Family Rifts and Estrangement Threaten Mental and Physical Health

For most people, estrangements and family rifts are a source of chronic stress that threatens “mental, social and physical well-being.”

Show me a family that has not been fractured — temporarily or permanently — by a fury-filled rift between two or more members and I might believe in miracles. Just about everyone I know seems to have experienced such a distressing event, often with painful psychological and sometimes physical effects that carried over to relatives who had nothing to do with the precipitating dispute.

Rifts can begin with financial, religious, political, even existential conflicts. Common precipitants include contested wills, disputes over parental care, sibling rivalry and charges of favoritism.

Sometimes the incident may have been imagined. A woman who had been molested as a child falsely accused her mother’s husband of molesting her son and severed all contact between her father-in-law and her children.

As with the molested daughter, rifts can stem from a previous trauma that distorts a person’s perceptions of reality. Or a relationship-severing dispute may reflect years of accumulated resentments that were never expressed or addressed.

In a new book based on the first-ever national survey on estrangement and in-depth interviews with 100 men and women who achieved a reconciliation, Karl A. Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor at Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College, discovered that family rifts were surprisingly pervasive and often result in long-lasting emotional and physical distress.

His random survey of 1,340 individuals suggested that “about 25 percent of the population is living with an active estrangement,” he said in an interview. “For some of these approximately 67 million people, it doesn’t make much difference, but most people experience the rupture as aversive.”

As he wrote in “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” published in September, “Even in our rapidly changing society, family relationships matter.” For most people, estrangements are a source of chronic stress that threatens “mental, social and physical well-being,” he concluded.

I know because I’ve been there. A beloved aunt, who became my surrogate mother after my biological mother died while I was in high school, abruptly cut me out of her life when, instead of wedding a fellow Jew, I married a Christian. I made three serious attempts at a reconciliation, each of which she initially accepted, then sabotaged, at which point my husband said, “Never again, she’s hurt you once too often.”

I kept saying “I can’t believe this is happening in my family,” a refrain Dr. Pillemer frequently heard from those he interviewed. And as he also found, there was often “collateral damage” when other family members are drawn into a dispute they had nothing to do with. I lost what had been a warm and loving relationship with my aunt’s daughter, my first cousin. It was never restored.

Among those Dr. Pillemer interviewed were children who never knew their grandparents or who missed out on all manner of family events — holiday celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, vacation trips, even funerals — because of a rift between two adult relatives.

Unresolved rifts can precipitate chronic stress in one or both participants that undermines their emotional and physical health. The resulting anxiety or depression can worsen heart disease and diabetes, cause reproductive problems, undermine immunity and even shorten the person’s life, studies have suggested.

On the other hand, rifts can sometimes be health-saving for the person who precipitates them. For example, people may cut a relative out of their lives who is physically or emotionally abusive or engages in criminal activities or other antisocial behaviors they find threatening or abhorrent.

A cousin with whom I had enjoyed many visits growing up disappeared from my life forever when he married and his wife severed all contact with his family because the father-in-law was a crook.

“Estrangements can be adaptive,” Kathleen Smith, a family therapist in Washington, D.C., and author of “Everything Isn’t Terrible,” told me. “Estrangement can be a way to manage unsustainable tension and anxiety.”

But, Dr. Smith added, people should realize that family rifts often have a cost, especially in what Dr. Pillemer calls “loss of social capital”: the people you can rely on for spiritual, physical or even financial support in times of hardship or stress. Who will help care for children or manage the family business when parents are seriously ill or injured?

Reconciliation is often not easy, but the folks Dr. Pillemer interviewed who achieved it said it was well worth the effort. I can attest to that. This summer I helped resolve a fury-filled rift between two relatives — a father and son — who I knew really loved and needed one another but held radically different views of how to live. Though long simmering beneath the surface, the final rift was fueled by unfiltered emails filled with heartbreaking, angry accusations from the son and statements like “You ruined my life, I can’t live with you in it,” prompting the father to email a detailed rebuttal denying any wrongdoing.

Although untrained in psychology, I understand, love and am respected by both father and son yet had enough detachment to remain rational. Happily, my intervention resulted in a heartwarming rapprochement along with tools to help maintain it that happen to match several of Dr. Pillemer’s suggestions. Most important, I told both that for a reconciliation to work, rehashing of past hurts and rebuttals had to cease and the relationship restored on a new footing that goes forward, not backward. Dr. Pillemer calls it “living life forward.”

As he wrote, “People wish to impose their vision of the relationship’s past on others. They insist that the other person must understand what really went on and admit his or her critical failings.” But as two long estranged and now reconciled sisters he wrote about discovered, “Going over the past was just not going to work for us; we learned how to move ahead together.”

As Dr. Pillemer reported, “Cutting someone off may have brought immediate relief from conflict and negativity, but most people longed for a return to the relationship and felt that the rift stood in the way of achieving a life well-lived.” Statements like “I’m done,” “It’s over” don’t always mean done forever. Both Dr. Pillemer and Dr. Smith suggest reaching out periodically to maintain contact and attempt a reconciliation. People and circumstances change, and one day it may become possible to build a bridge across the rift.

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