Family Estrangement

SOLO | Kristina Scharp | Family Estrangement


In this episode, Peter McGraw invites two guests to tackle the complex and emotionally charged topic of family estrangement, as requested by several members of the Solo community (sign up at https://petermcgraw.org/solo/). To delve into this important subject, Peter is joined by Dr. Kristina Scharp, who brings her research expertise on the topic to the conversation. They are joined by guest co-host Janice Formacella, who brings her unique perspective and experience in helping individuals navigate difficult relationships add depth and nuance to the discussion.

Listen to Episode #209 here


Family Estrangement

Welcome back. The topic of family estrangement was requested to me by several members of the SOLO community. You can sign up for the community at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo to explore this important topic. I‘ve invited a guest and a new guest co-host. Our guest is an expert on the topic. She‘s an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University and a Director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab.


Welcome, Kristina Scharp.

Thank you so much for having me.

I really appreciate you being here for this important topic. The readers may be familiar with our guest co-host from the episode Truth or Truth with a Breakup Coach. Welcome back, Janice Formichella.

Thank you so much for having me back.

It’s great to have you here. This is pitched as an episode on family estrangement, but Kristina, you prefer the term distancing. Can you tell us why, and can you define this concept to start?

Family Distancing

Sure. We think of family distancing as a larger umbrella of different ways that people might distance themselves from their relationships. Family estrangement is one type of family distancing. Another type we might talk about is something called family member marginalization. That‘s when you feel like the black sheep of your family or something.

Similar to estrangement that people often get confused about is a concept called parental alienation. That‘s when typically, after a divorce, one parent either consciously or subconsciously turns their child against the other parent. For me, I define estrangement as when at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally distances themselves from another family member because of an often ongoing negative relationship. There has to be some sort of pretty serious reason why people become distanced in estrangement.

I was a victim of alienation from my parents. My mom did that to my dad. We‘ll probably talk a little bit about that. Janice, you probably have all these things happening in your life.

At this point, I would consider myself to be estranged. I have probably gone through most of that. It’s not parental alienation. My parents are very much together. I come from a religious background, but I have lots of personal experience.

This may show up. There‘s this element of voluntary distancing that you mentioned, Kristina, of pulling away or parting mutually, but then there‘s also involuntary distancing. You‘re being pushed out or removed by a third party. This seems like an important distinction.

Some distance is really productive. It even could be children who go off to college. You‘re voluntarily distancing yourself from your family. It‘s pretty mutual. Both of your parents might support you in that you want to go off to college. That could be a positive thing versus some other types of distancing where you might be removed by the state or through incarceration. Even voluntary distancing could be positive or negative, but there is a difference between whether you feel like you have any sort of agency in that distancing.

Misconceptions About Family Relationships

I remember jumping for joy when my dorm room door closed. My mom said, “Goodbye,” and the dorm room door closed. I remember jumping for joy when I was out of the house. I felt as free as I’d ever been on my first move-in day of college. We should start with some misconceptions. A lot of your work focuses on the misconceptions that people have about this topic. You have three major misconceptions. Is it okay if I cue them up and then we get into them?


Misconception one, family relationships are non-voluntary. There‘s this saying that people have, which is, “You can choose your friends, but you can‘t choose your family.” How is that a misconception?

That was one of my favorite parts about reading your work. Thank you.

There are a ton of these phrases in our culture, like, “Blood is thicker than water,” or, “A family is forever.” We have them on those housewarming plaques, right?

Yeah. The needle points that are in the bathroom.

It‘s an idea that permeates our culture that we have no voluntary choice but to maintain familiar relationships because we are bound by blood. That is a misconception in the sense that there is nothing that blood ties are doing than creating this perception that we are in this non-voluntary relationship. People are able to engage in a variety of behaviors and practices that allow distance. Sometimes, that distance is really important and necessary. A lot of the folks who I talk to who are estranged from a parent identified some sort of abuse. It was important that they were able to mentally say, “I don‘t owe you being in a relationship where I‘m being abused or mistreated.”

This is a socially constructed standard. There‘s nothing happening biologically per se.

Our culture is very focused on biology. You see this in the commercials where people are talking about doing their DNA tests. They’re like, “I used to think that I was Italian, but I took this DNA test. Now, I have abandoned all my traditions. I feel like I‘m Irish now,” or whatever it happens to be. The value we place on biology is reflective of the idea that biology is an essential part of our identity.

It might be, but there are also a lot of other things that constitute our identities and ourselves that are equally important or we could place more value on. A lot of family communication scholars try to shy away from emphasizing so much on biology and emphasizing more on caring for one another, communicating with one another, loving one another, and the things we do for each other as being a marker of family as opposed to biological ties.

Have you looked at any religious constructs and how a lot of us are descended from them? I grew up with the Family is Forever model. That‘s one reason people may see it as involuntary because it‘s religion and it‘s God telling us these things. Is that something you‘ve looked at and how that‘s passed down?

I haven‘t come across a ton of that, but it‘s baked into our culture. It comes from everywhere. It comes from the media. It can come from religion. It can come from politics. It could come from practice. Every show we watch, there‘s often this underlying message, which, in many ways, can be very positive. It‘s a source of safety to know that there are people who will stick by you, but it also can be stifling when that precludes you from exiting a harmful relationship.

I‘d go even further to say “family” because there‘s the biological. You‘re born into a family. You have siblings, cousins, grandparents, parents, children, etc., but you can also marry into a family. You can create a partnership through what we call the relationship escalator. You have these alliances. You have in-laws. You have brother-in-laws, mother-in-laws, father-in-laws, etc.

It’s the prominence that those have and how they‘re not reinforced by religion  or the media , but also, the government does this. You get certain rights and have certain responsibilities, like guardianship of a child under eighteen in that way and the ability of a spouse to make decisions for you in a way that a friend or a chosen family member doesn‘t have. They don‘t have those privileges.

