Even though she became a widow young, Cynthia Gross said she gave her daughter, now grown, everything she wanted, from dance and piano lessons to family vacations at Disneyland. Together with Gross’ son, they had a happy little family. That is, until her daughter got married.
Then, in 2015, a lead curtain fell between Gross and her daughter, who quit calling and visiting. They eventually became estranged.
“Never, ever did I think this would happen to us,” said Gross, who lives in California.
No one keeps an official tally, but therapists, including Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist, say estrangement is “epidemic” for many reasons. Most often, it is between a parent and adult child, though it also occurs in other relationships such as sibling-sibling.
“Parenting has changed more in the last 40 years than it did in the few centuries before that,” said Coleman, author of “When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along.”
As a result, today’s adult children don’t view their relationships with their parents the way their folks did with their parents, said Coleman. “The principles of obligation, duty and respect that baby boomers and generations before them had for their elders aren’t necessarily there anymore,” he said.
Many of today’s parents strive to become their grown child’s friend, said Coleman. “When that works, it really works,” he said. “But when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t.”
For a host of reasons, some adult children distance themselves from their parents.
What about grandkids?
Sometimes estrangement creates a wall between grandparents and grandchildren. Donna, who lives in Georgia and asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy, is estranged from her grown son, who has a year-old baby with his new wife. “I haven’t seen the baby since he was 3 months old,” said Donna, who has filed a lawsuit to gain the right to visit the baby. “But it’s not just me; he also is being deprived of a big, loving family with aunts, uncles, cousins and a great-grandmother (my mother).”
Not letting Donna see her grandchild is her son’s way of “punishing me for not allowing him in my house at this stage in his life,” she said. “His lifestyle includes doing drugs, and I have to protect my other son who is 10 years younger than his brother is. And, I’ve got to show my younger son that mama’s no pushover.”
A sibling-sibling estrangement, on the other hand, is more often fueled by a marriage by one sibling to a spouse who believes three is a crowd, said Mark Sichel, a New York City-based psychotherapist and author of “Healing From Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off From a Family Member.”
“It starts with the new in-law saying, ‘You have to go here’ or ‘You have to go there’ for a holiday dinner,” said Sichel.
Although it’s tough for outsiders to understand estrangement, it’s easier to justify the adult child’s split from his parent(s) if he suffered an abusive childhood.
Growing up, Cari, now in her 30s and from the San Diego area, watched her mother go in and out of drug and alcohol rehab, while she was the target of her verbal abuse.
Susan Cifaldi is a parent who is estranged from her adult child. She co-manages the Estranged Parents Speak Up website that supports families dealing with estrangement in New York City.
Susan Cifaldi is a parent who is estranged from her adult child. She co-manages the Estranged Parents Speak Up website that supports families dealing with estrangement in New York City. (Susan Cifaldi)
“I reached the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore,” said Cari, who also asked that her full name not be used for privacy. “The last straw was when she got out of jail — again — from another DUI. She said she was so happy to no longer be in jail with ‘those people.’ I told her she is one of ‘those people.'”
As more people talk openly about estrangement in their families, those in the trenches hope education will help dispel myths.
It is not true, for example, that child abuse always precedes estrangement, said Coleman.
Also, “there’s still a widespread belief that the parent did something wrong (before a grown child became estranged),” said Susan Cifaldi of Williamson, N.Y., an estranged parent and co-administrator of website Estranged Parents Speak Up.
If estrangement isolates you, Sichel suggests surrounding yourself with a “second-chance family who will love and support you.” They won’t share your 23andme.com Ancestry Report, but they will share your values and interests.
That worked for Jeff, who planted new roots in the Minneapolis metro area — far enough from his hometown that it’s not likely his birth family will drop by. “My new family includes a former friend’s mom, who became my adoptive mom, and the man I plan to marry,” said Jeff, who is an advocate for others who find peace through estrangement. Jeff also asked that his full name not be used for privacy.
Gross said she surrounds herself with “loving, fun people who appreciate me.” Along with her son and grandson, she spends time with members of her theater group, book club and a nonprofit she writes grant proposals for.
Surviving estrangement can be difficult. There are several online support groups. Google “estrangement” and the type of relationship, for example, sibling-sibling or parent-child, to connect with others in a similar situation.
Donna survives by thinking about the estrangement of her son like a death in the family. “He’s alive, but I no longer have the ability to check on him to make sure he’s safe,” she said.
Cari advises other estranged adult children to step back and “see your parent the way the community sees him. Decide if you want to continue to be treated the way you’ve been treated,” she said. “If not, don’t worry; you’re not alone. There are a lot of us ‘kids’ out there.”
Jeff says brace yourself for the holidays, when well-meaning partygoers ask about your plans to break bread with your family. “Good friends just know: Yes, I have siblings. No, I won’t be seeing them,” he said. “To others, I just say, ‘My family doesn’t live around here.'”
Leslie Mann is a freelancer.
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