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What is the ‘last-straw’ moment that causes relatives to cut off contact with each other?
For writer Harriet Brown, it came after her daughter had been diagnosed with anorexia. Brown reached out to her mom via email for support about her daughter’s health crisis, though they previously had a difficult relationship. Instead, her mother responded and effectively blamed Brown for her daughter’s anorexia.
She wrote about how that moment felt for Vice.
There was more, much more, but the screen in front of me swam out of focus and I couldn’t read it. Even if my mother genuinely believed that I was to blame for my daughter’s illness, why choose this moment to tell me so? If she loved her granddaughter and wanted the best for her, why would she do something designed to break me down in the middle of this fight for her life? My mother was entitled to her opinions about me and everything else. But how could she possibly think this was the time and way to share them?
As I sat in front of the computer, reading the email again, I felt suddenly dizzy, as if the room had tilted. I thought I heard the crack of something breaking and wondered if I was having a stroke. Blood rushed to my head and then away. My body seemed to rise and fall. And then it was over and I was done with my mother. I felt no regret or confusion, no rage or longing or resentment or anything, really. A great clarity settled over me. I knew our connection was broken in a way that couldn’t be healed because I no longer wanted it to be healed.
Although estrangement can happen in a variety of relationships, psychologist Joshua Coleman told The Chicago Tribune “today’s adult children don’t view their relationships with their parents the way their folks did with their parents…’the principles of obligation, duty and respect that baby boomers and generations before them had for their elders aren’t necessarily there anymore.’”
There isn’t a lot of research available on how often familial estrangement happens. And the studies generally appear to have a relatively small focus group — like this one, published in 2017, which surveyed 52 children in the process of estrangement.
But The New York Times reports that the lack of research might be changing.
In the past five years, a clearer picture of estrangement has been emerging as more researchers have turned their attention to this kind of family rupture. Their findings challenge the deeply held notion that family relationships can’t be dissolved and suggest that estrangement is not all that uncommon.
How does family estrangement happen? How can relatives reunite? Should they? And what effect can it have on the people involved?
Produced by Avery Kleinman.
- Harriet Brown Author, "Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Family Estrangement"; @HarrietBrown
- Tara Westover Author, "Educated: A Memoir"; @tarawestover
- Kristina Scharp Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Washington
- Dr. Joshua Coleman Psychologist; Senior Fellow, Council on Contemporary Families; Author, "When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along"; @drjcoleman
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