I want to get a little bit philosophical for a moment. We might get outside of your expertise, Kristina, but give me a little leash here if I can. It seems to me that we live in a time, if you look back in human history, in this notion of kin with hunter-gatherers in particular and then these tight affiliations. Even if you didn‘t have a bloodline, these were almost family structures that were occurring.

In the agricultural age where you had these extended or corporate families that were often built alliances, like arranged marriages and so on, if you had these negative relationships or you had an abusive relationship in particular, you often couldn‘t escape from it. If you were a hunter-gatherer, it‘s not like you‘re like, “I‘m out of here.” You‘re not going at it alone in the Savannah. If you are a woman in an agrarian age, there‘s no leaving in that. There‘s no escaping this kind of thing.

With this industrial and digital age that we live in with higher mobility, the ability for people to live on their own, and even the invention of apartment buildings and the ability to have your own job without being reliant on family to support you or even give you a job opens up the possibility for distancing much more.

In some ways, for sure. Although, the majority of people who distance themselves from a parent are adolescents. They‘re not legally adults. They still likely feel many of those constraints. They might not be able to work. They might not be able to live on their own. Many of them talk to me about biding their time until they‘re able to get away.

You described my entire teenage years.

Once people become adults, they have a lot more options than they might have in the past. There is still, for 13, 14, 15, or 16-year-olds, a time in which they have to manage their parents whom they want to be distanced from or lose a lot of the basic necessities that are required to live.

Indeed. If I‘m hearing you correctly, you‘re saying that the most common distancing phenomenon is a child looking to distance themselves from their parent.

That‘s correct.

Can you say more about that? Intuitively, that makes sense in part because that was my and Janice‘s experience. To what degree is this, and I‘m not trying to be flippant, teenage angst versus profound negative experiences? There‘s a range there, but what is your experience in terms of this range from like, “My parents are decidedly uncool and annoying,” to, “They’re being physically and emotionally abusive to me. They‘re creating an unsafe environment,” etc.

Having the last straw, you talk about that a lot in your work. This last straw concept would be people who were adults who have thought about this throughout their adult lives.

Every child and parent can have some tough times or conflicts. That‘s a part of growing up. When I talk to folks, they‘re never saying, “I was grounded once and want to become estranged.” It is almost always something pretty severe and ongoing. From my research, some sort of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, or gross neglect is what I most often hear as the reasons for wanting distance from a parent. We don‘t live in a culture where that‘s an accepted practice. That’s nobody‘s dream to be estranged from their parents. It‘s usually a last resort. Oftentimes, people withstand quite a bit before they‘re able to say, “I can‘t do this any longer.”

Although, it‘s also fair to say that sometimes, parents distance themselves from their children. For example, if one child has a substance abuse problem and it is creating an unsafe environment for other members of the family, that might be a reason. It‘s not always children to parents, but that‘s often the most common.

In the research, I found a lot more material on the parental experience than the child‘s experience. I was surprised at that. More books and more papers centering on that. That was surprising and frustrating, too, having come as it was my choice and I had no other choice. I was looking for something to validate my experience. Until we found your work, I hadn‘t come across that.

Janice, are you saying that you see a lot of things talking to parents who have a child who‘s estranged?

Who has chosen to become estranged? Yeah. Things to support the parents and things and literature about how they are coping and how they can continue to cope with it.

That’s interesting.

There are a lot of books. There are more book resources for parents. There‘s hardly any research at all about estrangement across the board, any empirical research. In 2014, when I defended my doctoral dissertation, it was the first time anyone had looked at the adult-child perspective. You might think that sounds insane considering about 27% of the population has some sort of estrangement or identifies as being estranged from someone in their family. In 2011, Kylie Agllias, who‘s a social worker in Australia, was the first one to do empirical work from the parent’s perspective. It‘s not like there‘s this long history of estrangement research. It‘s very much recent within the last couple of decades. It stems from the idea that family is forever.

Janice, I‘m curious about your experience with this because there isn‘t a conversation around this. This 27% number is a striking number. As a child, a teenager, or even a young adult, I distanced myself from my mother. Although I never felt like I could completely abandon that relationship. I felt a responsibility towards her. Later in my life in my late 30s and very early 40s especially, I was her sole caregiver despite how damaged and troublesome that relationship was.

I remember an exact moment in my life at age 26. I had always thought there was something wrong with me because I could not maintain a normal relationship with my mother. Two things had to happen. The first one was I realized that that was the only relationship that I struggled with. It was the only one that was so emotionally challenging for me that I was like, “Maybe it‘s not just me here.” I was then also looking at her relationships, all of which were strained. She always had estrangements, conflict, and so on with everyone in her life, more or less. I was like, “Maybe it‘s not me.”

I remember one day, I was visiting my grandparents with her. She was making life exceedingly difficult. I remember we were going to church or we were going to lunch, brunch, or something like that. I drove with my grandfather. I said to him in a moment of vulnerability, “I don‘t know if I can take it anymore.” He said, “Your mother has always been a difficult person since she was twelve years old.” This is a very important moment because he admitted that there was something wrong and that it had been there well before I ever existed in a sense.

It validated my experience so much. It, in many ways, allowed me to maintain that relationship. It allowed me to feel a little more free. I was a young man. I still had issues about interpersonal issues and trying to figure out how to navigate this very challenging relationship, but it freed me in a lot of ways. People reading this might feel validated by that 27% number. Janice, what about you? I‘m curious. You have a much different story.

My story is different. I‘m not sure how unique it is. I, for many years, experienced what Kristina refers to as chaotic disassociation. That is we went in and out of a relationship. The biggest problem was I experienced what I would call involuntary distancing. As soon as I left the faith, I experienced such severe rejection and abandonment that I continued to struggle with for almost twenty years.

