Coming by estrangement in your family honestly doesn’t make it feel better. Knowing you’re not alone in the struggle doesn’t resolve the pain of broken relationships. However, the more you know about estrangement, the more you can come to terms with it. Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them isn’t a panacea for all that ails families broken by estrangement, but it’s a helpful salve that can take away some of the pain and perhaps start the healing process.
All in the Family
Growing up, I knew my dad wouldn’t speak with his brother. It started when I was about ten and lasted until I was nearly forty. It could have been a bit shorter or longer, but that’s my recollection of it, as one doesn’t put such things on a calendar. The disagreement that led to the situation was about money, and the recollection was ultimately meeting his brother’s wife at the death of his uncle.
Ironically, his uncle and his father had some disagreement that had estranged them. I never knew the story and haven’t asked. I just know that, at the very best, their relationship was strained. It seems that somehow my father had inherited a sense of estrangement from his father.
Today, I’ve lost track which of his siblings he is and isn’t talking to. I know that the state of the relationships is always in flux, with times when the mere appearance of one of his siblings will incense him. I stood in the middle of that at my brother’s wedding.
My mother has had an on-and-off again relationship with each of her three siblings. Sometimes they’re doing okay, and sometimes they won’t talk. Her relationship with her parents was similarly strained. When her father died, she didn’t come back for the funeral. I know that she has always felt slighted by them in some way or another.
In my own world, I barely speak to my mother, and my father has recently made it clear he wants no contact with me. My sister and half-brothers aren’t close. My son is also avoiding contact with me, and while I hope that it gets better on all fronts, I’m not sure how or when that will happen. I picked up Fault Lines as a part of a broader quest to understand how people get stuck in patterns of thinking which they can’t break. It’s about estrangements, but it’s also in general how people can become locked together in a battle of alternative facts. (Think Again is another example of trying to understand this dynamic.) I feel far from finding an answer, but I will continue the quest.
Many of us developed our sense for what family life should be directly or indirectly through the work of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s portrayal of American life was idealized and showed heartwarming moments. Over five decades his images reinforced an idyllic family life and created the unspoken impression that life in the family should be perfect.
Of course, Rockwell wasn’t trying to skew the perceptions of an entire generation, but that was undoubtedly the effect. Sometimes the most positive intentions lead to poor outcomes. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for some examples.) Rockwell wasn’t alone in having a powerful impact with unintended consequences. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Finding Flow, Dr. Spock, responsible for the wildly successful Baby and Child Care, shared regrets in his later life about the advice he gave, which essentially coddled children. Others have said that the sense that everything must be perfect made it so that children never encountered difficulty and as a result became children that the parents couldn’t stand to be around.
Perhaps by burying familial problems under the appearance that everything is fine, we’ve injured ourselves and our families. Perhaps it takes a more open approach that no family is perfect and that the pursuit of perfection in families isn’t accomplished through covering but is instead accomplished through hard conversations and deep concern. (I wonder because of my experiences with twelve-step groups, as I described in Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.)
There’s a need for hard conversations and self-reflection from every member of a family – whether they’re facing an estrangement or trying to avoid it. Admittedly, hard conversations are even harder after an estrangement has happened, but they’re always hard.
Crucial Conversations is a book that many point to as a practical guide for having difficult conversations. However, it’s focused on conversations that occur between power-balanced pairs. The relationship between parent and child is not a power-equal but is instead one-up/one-down. In that case, works like How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk may be more helpful.
One of the difficult spots in any hard conversation is acceptance of our emotions. We must believe that the way we respond to the conversations we’re having is the result of our perspectives and ultimately our choices about how we want to respond. (See How Emotions Are Made, Choice Theory, and Emotion and Adaptation for more.) Too many people believe that others make them angry. It’s more accurate to say that from their actions, behaviors, and words, we’ve chosen to become angry. It’s about establishing that we have an internal locus of control of our emotions. In other words, we’re responsible for them – not other people.
The Right to Control
As I considered the stories in Fault Lines and in my own experience, a pattern emerged for many but not all the estrangements. The pattern was our need to control. Parents felt like they could control their children – and the children demonstrated their independence instead of acquiescing to the parents’ demands. This, of course, angered the parents. Let me decompose this a bit.
First, everyone wants to control, and no one wants to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control.) Even those with a low need for independence (see Who Am I?) have some level of desire for their own autonomy. (Deci and Pink point to autonomy, mastery, and purpose in Why We Do What We Do and Drive, respectively.) At some level, we all know this. We ourselves have escaped our parents’ home and therefore their rules. We’ve all expressed our need for freedom and independence.
