People say a family is the most important thing in life, but if you ask me, a family is not and could never be defined by blood.
Blood means that you are related. For people to be considered a family, there has to be a deeper connection that binds them. They have to be willing to be there for each other and love one another even when it is too hard to do that.
Therefore, despite the general opinion that family is what matters the most, many families don’t experience the same level of closeness. Due to physical and in some cases emotional distance, some families tend to grow apart. Some people even end up completely estranged from their families.
According to the Family Communication and Relationships Lab at Utah State University, the most common reason for family estrangements is the significant decrease in communication in both quality and quantity. However, while avoiding verbal communication with parents isn’t always a sign of estrangement, for many young people this might be the beginning of an unpredictable journey that may quickly become their only reality.
Katherine Scharf is the first person to refer to estrangement as a continuum and describe its constituting elements as the distancing and sometimes harmful behaviors that most children exhibit.
In her research, Scharf shows eight different actions that most adult children usually take in the process of mental, emotional and physical detachment from their families. Her grounded theory of family distancing emerges from the experiences of 52 adult children – study participants who have faced the process of estrangement from their parents.
According to her, estrangement as a continuum includes eight important components: communication quality, communication quantity, physical distance, presence/absence of emotions, positive/negative affect, reconciliation/desire to be family, role reciprocity and legal action.
Additionally, she states that the degree of estrangement is actually determined by the combination of these components rather than any individual behavior. Why? Because estrangement is not a fixed event, it is a process, or in other words a continuum.
The results of the study showed that most participants were happier about moving away instead of staying home because it helped them ignore their parents’ expectations and focus on their own wellbeing by doing what makes them truly happy.
According to her, creating a physical distance sometimes makes it easier for adult children to maintain those connections with their family. “I refuse to let them push my buttons anymore. I just smile tolerantly, which makes them crazy, even when it takes everything I have not to react. Afterward, I’m exhausted from trying”, said a 32-year-old, participant in the research.
Also, another crucial component of the continuum was ignoring their families’ expectations and avoiding the obligations of the role that society has put in them. “I said no to their dreams and expectations and stood up for my own. I got divorced, which was unforgivable, and then had a child out of wedlock, which was even worse. I didn’t show up for my father’s funeral after he said I wasn’t welcome anymore. But I’m slowly finding my way back to my mother,” said a 35-year-old.
So, considering the above-mentioned facts, it is safe to say that estrangement is not the entirety, but only an aspect of a parent/adult child relationship. Yes, the strategies that the adult children often employ in order to distance themselves from their parents include moving away, reducing contact, decreased feelings for each other, and in some cases even taking legal actions to completely cut the ties with their families.
But this research also shows an intriguing, counterintuitive finding which suggests that adult children who don’t communicate with their parents don’t necessarily have the worst quality communication. In fact, according to some of them, the distance was actually everything they needed to feel closer to their parents.
At the end of the day, every family is happy or unhappy in their own unique way. This is why my experience of family distancing can be very different from yours. Therefore, by treating estrangement as a continuum rather than a fixed even, this study can lead the way to possible reconciliation or at the very least, rapprochement.