I have really struggled also with the concept of chosen family maybe because I‘m suspicious and untrusting of people because of going through twenty years of this. I would constantly come back and try to maintain or rebuild a relationship with not just my parents, but I‘m the oldest of seven children. Every single time that I tried, it was horrible treatment. I was being left out of things and being either hard shunned or soft shunned, which we referred to in the Mormon church as being left out of family threads, conversations, and things of that nature.

I was trying to go to events and being ignored or rejected. I did not feel like it was voluntary. I didn‘t feel like this was what I was choosing at all. My family is fun, and I wanted to be a part of it. I had my last straw moment several months ago when I realized, “This is so harmful to my well-being. I need to finally stop.” I have to say. It was one of the most painful things that I‘ve ever done, but I‘m glad I did.

That sounds awful.

It has been. I have to say. It‘s not what I wanted. I have had messages relayed back to me and had my siblings say things that assume that for some reason, I‘ve done the distancing for selfish motivation. I have to say. Nobody wants this. I‘ve gotten nothing out of it. It‘s been extremely painful and very complicated.

We‘ll spend a little bit of time in the second half of this talking about advice about how to manage these kinds of relationships. As we wrap up this misconception, I want to reflect back something that I heard from you, Kristina, that is important to repeat. That is while we have more ability than ever to distance ourselves, the people who often need it most, young people, can‘t unless it‘s a profound situation where the state comes in and removes them or they emancipate themselves.

Most of the time, they may suffer through years of waiting and trying to manage these difficult relationships. As we know about teenagers, and I had this experience myself, they don‘t have life experience. No one ever says, “Here‘s how you deal with a parent who‘s borderline personality.” I didn‘t even know my mother was borderline for another fifteen years, in a sense.

What you‘re offering is a useful one, which is instead of defaulting into this social construct that you have to be tied because of biology or because of family, there‘s a better standard by which to use to evaluate the goodness of your relationships. Are people investing in the relationship? Are they supporting you? Are they caring? Are they loving? Are they helping you take care of yourself in that way? If people fail to do those things, regardless of whether you‘re biologically connected, or whether you‘re a family or not, that‘s not a good relationship.

Estrangement is really a varied experience for so many people. Families are so varied. Situations are so varied. A lot of what we‘re trying to say is it‘s not that biology is bad. It‘s simply a standard that we have put so much emphasis on. We‘ve done so to neglect some other standards, which would be helpful in emphasizing when we define what a family is and allow people a little bit more flexibility to pursue more positive relationships of care.

It seems like one of the only standards is that you have a relationship with your family even if it‘s completely horrible. How many people have issues with their mother and still continue to pursue so much engagement and then say, “It‘s my mom. I don‘t have any choice in the matter.” It seems like maintaining some contact is the standard. It‘s a pretty low bar if you ask me.

This notion of distancing seems like a rational and useful tool by which to modulate this relationship if you still want to maintain a connection.

Setting Acceptable Boundaries

A lot of times, people think of estrangement like pregnancy where you are not estranged, but that‘s not true at all. People can be more or less estranged, and they can be more or less estranged on a variety of different factors. They‘re able to put together some boundaries that are acceptable to them that might not be acceptable to somebody else but work for their relationship.

Where some people move across the country, which is certainly a viable option, other people create rules. They’re like, “I‘m only going to see my parents for 48 hours 3 times a year.” Some people even live in the same town as their parent and have been able to figure out rules for themselves that they‘re able to maintain distance but still see them at family functions. There are different ways this can look. People don‘t have to be all or nothing.

Do you think it‘s a matter also of how you communicate this to the family?

It certainly could be. Everyone‘s family dynamics are really different. Some people in a family put a lot of pressure on you to reconcile where other people feel the same exact way that you do and are like, “Let‘s not talk to so-and-so anymore because they‘re damaging.” People‘s families can react in varied ways. How family members and friends react often is a primary factor, whether you‘re able to maintain distance or whether you enter into this on-again and off-again relationship that‘s very difficult. I call it chaotic disassociation where you‘re in this loop. You’re like, “We try again, but nothing has changed so we distance again.”

The extent to which you‘re getting that pressure to reconcile both from your friends and family but also how much you feel that that‘s what you should be doing, which is that internal guilt or whatever you might feel, they often impact the extent to which you‘re able to have a more continuous distance and what that distance looks like.

Janice, your question is a hard one because. Oftentimes, you need to be the bigger person, which is sometimes hard to do when you‘re a child. You suddenly have to parent your parent in that way. It‘s very difficult to tell people no. It‘s difficult to disappoint them and to go against the norms. There are certain norms there.

Let‘s be honest. The person that you‘re distancing yourself from, there‘s a reason you‘re distancing yourself from them. They may not be well-equipped to handle the distancing. It‘s a very fraught experience. My instincts and the experience that I had personally that I‘ll share is that I had to say a lot, “I love you. I care about you. I want to have you in my life. However,” and then whatever that standard will be that I‘m going to do.

I then give them space to respond and say, to reiterate, “I do love you. I need to do this for myself,” in this sense. Hear them out and recognize, though, that they may guilt trip you. They may try to manipulate you there. There‘s a whole bunch of things that are happening there, but recognizing that this may be hurtful to that person. It may be disappointing to them. It may be forcing them to address their failings as a parent, a sibling, a family member, or whatever it may end up being. That‘s a lot to ask of someone, especially because they may have 10, 20, or 30 years of built-up emotional pain. This may re-stimulate a whole bunch of experiences to talk about what are your limits in that situation.

Also, I want to point out that my situation involves so much neglect. You may also have parents and family members who could care less if you decide you want distance or estrangement. That‘s equally painful.

They welcome it. They‘re like, “This is a good idea.”

Especially my siblings detached from this so long ago that I don‘t think that they‘ve given it much thought. I went to them many times for help, and not-my-monkeys or not-my-circus type thing.

