Sunday, January 10, 2021
From the Atlantic:
Since I wrote my book When Parents Hurt, my practice has filled with mothers and fathers who want help healing the distance with their adult children and learning how to cope with the pain of losing them. I also treat adult children who are estranged from their parents. Some of those adult children want no contact because their parents behaved in ways that were clearly abusive or rejecting. To make matters worse for their children and themselves, some parents are unable to repair or empathize with the damage they caused or continue to inflict. However, my recent research—and my clinical work over the past four decades—has shown me that you can be a conscientious parent and your kid may still want nothing to do with you when they’re older.
However they arrive at estrangement, parents and adult children seem to be looking at the past and present through very different eyes. Estranged parents often tell me that their adult child is rewriting the history of their childhood, accusing them of things they didn’t do, and/or failing to acknowledge the ways in which the parent demonstrated their love and commitment. Adult children frequently say the parent is gaslighting them by not acknowledging the harm they caused or are still causing, failing to respect their boundaries, and/or being unwilling to accept the adult child’s requirements for a healthy relationship.
Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” the historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”
While estrangement can occur for many reasons, divorce appears to heighten the risk for both mothers and fathers—especially fathers. Fathers are also at greater risk of being estranged from their kids if they were never married to the mother, and might have more distant relationships with their children if they remarry later in life. In my survey of more than 1,600 estranged parents summarized in my forthcoming book, Rules of Estrangement, more than 70 percent of respondents were divorced from the estranged child’s other biological parent.
Why would divorce increase the risk? In my clinical work I have seen how divorce can create a radical realignment of long-held bonds of loyalty, gratitude, and obligation in a family. It can tempt one parent to poison the child against the other. It can cause children to reexamine their lives prior to divorce and shift their perspective so they now support one parent and oppose the other. It can bring in new people—stepparents or stepsiblings—to compete with the child for emotional or material resources. Divorce—as well as the separation of parents who never married—can alter the gravitational trajectories of a family so that, over time, members spin further and further out of one another’s reach. And when they do, they might not feel compelled to return.
Read more here.