Second, the perception of control on the part of the parents leads to a sense of assurance based on the certainty of the situation. (See Think Again for more about the need for certainty.) This need for certainty feeds back and creates a greater perception of control than parents really have. Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption challenges the assumption that either genetics or the nurturing of the parents can guarantee an outcome. In short, Harris explains why the control we believe we have is an illusion.
Third, we tell parents that they’re responsible for their children. That’s not true. You cannot be responsible for something that you can’t control. (See The Road Less Traveled.) We’re expected to be responsive to our children’s needs and protect them. but the idea of responsibility implies control that we don’t have – or deserve. (See Kin-to-Kid Connection: Responsive or Responsible for more.)
Fourth, in Eastern/Buddhist thinking, anger is disappointment directed. (See Destructive Emotions for more.) Disappointment is a failure to meet an expectation – or, more clearly, stated a prediction of what will happen. Parents are obviously angry when their children don’t do what they expect they should do. It’s the natural response. The challenge is to assess whether the expectations that led to the disappointment are the problem – or not.
It was early on in my career that I encountered a friend who told me something akin to “my marriage works because of low expectations.” It was my first full-time job after graduating, and the comment was very confusing to me. I gradually came to learn that it was the expectations we had that led to disappointment, and appropriately setting expectations was key to avoiding frustration. That isn’t to say that we should necessarily lower our expectations but rather that we could ground our expectations in reality.
When we’re addressing estrangements, we need to learn to expect what the other person is capable of – and decide whether we can accept that or not. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the importance of acceptance.) There may be times that we need to cut someone out of our lives for a time to allow ourselves to heal – but fundamentally, if we believe that we can erect a boundary that keeps someone out forever, we’ve misunderstood Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend’s work, Boundaries. Dr. Townsend explained in his follow up book, Beyond Boundaries, that boundaries may be temporary, protective boundaries, or they can be permanent, defining boundaries. The key is that boundaries are about what you will and will not do – it’s not about what other people will or won’t do.
Temporary, protective boundaries make sense at times to allow you to heal from your hurts, but no matter who caused the hurts, you’re responsible for addressing those hurts – and removing the temporary boundary.
Dr. John Gottman was concerned with the behavior he called stonewalling. He called it one of the four horsemen of relational apocalypse. In fact, he believes it to be the most challenging, because from stonewalling, there is almost no recovery.
Gottman’s work has primarily been with couples. He is noted for his 91% accuracy rating at predicting divorce after only watching three minutes of a couple. They’d argue about one of their most long-standing and contentious topics, and through coding the behaviors, he’d predict divorce. It turns out that how you’re willing to treat someone else in a conflict is quite predictive of whether divorce is on the horizon or not. (See The Science of Trust for more.)
Intimacy Anorexia doesn’t ever use Gottman’s term “stonewalling,” but it explains the pain associated with someone who must keep themselves away from others to prevent them from being fully understood. (Under the idea that, if they’re understood, they won’t be liked or loved.) The problem with stonewalling is that it prevents any recovery. Time passes, but the relationship is stuck at the time when the wall is constructed and can’t move forward.
Love and Disagreement
One of the things that I believe is missing in estrangement is the ability to disagree with someone and love them at the same time. I mentioned this simple statement in my review of The Available Parent. It seems to be missing in estrangements. It’s like the disagreement becomes bigger than the love.
When Terri and I teach conflict resolution, we do so by explaining all conflicts are caused by either a difference in perspective (we see things differently), or a difference in values (we believe in different things). We also teach that if you want to get through a conflict, you must separate agreement with understanding. Agreement is a judgement. It’s an alignment of perspectives and values. Understanding is a fundamental gift that we can give one another. It’s part of how we became the dominant biomass on the planet. (See The Righteous Mind.)
Stonewalling robs us of the ability to understand, and it’s probably one of the reasons why it’s such a destructive and harmful coping skill when confronted with a disagreement that you don’t have the skills to handle positively.
Divorce as Estrangement
Before continuing to how to repair estrangements – when that is possible – it’s important to stop at another area of family life that is strangely like estrangement. Divorce is sometimes the right answer, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t send negative ripples through the family. (See Divorce for more.) The similarity to estrangement is that, often, divorce causes family to take sides, and after the divorce, there is often little or no contact with the divorced person and their extended family.
This same pattern plays out in disagreements in the family. Family members frequently – but not always – pick sides. The members of the disagreement rally support for their perspective and cause people to join them in their frustrations with the other party. Eventually, battle lines are drawn, and those willing to be swept up into the conflict have made their decisions.