Let‘s move on to the next misconception, and we‘ve already addressed it a little bit, Kristina. That is distancing is not synonymous with dissolution.

People often think that to become estranged, they have to have no contact. That‘s not true. You can create meaningful boundaries and create space in your relationship that allows your relationship to function without completely saying, “I‘m never speaking to you ever again.” For some people, that‘s simply not viable. We were talking about it with the kids. You can‘t say to your parent, “I‘m never speaking to you ever again,” when you live under their roof and are able to fulfill that.

People have a lot of different resources. A lot of time estrangement is somewhat a function of your privilege in that if you have resources, you can do a lot more. You can get that apartment for yourself. You can move away. You can insulate yourself in some ways. For other people, that‘s not viable. I remember people telling me they married as young girls to get out of their family relationships and have a different set of resources. It‘s important to note that estrangement is never easy, but some people have more resources than others to be able to accomplish distance and maintain it.

I appreciate you saying that. Reflecting on my own experience, going to university saved me. That‘s a huge privilege. I had this ready-made plate. I had a dorm room. I had a dining hall. I was at Rutgers down the street from where you are, Kristina. Not only did I have that, but I had an instant group of friends, a support system, a resident advisor on the hall that I could go to, an older student, and a health clinic. It was a turnkey and then also a stimulating environment. It was a place that allowed me to not just escape but also blossom. I am deeply appreciative of that.

If I hadn‘t headed to university, I‘m not sure exactly if I would have been able to leave that day. I wouldn‘t have had the resources to get an apartment and start the blue-collar job that I had been working that summer, save the money, and so on. That‘s an important observation that some people are stuck because of their socioeconomic status. Also, there are even cultural elements of this. If you are Italian, it might be harder to do it because of the very strong norms about family in that culture and other cultures.

I‘ll jump in and say I had my resources taken away from me because of leaving the faith. I got married really young, too, because I had not been taught anything about adulting, especially as a woman. I didn‘t even know how to budget. I had no idea how to manage my money. That was what I did. I attached myself to this relationship, which if I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn‘t.

Out of the frying pan, so to speak.


High-Cost Religions

I don‘t know if you know this, but I worked in Utah for four years. While I was in Utah, I did quite a lot of studies with my students about Mormonism. One of the projects I did was about leaving the LDS religion. My student, going into it, thought, “How could anyone do this? It must be so horrible for them.” At the end of the project, she realized that for some people, it was necessary.

The lesson that I learned from it was how high-cost it was. We call certain religions high-cost religions because it‘s very costly in terms of time and resources to be a member of it, but it‘s also highly costly to leave it. The LDS religion is one of those high-cost religions where it is such an integral part of people‘s lives that exiting the church has repercussions above and beyond leaving other types of organizations.

I don‘t think parents and family members ever really consider how they would respond to someone leaving and therefore have a hard time responding to it and dealing with it. That was my situation. I was, completely overnight, cut off from my entire community, the people I‘d grown up with. My parents were devastated. They ended up disinheriting me. I can relate to that. I pretty much lost everything. I had to start at completely ground zero.

To your point, Kristina and Janice, imagine your whole world, everybody you know, agrees about how you ought to behave and will, in many ways, shun you. They don‘t know how to treat you anymore if you end up distancing yourself.

They can‘t relate to you anymore is what I experienced.

You become a different person. I want to add something, which is, especially in those cases but in any of these cases, how important it is to get help and find whether it be a mental health professional who can help guide you with this, support you, and validate your experience. Even hearing the stories that you‘re telling, Kristina, and hearing my particular experience and yours, which is much more profound, Janice, can help people feel not alone in this and then have that kind of support. In Utah, especially, and then other Mormon strongholds, there are these Thrive groups that you‘re part of, Janice. These are people who have had this experience. You can join these groups, get advice, hear other people‘s stories, and feel seen, heard, and learn from other people.

I‘m very proud to be a part of that. I lead the Denver group. I always say that my younger self would be looking up at me and be so thankful. We didn‘t have this years ago. That is a big part of it. People are coming to share their stories about their families. My experience is even a little more extreme than most of theirs, but that is what it‘s for. It‘s a nationwide network all for this reason. Many people experience leaving the Mormon church. It’s sad that religion would dictate how you treat your own children, but it does.

It‘s tricky because while it‘s productive to seek mental counseling or therapy. that‘s not always available to everyone. There are some groups. I did a study about people who were in different Facebook groups and social media groups. We found that it depends. For some people, it‘s really helpful to understand that other people are experiencing the same things. Other people said, “After a while, I felt stuck by how angry everybody was and needed to move on.”

At different times, people need different things. It‘s okay to seek a variety of different resources depending on what you need at different times. It‘s really hard when the people in your life are trying to reconcile you. The advice that I give most often, and I try not to give too much advice because I‘m not a counselor, is I always talk to social networks and say, “When someone tells you they‘re estranged, don‘t automatically assume it‘s the worst thing that‘s ever happened to them.”

Some people really needed to do this. I always try to ask people, “How do you feel about that?” Oftentimes, people feel ambivalent. They feel devastated on the one hand, but on the other hand, some people are like, “I was able to escape a really abusive relationship. I‘m proud of myself because it was hard to get away.” In support networks, do not always think that the solution is reconciliation. Sometimes, it‘s about being there to listen and understand that estrangement is often an ambivalent experience.

I have a hard time and hesitate to tell my story to very many people. A couple of my closest friends don‘t even know everything that went down because people get so emotional and worked up when I tell them that then I feel like I have to emotionally support them. That‘s uncomfortable. Listen and be open that it was a good decision on my part. Maybe I don‘t want you to sit there and cry in front of me.

