A Shift in American Family Values Is Fueling Estrangement
Joshua Coleman January 10, 2021 The Atlantic
As a psychologist specializing in family estrangement, my days are spent sitting with parents who are struggling with profound feelings of grief and uncertainty. “If I get sick during the pandemic, will my son break his four years of silence and contact me? Or will I just die alone?” “How am I supposed to live with this kind of pain if I never see my daughter again?” “My grandchildren and I were so close and this estrangement has nothing to do with them. Do they think I abandoned them?”
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 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 dishonest for 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 connected 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.”
In The Marriage-Go-Round, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin wrote that starting in the late 19th century, traditional sources of identity such as class, religion, and community slowly began to be replaced with an emphasis on personal growth and happiness. By the second half of the
20th century, American families had gone through changes that, Cherlin said, were “unlike anything that previous generations of Americans have ever seen.”
Deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy to achieve that happiness. While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualizing the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth as it is commonly done today is almost certainly new.
Of course, not all individuals base their ideas of family on these more individualized principles. “Most immigrant families, especially those in the first generation, still value interdependence and filial duty,” Mintz noted. “However, in recent decades the majority of American families have experienced weakening [extended] kin ties and high rates of mobility and dispersion. I would argue that these factors have made the opportunities for familial alienation greater than in the past.”
Estrangement seems to affect a small but significant portion of families in the United States, and it is happening today against a backdrop of record-high parental investment. During the past 50 years, people across the classes have been working harder than ever to be good parents. They have given up hobbies, sleep, and time with their friends in the hope of delivering their offspring into successful adulthood.
On the positive side, this increased investment of time and affection has meant that parents and adult children are in more consistent and positive contact than in prior generations. Due to the likelihood of divorce, many parents in the past half century have had reason to believe that the relationship with their child might be the one connection they can count on—the one most likely to be there in the future. Yet, in the same way that unrealistically high expectations of fulfillment from marriage sometimes increase the risk of divorce, unrealistically high expectations of families as providers of happiness and meaning might increase the risk of estrangement.
Studies on parental estrangement have grown rapidly in the past decade,. Most estrangements between a parent and an adult child are initiated by the child, according to a 2015 survey of more than 800 people. A survey of mothers from 65 to 75 years old with at least two living adult children found that about 11 percent were estranged from a child and 62 percent reported contact less than once a month with at least one child.
In these and other studies, common reasons given by the estranged adult children were emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood by the parent, “toxic” behaviors such as disrespect or hurtfulness, feeling unsupported, and clashes in values. Parents are more likely to blame the estrangement on their divorce, their child’s spouse, or what they perceive as their child’s “entitlement.”
But in other cases, estrangement is born from love. One of the downsides of the careful, conscientious, anxious parenting that has become common in the United States is that our children sometimes get too much of us—not only our time and dedication, but our worry, our concern. Sometimes the steady current of our movement toward children creates a wave so powerful that it threatens them. It leaves them unable who they are and what they want for themselves until they’re safely beyond the parent’s reach. Sometimes they need to leave the parent to find themselves.
And sometimes children feel too much responsibility for their parents’ happiness. I often hear estranged adult children request better boundaries from their parents as a condition of reconciliation. As Andrew Solomon wrote in Far From the Tree, “There is no contradiction between loving someone and feeling burdened by that person. Indeed, love tends to magnify the burden.”
Many fathers and mothers tell me they feel betrayed by their children’s lack of availability or responsivity, especially those who provided their children with a life they see as enviable compared with their own childhoods. As the University of Virginia sociologist Joseph E. Davis told me, parents expect a “reciprocal bond of kinship” in which their years of parenting will be repaid with later closeness..
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