When estrangement erupts in a family, it creates a fault line that encompasses not just those involved but also the family members around them. It also crystalizes the fault of the other party. The unfortunate fact is that rigidly believing in the fault of another makes us blind to other circumstances.
There’s a famous experiment where people were asked to focus on counting basketball players’ bounces and passes. Most people got the numbers right or at least close. However, they completely missed the gorilla that entered the frame, beat its chest, and moved on. (See The Invisible Gorilla for more details.) Incognito and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) both make the point that our perspectives, beliefs, and understanding are manufactured fiction rather than fact, and we’ll defend them vehemently.
One Way Forward
It’s tempting to take the olive branches that are offered by the other party and use them to justify your perspective on the disagreement that led to the estrangement. It’s tempting to try to set right the perspectives and values that created the conflict in the first place. However, the chances of redefining the past situation are slim according to Pillemer – and my own experiences. The truth about moving forward past estrangements is that you must move forward and leave the past behind.
This isn’t the first time that my father and I’ve spent years not talking. The first time was in my late teens and early twenties. I was graduating, and I asked my father about getting his tax returns so I could fill out the forms for federal student aid. He refused. I asked if he was willing to start paying back child-support, as my mother had committed to giving it to me for college expenses. He refused. The result was I couldn’t make the math work. Though accepted with honors to the college of my choice, I couldn’t make it work. Not only could I not receive any need-based support, I was summarily ineligible for most scholarships.
I was hurt. I knew it took my life in another direction. At the time, I thought I’d work and go to school, but it didn’t work out that way. While I’ve now received both my Bachelor of Science and my Master’s degree, the rejection stung, and as a result, I didn’t talk to him for years. Ultimately, I had to move forward and forget the past. I worked on what the future could be like.
I wasn’t going to get him to understand the difficulty he created for me. I decided I couldn’t try to make him understand. He had his own challenges and struggles. I’d have to move past the hurt to find a way forward.
The curse of family systems is that everyone in the system has their own role to play. To find healthy relationships, you must know what your role in the dynamics are. Sometimes you can prevent the unhealthy relationships that drive the system. Other times, you can dampen the oscillations. Sometimes you can’t influence them at all.
Even if you feel there is no fault, you must recognize your role in the system. For me, I realize that I should have been more transparent with my father. I knew he’d be unhappy, and that he might take it out on my sister-in-law and the girls, so I kept silent. Whether I made the right decision or not, it’s this structure that created the opportunity for him to be angry now – and to feel as if I was working subversively.
Sometimes, the energy that sets the system into a tailspin is a new member of the family joining. A new spouse comes in, and suddenly they become treated like a member of the family – and in some cases, that means poorly. The new member bucks the trend, creates a ripple, and ultimately ends up willingly ripping the son or daughter out of the family system – estranging them.
Into One Estrangement
I’ll let you further in on one of the estrangements in my world. My father confronted me about luring my sister-in-law from Paris, IL where he lives to Carmel, IN where I live. My sister-in-law is my deceased brother Rusty’s wife. She and her two girls lived in the town that Rusty and she were born in. She had expressed openly to everyone in the family a desire to get away from the town and make a new life for the girls.
Over the years since Rusty’s death, I had continued to reaffirm my support for her and the girls. It was how I believe that I’m called to behave to my brother’s widow. The time came when she decided that the school systems and opportunities meant it was the right time for her to move.
The truth was that the school systems are better. The career opportunities are greater. However, that’s not what my father wanted to hear. He was (and is) focused on the fact that the girls were going to move away from some family. (Two of my brothers still live in Paris, and obviously he and my stepmother live there as well.)
It boils down to my father believing that I shouldn’t be willing to support my sister-in-law and her decisions. He believes – consciously or unconsciously – that his decisions are the right ones, and that she should have stayed in Paris. Because I was supporting her leaving, I was (and am) somehow against them.
Providing the statistics comparing the two schools was seen as an attack on where most of my brothers went to school rather than being viewed as a statistical fact. Instead of recognizing that I could see some logic in the decision, it was seen as evidence that I was luring them away from the family.
It’s my hope, as I write this, that he can move past this disagreement and remember that love – in both directions – is more important. I’ve written this on his birthday and Father’s Day. (They are the same day this year.) It’s the only gift I can give him, because he’s refused mail and threatened to bring harassment charges if I contact him. In short, someday I hope to repair the Fault Lines.