Family relationships are not always close. Despite cultural expectations that family relationships are not a choice, many families experience some level of distance, whether due to living far away from one another, or choosing to spend less time together. In extreme cases this distance might be called estrangement.
A recent research article by myself and Dr. Kristina Scharp, directors of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab at Michigan State University and the University of Washington, details four types of distancing families can experience. The four types are categorized based on whether the distance is voluntary or involuntary. Distancing is voluntary when it is chosen by the party gaining distance, that is, they are intentionally having less close family ties.
1. Pulling Away
The first type of voluntary distance families experience is called “pulling away.” Pulling away occurs when one member of the family attempts to gain distance, or pull away, from the rest of the family or specific family members. Pulling away may take many forms including moving away, speaking less to family members, or having an explicit conversation about cutting off contact with the rest of the family.
2. Parting Mutually
The second type of voluntary distance families experience is “parting mutually.” When this type of distance occurs it is agreed upon by all family members that gaining distance from one another would be good for everyone. For example, siblings who have unhealthy conflict whenever they are together might agree that they are better off spending time apart or spending the holidays with their respective immediate families rather than with the extended family group.
3. Pushed Out
Being pushed out of the family is considered involuntary because the member being pushed out does not want distance from family. A common example of this type of family distance is the “black sheep” of the family. Black sheep members often experience unwanted disapproval and exclusion. This may happen when families do not approve of the black sheep members’ life choices or social identities.
4. Third Party Removal
Family members can also experience distance when a member is removed by no choice of anyone in the family but instead by a person or organization outside of the family. For example, families may be physically separated because they are refugees or because one or more members have been hospitalized, placed in foster care, or incarcerated. Family members might have made choices that led to the distance but they did not explicitly choose distance from the family.
Gaining distance from family members is not always negative. In fact, this is a common misconception about family distance. There are many examples of family distancing that people tend to consider “normal” or even positive life events such as members going away to college, moving for a job, or spending time overseas on a mission or military deployment.
Whether you have experienced family distancing personally or not, it is likely that you know others who have. When learning about another person’s family it can be helpful to remember that there are different types of family distancing and it could be hurtful to assume a person is experiencing one type when they are really experiencing another. If you can, show support for whatever type of distancing occurring in their family, as all types are challenging to manage and maintain.
Scharp, K. M., & Dorrance Hall, E. (2018). Reconsidering family closeness: A review and call for research on family distancing. Journal of Family Communication, 1-14.