Kristina, you foreshadowed misconception number three, which is that family distancing is inherently negative. I‘ll share my own learnings from this show. There‘s a tendency when people tell you that they are divorced or they‘re getting divorced that you say, “I‘m so sorry.” I, as the host of the show, can be a little cheeky sometimes and say, “Congratulations.”

Distancing Is Not Necessarily Negative

Amy Garrin, who‘s a frequent contributor to the show, once corrected me. She said, “For some people, it‘s, “I‘m sorry.” For some people, it‘s, “Congratulations.” What you ought to do instead,” and that‘s what I tend to do, “is to say, “How do you feel about that?” and then listen.” If they say, “I‘m really struggling with it, etc., I can say, “That’s unfortunate. How can I support you?” If they say, “Best decision of my life,” I say, “Congratulations.” That‘s good. People hearing that distancing is not necessarily negative alone is going to be useful. Can you say a little bit more about that misconception?

Sure. Probably the thing that I say the most on air through the media is that estrangement can be a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment. It‘s hard because of how we think about families. I always liken this to a friend who tells us that they‘re in a physically abusive romantic relationship. We‘d say, “What can we do to support you? How can we help you get out of this?” When they get out, we‘d be like, “That‘s so great.” The same thing could happen in a family and we‘re like, “You have to give them another shot. You always have to forgive your family.” We somehow lost our minds.

I said that a couple of times, like, “I would never let my partner treat me like this ever.”

Let‘s go even further with regard to any family situation, which is supposed to be bonded, but especially a parent-child situation. A parent‘s responsibility is for the safety, security, and support of their child. To fail at that is to fail as a parent. Suddenly, you‘re like, “Why are we giving these parents a free pass at being such crap parents all the time and blaming the child for wanting to do the healthy thing?” which is to take care of themselves and distance themselves from this situation that can end up being profoundly abusive or even chronically negative that is stifling growth, which is often overlooked. If you say, “They‘re being emotionally abusive. They‘re being physically abusive,” etc., but even not supporting their child in a way that stifles them is something that is not acceptable. It‘s not okay.

It looks so different for everybody. It‘s good to remember that estrangement from the person who initiates it isn‘t a mystery. They always know why it happened. For them, it‘s very significant. Sometimes, parents have no idea why their child wants distance from them. That also can be legitimate. That may be true. I‘ve never heard someone who distanced themselves from a family member and say, “I don‘t know why I did it.”

I loved this about one of your papers when you said that the parent‘s account was much less developed than the child‘s narrative of why this happened. I appreciated that and could relate to it so much.

There are a lot of different reasons why that could be. Sometimes, it‘s generational differences where parents grew up in a much harsher environment. There‘s so much social learning They’re like, “I‘m treating my kid the way I was treated, or even better than I was treated.” It’s fascinating because that still might not be good. It might be better than what they had.

It may be different.

There‘s sometimes a real difficulty for parents to understand that. They’re like, “I treated you so much better than I was treated. I was really abused in a way that you never were.” It can be legitimate for parents to say, “I have no idea why this has happened.” For the person who‘s doing the distancing, they always know and it‘s really significant for them. I‘ve never heard someone say, “I was grounded,” or, “We got in a fight once.” It‘s always fairly monumentous or something that builds over time.

It’s really fascinating to reflect on all of this having experienced my own form of this and recognizing that the same person who‘s not being supportive or is being abusive is often the same person who‘s unaware of the effects that they‘re having. This seems all so surprising, especially because the narrative is, “I‘m the parent.”

I can‘t tell you the number of times my mother said, “I‘m the parent. I get to decide.” Especially as a teen, you can start to get to a point where you can start to parent yourself.  If you’re eighteen, you‘re not considered an adult by government standards, but it doesn‘t mean you‘re dumb. It doesn‘t mean you‘re inexperienced. It doesn‘t mean that you have no idea how the world ought to be.

One of the things that my sister and I talked about was that we were good kids and we didn‘t feel like we deserved to be treated this way. That resentment can build up over time. It‘s not just one incident that fractures the relationship, but it‘s a constant over and over again. At some point, you‘re at your wit‘s end. You‘re looking for an escape and it may not be provided to you.

Sometimes, that‘s hard to explain to people. For the big monumentous events, that is sometimes easier to explain than the little things. You’re like, “What did they say?” It doesn‘t sound all that momentous in the moment, but it‘s the accumulation of it over time that becomes such a burden. It can be hard to legitimate it to others when it is a more gradual thing.

The reasons for the estrangement vary so much. Sometimes, adult children blame their parents and feel they have control. Other times, they feel like they don‘t. They’re like, “My parent was abusive, but they were really sick. Even though I needed to get away, I don‘t hate my parent. They needed help. I was a child and I couldn‘t help them.”

This is what I‘m trying to say on estrangement. They‘re like, “You think all parents are bad.” I‘m like, “No. That‘s not it at all.” Estrangement is very varied. For some things, some people perceive it as being in control. Some things are perceived as being out of people‘s control. The extent to which people ever want to reconcile often has to do with why they‘re estranged and whether they think their parent had any sort of agency. Some people say, “I would reconcile with my parent if they were to get help.”

It‘s a condition.

It’s so varied.

Other Forms Of Estrangement

We‘ve been talking a lot about parent-child estrangements. You have mentioned this can happen with other family members. You also mentioned specifically this case of parental alienation where one parent turns the child or children against the other parent. Can you talk about these other forms of estrangement that happen within family structures and then specifically talk about this one?

Yeah. It’s family member marginalization. It‘s interesting, Janice. I feel like a lot of what you were saying started there with feeling like the black sheep, feeling different, being excluded, being ostracized, and being somehow set apart from your family. You feel as if you‘re being pushed out of your family. There‘s that. That can also be in varying degrees. Oftentimes, people who are marginalized really want to be a part of their family whereas oftentimes, people who initiate estrangement do not want reconciliation. That‘s one of the differences we see between marginalization and estrangement.

