When Family Hurts: Choose Love over Estrangement

According to the 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them by Karl Andrew Pillemer, one in four Americans is estranged from a family member. The estrangement is not the kind where the parties have merely drifted apart; it is a formal, intentional estrangement-by-design growing out of one party’s decision to break all ties with the other. Pillemer and other researchers say it’s a phenomenon that is on the rise, and they are trying to find out why.

In a recent piece for BBC Worklife, Maddy Savage reviews some of the common patterns in intentional family estrangement. More often than not, the separation occurs between a parent and an adult child and is driven by the child. Some commonly cited reasons are past or present abuse; fallout from a divorce; arguments over how financial or emotional capital is dispensed; and conflicting politics, beliefs or values. Savage relates the story of a man named Scott (last name withheld), who broke with his parents in 2019 over their vocalizing, in front of his seven-year-old child, expressions he took as white supremacist views. A couple of years after the initial separation, Scott said his mother reached out to him to reconnect, but he texted her to say that he would only consider reconnecting if she apologized and acknowledged that her comments had been “horribly racist.” So far, he has not heard back from her.

My husband and I both have some experience with family estrangement. I come from a large, blended family — the youngest and the only “ours” of a “his, hers, and ours” family of eleven children. When I was growing up, there was intense family strife fueled by mental illness, alcoholism, and blended family dynamics. As the years went on and people left home and moved away, I felt a strong drive, as the de facto family “glue,” to try to keep the various branches of our family tree somewhat connected, but it was largely a losing battle. I think some of the estrangement my family has experienced was probably less the result of people’s conscious decisions than the natural consequence of complicated lives, intervening miles, and simple growing apart. But past pain and the need for personal preservation in the present certainly played a part. Even if there is no overt or official plan to practice estrangement, dysfunction makes the phone a lot easier to ignore when it rings.

While the estrangement I have seen in my family leans toward the “accidental,” that in my husband’s family is decidedly intentional. My husband calls it “shunning” and attributes it to ingrained Southern culture. As outlined by  this piece at the "Art of Manliness," part of a larger series on honor, the agrarian and less populated nature of the Southern states fed a tradition in which “the foundation of every community was one’s extended family”:

As a result of the close-knit, more homogenized nature of Southern society, two fundamental requirements of traditional honor remained in place: a cohesive honor code that everyone in the group understood and ascribed to, and frequent face-to-face interactions that allowed members to judge each other’s reputations. This also left in place traditional honor’s mechanism for dealing with social deviants: public shame and group justice. . . .

Yet it was the threat of simple, informal shunning — being made an outcast — that was enough to get most Southerners to conform to the code. As in all traditional honor societies, a Southerner’s relations with others and their inclusion in the community were the heart of life; one could not separate their personal identity and happiness from their membership in the group. What Moses I. Finley said of the world of Odysseus was true of the South as well: “one’s kin were indistinguishable from oneself.” Thus to be abandoned was the worst possible fate.

While there is much to be admired about Southern embracing of family ties and even about using family influence to manage and moderate bad behavior, the use of those ties for the sake of self-serving manipulation and bullying can quickly become toxic. Unfortunately, my husband’s mother was well-versed in such tactics. She taught them to her children and, as a result, did irreparable damage to the family as a whole.

There are times when intentional family estrangement is warranted for reason of physical or emotional survival. But as highlighted by Savage, it has become easier than ever to cut family ties for any reason whatsoever. In the 21st century, we simply don’t need our families as much, for simple survival, as we used to. College students don’t need family support to get through school; the government will provide all the funds they require in the form of student loans. If we don’t take care of our family members who are aged, disabled or rearing children alone, the government will do that for us as well (or pay us to do it). Meanwhile, economic and social mobility makes it a lot easier to pursue individual goals without messy family involvement, and the prevailing cultural focus on self-care and self-actualization gives cover to decisions to put self before anyone else.

Reading the story of Scott, who broke with his parents over their views on race, I couldn’t help wondering why it was necessary to deprive a child of his grandparents (and grandparents of their grandchild) because of a viewpoint. Yes, as reported by Savage, it seems to have been an abhorrent viewpoint. But isn’t that life? Unfortunately, those we love don’t always subscribe to the right views. We are nevertheless intertwined with them in a way that goes beyond the holding of acceptable opinions. My own children have been brought up not to say certain words. Unfortunately, they have family members who say those words. It’s not a reason to remove those family members from our lives. Seven years old is not too young to be told, “Grandma and Grandpa have some incorrect ideas about things. But they love you, and we love them, and we will still respect them even though we disagree.” There is no better time or place than within one’s family to start learning that not everyone in the world agrees with you and that sometimes other people, even family, can be downright mean.

That is not to say that, if one’s family member is abusive, one must submit to the abuse in order to sustain the relationship. Sometimes a break is absolutely called for. But it’s also possible to have a middle ground between total engagement and total estrangement. Maybe it’s impossible to stay in the difficult family member’s home or to visit for more than a few hours. In that case, visits should be kept short, closely moderated, and promptly and matter-of-factly (not angrily) ended when things begin to disintegrate or go awry. And if a physical visit or phone call is out of the question, there’s always the United States Postal Service.

In his explanation of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther wrote that children, in dealing with parents, should “yield to them and be silent, even though they go too far.” Families have a special way of going “too far” in their dealings with one another. We seem, by our nature, to save up the worst of ourselves for dealing with our own flesh and blood. Ironically, that is one of the blessings of family. When we are children, the family unit is the first place we learn how people should be treated and not treated. It’s the first place we learn about our power to hurt as well as our power to forgive. It’s the first place we learn that the world is full of sinners in need of a Savior and that we are no exception. All of these lessons continue to be taught long after childhood is over, and we deprive ourselves of painful but valuable instruction when we remove ourselves from the family “classroom.”

Again, I am not suggesting that there is never a valid reason for cutting off a family member. There are cases in which it is necessary to ensure one’s physical safety or emotional survival. But I think it is all too easy these days to throw up one’s hands and say “never again!” than to do the hard and often thankless work of loving someone who is not very lovable. And to break up with a family member over his or her vote for president, vaccination status, or opinion about Black Lives Matter is to further feed the viruses of intolerance and cancellation that have so deeply infected our societal constitution.

I cared for my mom in my home for approximately the last 15 years of her life. I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard; it was. She was not June Cleaver — neither when I was a child dependent on her, nor when she was an invalid dependent on me. There were days that I had to practice a sort of emotional disengagement to continue to be able to tend to her physical needs, and there were days I failed in practicing that disengagement and wore my heart, for better or worse, decidedly on my sleeve.

But as hard as it was, I would not go back and change anything. That often mean old lady who lived in my home for 15 years was the person whose care for me made sure I didn’t die when I was too helpless to care for myself. She, along with my father, was my first teacher and my earthly connection to the human race and thus, to my Creator. The same is true for those who have been adopted. Whether by biology or otherwise, family is a gift — a complex and challenging one, to be sure — but a gift nonetheless. We should think long and hard before rejecting it.

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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