Holidays are often a time of strengthening family ties and relationships. But for those with difficult relationships with siblings, parents, and extended families, this time can be stressful and frustrating. We asked Christina Sharp to explain why sometimes family relationships fail and what to consider when talking to people in this situation.
What is family alienation?
Marital alienation occurs when at least one family member deliberately distances himself from at least one other family member due to a negative relationship or perception of one of them.
Research shows that at least 27% of adults experience family estrangement that is initiated by them or another family member. This means that nearly 70 million people in the United States report being separated from family members.
What family estrangement is not
As a researcher dedicated to the study of the relationship of distancing in relationships, one of the most frequent questions that I am asked is: “What is considered alienation in the family?”
Perhaps the confusion arises from a common misconception that alienation is a specific event or outcome. My research shows that family alienation is a process that continues and varies in degree. To put it simply, family alienation is a continuum in which it is more accurate to characterize people as more or less alienated than alienated or non-alienated.
Alienation is voluntary. This means that at least one person wanted distance, as opposed to a situation where a third party intervened, such as the foster care system or the criminal justice system.
The alienation is intentional. The distance between family members was not an accident or an occasion when people lost touch.
Alienation is often based on current problems. It is unlikely that family members will suddenly decide they want distance. Rather, people report a long history of conflict and negativity.
However, in some cases, alienation may be more sudden. For example, sometimes parents can reject a child if he comes out as LBGTQ.
Alienation arises from perceived negative relationships. People don’t just want distance for no reason. Research shows that the causes are usually serious, such as abuse, neglect, and substance problems. Even if family members disagree about what happened or the state of their relationship, at least one person perceives the relationship as negative.
Collectively, alienation is a different process from other cases in which family members may be at a distance, such as in the case of adoption, military service and migration.
One related but distinct concept is parental alienation. While the results of alienation and alienation look the same, the reasons for distance are different.
Parental alienation occurs after divorce, when one parent deliberately disrupts his child’s relationship with the other parent. However, both alienation and alienation are serious family destruction.
How do people reach and maintain distance?
When I started researching alienation in the family, my main question was not only what alienation is, but how people achieve it. Based on my research, adult children who distanced themselves from their parents described eight characteristics of alienation:
• Number of messages: The degree to which adult children communicate with their parents.
• Connection quality: The significance of this message.
• Physical distance: The extent to which parents and children physically distance themselves from each other.
• The presence / absence of emotion: The degree to which adult children feel emotion when they think about their parents / alienation.
• Positive / negative effect: The degree of positivity and / or negativity of these emotions.
• Reconciliation / desire to be a family: The degree to which adult children hope for reconciliation.
• Role reciprocity: The degree to which family members behave and care for each other in the expected ways.
• Legal action: The extent to which adult children have taken any legal action against their parents, such as emancipation, name change, or legal change.
As you ponder these questions, it’s important to remember that not everyone wants the same amount of communication, intimacy, and emotion. Thus, I like to think of alienation as a disconnect between a person’s real life, as it relates to the eight characteristics, and what their preferences would be if they had an ideal relationship.
While research on marital alienation is still expanding, here are some of the most important takeaways from my systematic research program:
• Alienation causes stress and stigma.
Many people say they don’t want to talk about their alienation because they are afraid of negative reactions from others. If an alienated person chooses to expose the circumstances surrounding their alienated relationship, I encourage people who are willing to provide support to refrain from expressing sadness immediately or recommending reconciliation. Better ask them how they feel about distance.
• Alienation can be a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment.
Oftentimes, alienation can be a productive way to get rid of a toxic relationship. Just because people are biologically connected does not guarantee a loving and supportive relationship. Sometimes increasing the distance is necessary for emotional and / or physical safety.
• Maintaining a distance can be even more difficult than achieving it.
Because we live in a culture where “families are forever”, people not only have to overcome the distance, but also maintain it. This maintenance is often a heavy burden, not only because people constantly recommend unwanted reconciliation, but also because of family media representations and internal perceptions of family obligations. Thus, even if alienation may be a positive change for someone, it is nonetheless difficult.
While scientists have begun to learn about family alienation, there is still an incredible amount of research to be done. In the course of this event, we could learn more about different viewpoints, different distance catalysts and related results.
[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]