Some people are marginalized. That is they feel like they‘re being pushed out of the relationship or out of the family structure. That could be by siblings, grandparents, parents, and whatnot because you‘re different. You‘re misbehaving. You‘re going against the grain. That‘s very hurtful. You‘re saying there‘s estrangement where either you get kicked out of the house. My mother kicked my sister out of the house at a particular age because she determined that she was too difficult.

It could be that you say, “I‘m out of here.” That could be distancing or full-on estrangement where there‘s no contact. You‘re out of the family. You‘re disinherited. I remember being threatened like, “I‘m going to disinherit you.” That feels like a last-straw manipulation that families use. You‘re describing these two forms. Am I hearing that correctly?

Sure. Two different forms of family distancing. One thing that we like to point out with family member marginalization is that you can be doing something really positive and be marginalized from your family. For example, maybe your family has a history of alcoholism. Everyone‘s drinking and you say,
I don‘t want to do this anymore.” You still might be marginalized from your family because of that even if you‘re engaging in healthy behavior. You might be the only person from your family to go to college. People feel like you‘re different from them and you can‘t relate anymore. For estrangement, typically, the cause of that is something very negative. You can be marginalized for positive behaviors.

That’s interesting.

I relate to that. Before I left the church, my mental health was in the gutter. I decided that leaving the church was the best thing for me. I improved so much. They were like, “Stay away from us.” It‘s also interesting because you can probably ebb and flow. I felt for twenty years that this was not what I wanted. I was not having fun. I didn‘t enjoy being the black sheep.

I realized several months ago that I‘d never once stood up for myself. I felt like I was taking power into my own hands by being the one to sever it. While it was painful, it was also really empowering because I‘d gone through twenty years of completely keeping my mouth shut. It felt good. It feels a lot better now than it did months ago.

I want to acknowledge something that a reader may be feeling. They may be identifying with my story or your story, Janice, or one of the stories you‘re telling, Kristina, where they‘ve distanced themself or they‘ve been distanced involuntarily. There‘s also a potential other style of reader, which is they‘re thinking, “I need to do this.” They are involved in an abusive familial relationship. This is something that‘s not annoying. It‘s not a little difficult. It is hurtful. It may be emotionally hurtful or even physically hurtful. They realize, “I need to do this. I need to make a change.”

A Good Place To Start

We‘ve addressed some of the ways that you can get support for this. I want to ask for two pieces of advice. One is that you said there are many forms of distancing. Can we elucidate some of those forms and then follow up with if someone‘s reading and they‘re contemplating distancing themselves, where‘s a good place for them to start?

Let‘s start with the first part. My first study on estrangement was about what are people doing to distance themselves. I came up with eight categories that people engage in or could engage in to create some distance. Some people might want to do all of them. Some people might want to do one of them. It‘s not like you have to do all of them to be estranged, but there are some options.

One has to do with decreasing the quantity of your communication. That, on its face, is fairly simple. The other is decreasing the quality of what you‘re talking about. Maybe you talk to your parent, but you don‘t bring up meaningful things. You can talk about the weather. You can talk about something innocuous. That doesn‘t mean you‘re not speaking. You‘re not speaking out about the things that are personal to you. You can reduce that. You can reduce the level of involvement they have in knowing about your life.

Physical distance is a pretty big one. Some people move very far away. The other is emotion. For some people, they feel a ton of emotion when they think about their family. Other people feel nothing. It’s decreasing how emotionally charged you get, and then also thinking about the valence of your emotion. Are your emotions good or bad?

One has to do with something I call role reciprocity. Are you doing the things you expect family members to do for each other? You can reduce that. You brought up a really good example of this. You were a caregiver for your parent.  That’s something some people might feel they should do. That‘s part of being a child. That‘s a role. Some people might say, “I don‘t have to do that. I don‘t owe my parent this. I don‘t have to fulfill this role because they didn‘t fulfill any of the parental roles that I needed when I was a kid.” They could reduce their level of involvement in that way.

Desire to reconcile is one. Everyone assumes people want to reconcile, which is not true. A lot of people are working really hard to maintain the distance they were able to accomplish. It‘s hard to maintain distance. It‘s even harder to maintain distance than it is to accomplish it. I can say to you, “I‘m never going to speak to you again,” but then carrying that out forever is very difficult.

Someone dies and you‘re at a funeral. There‘s a wedding. There are all these things that happen that bring people back together.

There‘s a lot to consider. I considered ahead of doing this how I would respond if there were a funeral or something like that. They are hard choices to come to.

What did you decide to do?

Stay away.

You‘re going to skip a funeral if you need to?

I would.

That‘s very hard, Janice. I‘m sorry.

The last one has to do with legal action. Some people take legal action, and it‘s not always the legal action you might think. Certainly, emancipation is a legal action, but it could be things like changing your name and making it harder for people to find you. It could be not wanting to be identified as part of a particular family group. It could be changing your durable power of attorney, changing your will, or changing people‘s ability to make decisions on your behalf. There are quite a lot of different legal avenues people take and talk about that are different from straight-up emancipation.

I changed my name. My given name is not Formichella. I changed it when I got married purposely to distance myself from my family of origin. I then got divorced and kept it for the same reason.

That’s interesting.

Something that you said, Janice, made me think that when you distance yourself from one member of the family because of whatever reason, some people feel forced to distance themselves from everybody.

I was going to ask about that.

There are some people out there who say, “This person doesn‘t speak to me anymore. I have no idea why,” and they legitimately mean it. They have done ostensibly nothing to that person. If you have no idea what a relationship is like with somebody else and they have no contact with the entire family because sometimes that‘s easier to maintain than just one person, then there are certainly folks out there who feel it’s unjust that this person cut them out of their life because they didn‘t do anything wrong.

