Having a family is so basic and fundamental to the human experience, for most people it’s incomprehensible to imagine life without it. Being a member of a family can confer a range of benefits, especially when it functions wells, including feelings of well-being, efficacy, self-esteem, self-worth, distinction, and success. However, some people belong to families where they face abuse, neglect, maltreatment, addiction, and/or mental illness. In efforts to contend with such issues, some children feel that estrangement is their best option.
According to one widely-accepted view, an estrangement occurs when a family member volitionally distances themselves from another member in order to break off the relationship or limit interaction. By one estimate, 12% of individuals are estranged from at least one parent. It is a wrenching event, one that can give rise to extreme negative emotions, difficulty with self-regulation, and increased physiological responses. All told, even if estrangement is the best recourse available, it poses serious consequences for all involved.
According to research conducted by Professors Kristina Scharp and Rachel McLaren, one major reason why the estrangement process is so painful is that it involves the loss of both the parent-child relationship and a shared family identity. Moreover, it is an experience that fuels doubt in adult children about their identity, family membership, and concern about how others will react to their decision to estrange themselves from a parent. The researchers argue that the loss of a lifelong relationship can inflame uncertainty for adult children. According to previous work, uncertainty occurs “when details of situations are ambiguous, complex, unpredictable, or probabilistic; when information is unavailable or inconsistent; and when people feel insecure about their own state of knowledge or the state of knowledge in general”. In keeping with this view, Scharp and McLaren assert that the estrangement process is inherently characterized by uncertainty, as it is a situation that teems with ambiguity, complexity, and unpredictability. There is no straightforward way to bring about an end to a relationship with a family member, as these relational bonds are assumed to be unbreakable and non-voluntary.
Given the paucity of research on the uncertainties adult children face as a result of the estrangement process, and the coping methods they use to contend with it, the researchers wanted to learn more about it. Doing so, they say, can benefit clinicians, social network members, and adult children who are in the estrangement process, as it can provide greater insight into the experience and/or help in making carefully considered recommendations or decisions about these relationships.
To that end, Scharp and McLaren recruited 52 adult children who had a negative relationship with at least one parent, and had voluntarily and intentionally sought distance from that parent as a result. They then conducted semi-structured interviews, with some questions probing about feelings of uncertainty. From there, they analyzed the participants’ narratives, revealing six uncertainties and ways to cope with them:
1. Parental love uncertainty. Adult children expressed uncertainty about whether their parents actually loved them. As one participant reflected: “Maybe she is not capable of that [love]. That was the first time I questioned that. And I thought, are some people incapable of love?”
Participants coped with this uncertainty by making external attributions for their parents treatment towards them. As a participant reasoned: “And she’s so, she’s so um, mentally unwell that it almost wasn’t malicious.”
2. Identity uncertainty. Adult children felt uncertain about whether or not they were really good people. “Like, who doesn’t love their mom? Like prisoners, rapists, they love their mother probably. So, it says something like bad about you that you can’t love your mother,” reckoned a participant.
In order to negotiate this uncertainty, participants often contrasted themselves to their parent. One participant explained, “Estrangement means that I don’t pick up the phone and tell her when something good happens or go to her for support when something bad happens. I don’t see her in that role. Um, which I personally would think should be the role of a mother and is the role I would like to play to my daughters as they become adults.”
3. Safety uncertainty. Adult children stated feeling uncertainty as to whether they were in physical danger or whether their other family members were in danger. One individual remarked; “And I was always terrified that he would somehow find out where I was and find me, and he wouldn’t even have to do anything, he would just have to be there and I wouldn’t know what to do but I was always terrified that he would find me.”
In order to allay these fears for both themselves and their family, adult children limited the information parents had about them or stayed to monitor the situation and be certain the parent was not harming another family member. One participant responded, “I won’t list my phone number on Facebook just in case they somehow manage to infiltrate my privacy settings. I try to make sure there is nothing online that they can contact me with, um, like I kind of make sure my information isn’t out there, but specifically so she wouldn’t get a hold of it.”
4. Cycle of abuse uncertainty. Adult children were uncertain about whether they themselves would become abusive in their own relationships because they grew up in environments in which that behavior modeled. A participant expressed, “I only want one child. I have only one child by design because I am afraid, I’m deathly afraid that if I have multiple children I might exhibit some sort of learned behavior from my own childhood.”
To combat this worry, adult children limited their close relationships by forgoing having children or romantic relationships. “ I think the [abuse], I think made me fear men a lot in terms of relationships, and intimacy, and sexuality . . . I am just protective, very on-guard, very leery of men,” said a participant.”
5. Self uncertainty. Adult children felt uncertain as to whether they wanted to engage in the relationship, and/or made the right decision to let it go. One participant reflected, “If I don’t think about it, it’s okay. Every now and then I think, it would be nice to be able to have a relationship, not just with my parents but also my siblings, I have no idea who they are or what they do?”
In order to decrease self-uncertainty, participants shared their estrangement story with others. As one participant put it, “So then, um, I came back to college and I just realized that I just have so much and I just couldn’t deal with it all by myself. And so I started seeing my therapist.”
6. Network uncertainty. Adult children reported uncertainty as to how their need for distance would influence their network. One participant admitted, “I’ve been pretty worried about, you know, the family as a whole and what that would do and just keeping quiet to maintain the peace and maintain the family group.”
To cope with network uncertainty, participants communicated their wishes to those in their network. For example, they requested network members to stop talking to the estranged parent, met network members separately, and waited until a family member was safe before initiating the estrangement. A participant recalled: “So my mom’s basic reaction was so now I’m going to be punished. It’s not fair to me that I don’t get to see you. And I was like if you want to see me we can make special arrangements because she was very upset with me.”