Family estrangement

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Family estrangement (or, simply, estrangement) is the loss of a previously existing relationship between family members, through physical and/or emotional distancing, often to the extent that there is little or no communication between the individuals involved for a prolonged period. It may result either from direct interactions between those affected - including traumatic experiences of domestic violence, abuse, neglect, parental misbehavior such as repetitive explosive outbursts or intense marital conflict and disagreements, attachment disorders, differing values and beliefs, disappointment, major life events or change, or poor communication - or from the involvement or interference of a third party.[1][2][3] The estrangement is often unwanted, or considered unsatisfactory, by at least one party involved.[1]

For example, as a child transitions into adulthood, the adult child may cease contact with his or her parents and possibly other family members. In another scenario, an intolerant parent might reject an adult child because of the child's life choices. In both cases, the family estrangement may create an intergenerational rift that can persist for years and replicate itself in subsequent generations.[citation needed]


Family estrangements are broken relationships between parents, grandparents, siblings and children. Although a family estrangement can begin at any stage of life, it often begins during late adolescence or early adulthood. Characteristics of estrangement may include a lack of empathy in one or more of the parties involved. This can result in heightened levels of stress in all parties, although in the case of an abusive relationship the victim may feel a sense of relief once the source of stress has been removed.

A significant proportion of estrangements involve a third party,[1][page needed] such as a member of the extended family or the adult child's spouse. In some cases, the third party provides emotional support to the individual initiating the estrangement, providing the estranger with an alternate social support system and thus enabling the deepening of the estrangement. In other instances, the third party - either deliberately or not consciously - is actually the sole or primary cause of two family members becoming estranged. Parental alienation is a theory of third-party estrangement whereby, typically, one parent involved in a family separation psychologically manipulates a child into rejecting the other parent and possibly other family members.[citation needed]

The rejected individual, or estrangee, may or may not try a number of strategies to repair the rift. In some cases, taking responsibility and making amends for harsh words or difficult circumstances may improve the relationship. However, if the estrangement is the result of a behavioural pattern (such as a personality disorder) rather than a sequence of unfortunate life events, it is doubtful that the relationship will survive in any meaningful form.

In some cases, the initiator of the estrangement stipulates boundaries in order to maintain limited contact (and therefore limit emotional damage) with the person they see as a potential abuser. In other cases, the initiator is unable or unwilling to consider any type of reconciliation.

Health implications[edit]

Although the rejected party's psychological and physical health may decline, the estrangement initiator's may improve due to the cessation of abuse and conflict.[4][5] The social rejection in family estrangement is the equivalent of ostracism which undermines four fundamental human needs: the need to belong, the need for control in social situations, the need to maintain high levels of self-esteem, and the need to have a sense of meaningful existence.[6] The rejected parties suffer adverse psychological consequences such as loneliness, low self-esteem, aggression, and depression.[7]

Family estrangement activates the grief response.[citation needed] However, the rejected family may not achieve the final grief stage of acceptance, given that the social death of the relationship is potentially reversible. The prolonged suffering of the rejected party, together with a perceived or real stigma of having been rejected by a family member, results in isolation and behavioral changes in the rejected party.[8][9]

Social workers who work with the elderly population are at the forefront of a new fallout from the family estrangement. Non-supportive or absent family members during someone's end-of-life acutely increase the pain and stress of the final days.[2] Additional stress in financial, medical and welfare sectors requires a re-evaluation of the social policy regarding family expectations versus governmental support systems.


The separation of young adults from their families of origin in order to create families of their own is part of normal human development. According to Bowen theory, this separation can be achieved in a healthy and gradual manner that preserves the intergenerational relationships of the family of origin, providing both the new family and family of origin with a sense of continuity and support. Alternately, a schism can differentiate these life stages. Familial estrangement falls into the second category.

The emphasis on the individual over a collective family unit is regarded as contributing to estrangement, as well as a rationale for estrangement.[10] In individualistic cultures, the estranger typically justifies the estrangement in relation to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Estrangers who have suffered abuse often receive emotional support/validation as it can be easier for them to articulate and get others to understand their experience. For some victims of psychological or emotional abuse the damage has been done over a long period of time by a characteristic pattern of subtle deniable abuse. For these people, validation may never appear in any meaningful form unless it is professional help. The estranged may also become less socially accepted because of lowered self-regulation, a reaction to the social rejection.[11]

Contributing causes[edit]

Although working through stressful issues with communication, consideration and compassion can be a healthy coping mechanism, the effort can be demanding.

Value conflict[edit]

A family member's sexual orientation, choice of spouse, gender identity, disability, religion or lack thereof may cause the estranged party to feel judged, unloved, or unaccepted causing them to initiate the estrangement or may cause the parents to disown their child[3]. Life choices regarding education, profession, and geography are other potentially emotionally charged topics that reflect social values. Working through feelings to reach an understanding that accommodates the individual within the family unit challenges each individual's sense of identity as part of a society. When one or more family members rank their expectations and emotions as more important than those of another family member, then the conversation becomes a zero-sum game. This is known as a social trap in social psychology, a situation where the long-term consequences of decisions result in a cumulative loss to all parties. In these instances, estrangement is more likely than accommodation.[citation needed]


Divorce was cited as a reason for estrangement by 12.3% of parents and 2.3% of children.[3]

Child abuse[edit]