For some people, cutting out everybody was the only way they could get enough distance from one person because people would ask. They would use the other family members to ask about you or try to contact you. That’s why I keep on saying it’s so complicated. I wanted to point that out because for some people who say, “I have no idea why I‘m estranged,” and people are like, “That can‘t possibly be true,” it is true. For some people, they don‘t know why someone cut them out of their life.

Where could people find these eight ways?

I have an article. I have a Psychology Today post about it, and there‘s a research article that has these eight different what I call estrangement continua.

Some people will want to sit with those tactics and figure out which ones might work best for them rather than defaulting to what first comes to mind.

I always say that when people are thinking about distancing, you have to think about where you are, where you wish you were, and the gap between that. Not everyone wants to talk to their parent at 10 out of 10. Some people only might want to talk a seven. If you‘re at a 5, then the gap between that is much smaller than if you wanted to talk to your parent at 10. Thinking about not just estrangement in absolute terms but in relative terms with regard to your ideals.

Creating Space

Even hearing that it doesn‘t have to be all or nothing is going to be liberating for some people. Earlier, you mentioned these different ways of finding space. I‘m wondering if you could talk through some more examples of how people create space with a family member that may spur some ideas.

A lot of kids used to talk to me about working or finding a job. That simultaneously gave them something to do outside of the house but also helped build their financial resources to independence. A lot of people learned a job. Some people were lucky enough to have grandparents, aunts, or uncles who they would be able to spend some time with.

Extracurricular activities were another one. Some people joined every club there was. It was a productive way to get them out of the house. Some folks became these stellar students because school was a really safe place for them. Those were things that didn‘t cost anything, which was helpful.

 I did all of those things. I became a star student and athlete. I joined clubs. I got a job. I slept at my house. That was all I did at the house.

Some people even joined a church, which I thought was interesting. They started getting involved in religion because that was another avenue out of the house.

It’s a supportive environment. There are maybe parental figures who are caring and loving. That‘s important. I want to go back to this parental alienation idea because I want to touch on it. I listened to a podcast episode with a divorce attorney who talked about divorce agreements. One of the things that was really striking about that conversation was, and I‘ve never been divorced, how much pure hate can develop between these two people who once loved each other and were committed to each other and how they will do things in order to hurt their ex that hurt their child. The example that he uses in a divorce decree, agreement, or whatever you call it is that for the birthday of a parent, the other parent will take the child to buy a gift for the other parent.

In the agreement?

He wants to put this in the agreement. He does this for the child because it helps create a nice bond with the other parent. It’s an important thing to do and a generous thing to do. He lamented the number of parents who are so angry that they refuse to do that. They are like, “I don‘t want my ex to get a birthday present,” from the child. What they fail to realize is because they‘re so angry, they‘re hurting the child in that sense. This is an important thing for a child to be able to do, which is to celebrate their parents‘ birthday. That‘s a mild form of alienation that happens. Can you say more about that?

It also could be something like the parent is sad that they are divorced. Maybe their partner cheated on them. This divorce really blindsided them. Their child‘s around and they‘re seeing them suffering. Their child asks, “What‘s wrong?” A parent might disclose something to their child. That‘s true, but it still creates animosity towards the other parent. Sometimes, it‘s not always very malicious. Sometimes, it can happen because a parent is struggling through this divorce and they‘re disclosing things to their child, which may not be in the best interest of the child to know certain things.

It’s inappropriate. It’s like, “Go ask your father about that.” I‘ve defaulted to malicious because that‘s what my experience as a child was. It was a lot of anger. Thank you for saying that. Let‘s wrap up with a few more questions. I have some from the community, but Janice, I‘ll let you kick it off with a question you may have.

Adopting An Alternative Lifestyle

Kristina, one question that I did have that we haven‘t really covered is that a lot of our audience do consider themselves to be part of the SOLO community. A lot of our audience is single. A lot of our audience have or feel that they have adopted an alternative lifestyle, an alternative way to do relationships, or an alternative way to adult.

Estrangement and distancing is so stigmatized. It‘s so taboo. That may cause some of the people in our community to find it a little easier because they‘re already doing things that are stigmatized and a bit taboo. I was curious if you have seen more singles or more solos who have distanced themselves, chosen to become estranged from their family, or maybe didn‘t choose to become estranged from their family because of their lifestyle.

One thing people told me that is related and maybe not exactly what your question is is some people chose to be single because they were estranged. They didn‘t want to perpetuate some of the negative relationships they had in their life. Thus, their solution to that was, “I‘m not going to get married,” and, “I‘m not going to have children.”

That was mine. I‘m childless very much by choice. I always say, “Having a family never did me any good. Why would I want to have one of my own?” or, “Why would I want to put someone in that position? It didn‘t help me any.”

There are some people who talk about being child-free. There were some people who said, “Marriage is not for me. I want to be single.” To your point, the ideologies that make estrangement stigmatizing are very similar to the ideologies that create stigma for people who are single. It‘s a children‘s rhyme. First comes love and then comes marriage, and then comes the baby. The oppressive ideologies that a family is forever and you have to get married have been so ingrained in our culture that we have nursery rhymes about them. That‘s what makes them so embedded in the culture.

I can see how you‘re relating those two things that it‘s very difficult to resist some of these ideologies. We have words for other oppressive ideologies. We have words like racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, but there‘s no word to call out the types of stigma and marginalization you experience when you violate some sort of family norm.

B ella DePaulo uses the word singleism, but that hasn‘t made its way into the public vernacular.

Not quite, but we‘re getting there with this community.

I appreciate you asking that question, Janice. It’s so interesting. It reflects the complexity of this topic, and it‘s hard to cover it in one session. A non-trivial number of people who end up as lifelong singles may point to the fact that they‘re like, “My parents weren‘t happy. I didn‘t see a joyous path with regard to marriage and family, so I decided on a different one.”

