for many years. And I myself have gone through lengthy periods when I was not on speaking terms with one relation or another. I'd bet you also know several people who are or have been estranged from their families. It's not fun, but it happens a lot.

2. You probably have a good reason.

Most of the estranged people I know stay away from their families or individual family members to save themselves from dysfunctional situations or behavior. In one Australian study, adults who reported being estranged from their parents usually cited (physical or emotional) abuse, being betrayed or sabotaged by a parent, or very poor parenting in which they were endlessly criticized or shamed by their parents. If you're estranged from your family, it probably isn't something you did lightly.

3. Even a seemingly stupid reason may really be a good one.

We've all heard about family members who stop speaking to each other over strikingly minor matters. In my own family, my father's two sisters wound up in a lifelong feud over a painting one of them had painted. And in a 2015 study, a woman told researchers she hadn't spoken to her son or daughter-in-law for seven years because of a dessert they brought to a family gathering.

But these things are never as simple as they appear. In my aunts' case, there were resentments and disagreements going back to childhood, and the fact that as adults, the two joined opposing political camps didn't help. The painting was simply the final item in a dispute that had been going on for years.

The case of the wrong dessert was similar. That woman said her daughter-in-law regularly disrespected her and also prevented her from seeing her grandchildren. She'd been asked to bring a specific dessert but instead made something else--something she knew her mother-in-law was also making. That final bit of rudeness was too much to bear.

4. You probably gave them plenty of chances to make things better.

Estrangement doesn't usually happen as a result of one big argument. It takes years for someone to break contact with a family member or family members. It happens gradually, with the family member reducing contact over time before cutting it off altogether. 

During that lengthy process, you likely gave your relations lots of opportunities to start a dialogue. You might even have talked to them about the behavior that was driving you away and asked them to change it. 

If you didn't do that, and you think there's a chance that things could change, it might be worth reaching out one time and making a final attempt to fix your relationship. Or maybe not--only you can know for sure. Either way, if you're estranged from some or all of your family, there's one thing to remember: You're not alone.

Published on: Dec 27, 2017
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