Child abuse in the form of emotional, psychological, sexual, or physical abuse was cited by 13.9% of children who initiated estrangement with one or both parents as a reason for estrangement. Furthermore, 2.9% of estranged parents acknowledged their failure to prevent the abuse.[3]

Substance abuse[edit]

Substance and alcohol abuse, on the part of either the estranger or the estranged, are common causes of family tension and the resulting separation. The most highly predictive domain of social estrangement for both alcohol and drug dependency is homelessness.[12]

Mental illness[edit]

Mental illness on the part of either the estranger or the estranged is also a common cause of family tension and estrangement.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is correlated with family estrangement. Both the PTSD sufferer's symptoms and the family members' failure to be sufficiently supportive can contribute to the estrangement. Studies on soldiers with PTSD have concluded that families with a PTSD patient require more support to facilitate healing and prevent estrangement.[13]

Personality disorders[edit]

Personality disorders, particularly the cluster B personality disorders (antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder), cause significant interpersonal conflicts. Sufferers typically have volatile relationships and may be both the estranger and the estranged multiple times throughout their lives.[citation needed]

Betrayal of trust[edit]

From disputes over inheritances to perceived insults in public settings, a sense of betrayal can weaken the trust bonds of a family. According to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, trust is the foundation of any relationship.[citation needed]


There are underlying psychological factors that explain family estrangement beyond the surface rationale of the scenario.

Bowen theory[edit]

In Bowen family systems theory, emotional cutoff and avoidance are unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety and stress. These coping mechanisms represent emotional and intellectual systems that are fused rather than differentiated, so that emotions overwhelm objective thought process and govern behavior.[14] Poor differentiation is associated with continued relationship problems in life. Poor differentiation is also contagious in that it may induce stress in others. High differentiation is associated with emotional interdependence and multi-generational cooperation. Triangulation is when a third party enters the dynamic. A third party, however, may increase tension and trigger a rebellion.

Victim - persecutor - rescuer[edit]

The Karpman drama triangle is precipitated by a familial estrangement that involves a third party. A family member plays the victim role, casting the family as the persecutor. The new romantic interest, close friend or another family, for psychological motivations of their own, come to the victim's rescue and in so doing validates the dynamic for the victim.[citation needed]

Substitute families[edit]

Both the estranger and the estranged may use social and work relationships to create substitute families.[15] Support groups and other highly emotional organizations also provide a conduit for emotional energy from unresolved issues with parents, siblings and other family members.[16] Becoming passionate about a cause or hobby is another coping mechanism, termed sublimation in psychiatry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Agllias, Kylie (2017). Family estrangement : a matter of perspective. London: Routledge. ISBN 9781472458612. OCLC 937999129.
  2. ^ a b Agllias, Kylie. (Sep 2013). Family Estrangement. Encyclopedia of Social Work. Subject: Couples and Families, Aging and Older Adults, Children and Adolescents. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.919
  3. ^ a b c d Carr, Holman, Abetz, Kellas, Vagnoni. (2015). Giving Voice to the Silence of Family Estrangement: Comparing Reasons of Estranged Parents and Adult Children in a Nonmatched Sample doi:10.1080/15267431.2015.1013106
  4. ^ Agllias, K. (2011a). Every family: Intergenerational estrangement between older parents and their adult-children. (Doctoral dissertation, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Newcastle, Callaghan).
  5. ^ McKnight, A. S. (2003). The impact of cutoff in families raising adolescents. In P. Titelman (Ed.), Emotional cutoff: Bowen family systems theory perspectives (pp. 273–284). New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.
  6. ^ Williams, Kipling D. (2002). Ostracism: the power of silence. New York: Guilford. ISBN 1-57230-831-1
  7. ^ McDougall, P., Hymel, S., Vaillancourt, T., & Mercer, L. (2001). The consequences of childhood rejection. In M. R. Leary (Ed.), Interpersonal rejection. (pp. 213-247). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  8. ^ Boss, P. (2006). Loss, trauma and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  9. ^ Walter, C.A. & McCoyd, J.L.M. (2009). Grief and loss across the lifespan: A biopsyosocial perspective. New York, NY: Springer.
  10. ^ Coleman, Joshua. (25 Aug 2010). How parents can start to reconcile with estranged kids. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
  11. ^ Richman, Laura Smart. Leary, Mark R. (2009) Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model. Psychology Review. 116(2). DOI: 10.1037/a0015250
  12. ^ Sanna J. Thompson, Lynn Rew, Amanda Barczyk, Pepper McCoy, and Ada Mi-Sedhi. (October 2009) Social Estrangement: Factors Associated with Alcohol or Drug Dependency among Homeless, Street-Involved Young Adults. Journal of Drug Issues 39: 905-929, doi:10.1177/002204260903900407
  13. ^ Ray, Susan L, Vanstone, Meredith. "The impact of PTSD on veterans' family relationships: An interpretive phenomenological inquiry. 2009 Jun;46(6):838-47. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2009.01.002.
  14. ^ Skowron, Elizabeth A.; Dendy, Anna K. (2004). "Differentiation of Self and Attachment in Adulthood: Relational Correlates of Effortful Control". Contemporary Family Therapy. 26: 3.
  15. ^ The Bowen Center Archived 2017-02-28 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ McKnight, A. S. (2003). The impact of cutoff in families raising adolescents. In P. Titelman (Ed.), Emotional cutoff: Bowen family systems theory perspectives. New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

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