Also, there’s this notion of like, “I‘m going to go at it alone. I‘m going to take care of things myself,” as a way to escape that blood is thicker than water phenomenon that can help people feel trapped. There‘s the flip side of it, which is like, “I want a fresh start. I‘m going to do my own family and I‘m going to do it right.”

Let‘s be honest. We need support. There‘s no escaping the need for social connection, whether you‘re single or not. Some people get married. They seek to escape by creating their own family and having the emotional support and financial support that comes with bringing two people together. There are these varied responses.

Creating Support Systems

I want to ask a little bit more about singlehood. I would argue that even if you have a life partner, you need to diversify your connections. For the person who is single, they can be cast adrift. They have to develop friendships. They have to find community and so on. I have a reader’s question related to this. I‘ll read it. It says, “I would love to hear more about how “people”, Janice, have created their tribe, support systems, etc. I have managed a little in my own life and have found it an interesting process. I’m also curious to hear how much backlash others have received if they have mentioned being estranged from their family.”

I have two ways that I‘ve created my tribe. The first one is I‘m extremely lucky to live in a small neighborhood that is very walkable with a few local places where a lot of people hang out. I‘ve made a point of becoming very regular at a few of these places. I‘m lucky that I have met several people in my actual neighborhood through frequenting these places. I‘m a little privileged in that regard. Not everybody has access to these things in their neighborhood, but that is one way in which I have so much joy.

Another way is through this Thrive community of post-Mormons. One of the purposes of Thrive is to bring the larger group together for the purpose of encouraging people to form what we call pods. Those are people who you meet separately and become friends with. I have developed a circle of maybe 8 or 10 of us. I help to nurture that.

We get together all the time. We‘re getting together to go to Third Fridays. That did take me a little while to build up, but that‘s something that is meaningful to me. I always say that hanging out with post-Mormons is like hanging out with a bunch of your cousins because everybody has a similar language, upbringing, or quirky things that we grew up with that nobody else would understand. We‘ve really bonded over that. It’s very special to me.

This idea of backlash when mentioning that you‘re estranged from your family, do you have a particular way you deal with that?

A lot of the people in my community are post-Mormon, so a lot of people do understand. I do have a lot of people in my life who have watched me go through this. I have a couple of cousins who even completely support me. As you were saying earlier about your dad, my parents are also estranged from their own siblings. I have a couple of cousins who have watched that over the years and who completely support me in this. I was reading Krristina‘s work, and I know that that came up again and again. I have not personally experienced much of a backlash, but I was going through this for twenty years and people were hearing my horrible stories, so when I finally did it, I had a lot of support.

One thing I would say is developing some sort of tradition around the holidays could be really helpful. A lot of times, holidays are a difficult time for people who are estranged from their families. Even coming up with a Friendsgiving that might start off small but over time can build to include other people in a similar situation who might not have a family they want to go to at the holidays. Even if they do or live far away, you can start building a community and create these gatherings. There are so many folks who are estranged that even if you talk to your friends, they might say, “So-and-so doesn‘t ever go anywhere for Thanksgiving.” You can start building these networks.

One of the difficult things about estrangement is that people always feel like they‘re the only one because a lot of people don‘t talk about it. I really admire Janice because she was able to share some of the difficult things that have happened to her. A lot of people don‘t talk about their estrangement at all because the number one question people get then is, “Why are you estranged?” Sometimes, people don‘t want to talk about that. It might be very personal. I found that even if you hate your parent, you still might not want to air their dirty laundry to other people.

It‘s not the most festive or happy thing to talk about when you‘re with your friends. It‘s a downer is what I‘ve found.

A lot of people don‘t talk about their estrangement. Consequently, it contributes to this feeling of isolation despite how common it is.

One of the things with regard to the backlash that‘s useful is to say, “Why do you say that?” When someone makes some sort of statement, you turn it back to them and say, “Why do you say that?” You approach it with curiosity and get them to question their default thinking. One of the things I want to recap here in a moment that stands out to me is the idea that this is socially constructed. We have assumptions about how families should behave and about their predominance within someone‘s life.


I believe that it should be earned. These connections ought to be earned. They shouldn‘t be defaulted into. That‘s important for people to know. The last question for you, Kristina, is reconciliation. As we‘ve covered, it‘s okay to not want to reconcile, and that shouldn‘t be the default. At some point, this has to be fixed. Should someone want to reconcile, what are the best practices?

It‘s about figuring out which areas in your life you want to recreate the boundaries. Estrangement is all about having boundaries. One strategy could be to lessen some of those boundaries until you‘re at a place that feels comfortable and good as opposed to going all in. That can be difficult and confusing sometimes, especially because oftentimes, people then change their minds. It’s about recalibrating more slowly.

That‘s great. We should stop here. It is very important for people to understand that distance can be good and to seek out the support that they need. Janice, thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your experience with us. Kristina, thank you for sharing your research with us. This has been a very wonderful conversation. If people are looking for support, please join the SOLO community at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo. We will continue this conversation there.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.




Important Links


About Kristina Scharp

SOLO | Kristina Scharp | Family EstrangementKristina M. Scharp (Ph.D, University of Iowa) is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University and a Director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab. She researches the process of marginalization and the ways people cope with the major disruptions to their lives. She has over 90 publications in outlets such as the Journal of Communication, Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, and Communication Research as well as three co-authored textbooks.

In the last few years, she was awarded the International Communication Association’s Early Career Award, NCA Family Communication Division’s Distinguished Article Award, and the Leslie A. Baxter Early Career Award in Family Communication. Her work on family estrangement, in particular, has garnered attention from numerous media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Conversation, and NPR.


About Janice Formichella

SOLO 194 | Breakup CoachJanice Formichella is a writer, breakup coach, and host of the podcast: Breakups, Broken Hearts, and Moving On. She lives in Denver, Colorado.