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Mayo Clinic explores: The mental health toll of family estrangement

© Mayo Clinic

Although not everyone is as public as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the Royals are not the only family experiencing a possible rift. More than one-quarter of American adults have cut off contact with a family member, according to a recent large-scale national survey. Family estrangement is a suspension of direct communication between relatives, often triggered by a conflict. In some families, a series of conflicts is followed by periods of avoidance and withdrawal. In others, an incident — potentially even seemingly unrelated to an underlying tension — can be the “last straw.”

Not all estrangements are between parents and children — sometimes communication breaks down between siblings or between extended relatives. Estrangement may occur for a variety of reasons. Adult children most commonly cut off their parents because of toxic behaviors such as violence, abuse or neglect, or feelings of being rejected. On the flip side, parents often cut ties because they object to a child’s dating partner or spouse. Stark differences in beliefs— over subjects such as politics, the pandemic or vaccinations — can be divisive and may also drive a wedge between family members.

What happens when loved ones aren’t speaking.

When an adult child does break ties — no matter the reason — both parties often experience profound sadness, especially if grandchildren are involved. The ensuing grief can be as painful as that resulting from a death, and perhaps worse, as it is not publicly acknowledged. In some cases, the person being cut off may feel confused, angry or even shocked. “Sometimes we are left with uncertainty if we are on the receiving end of estrangement,” says Craig N. Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., a clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic. “We may not know or never know fully why we are being cut off.” Estranged parents may also fear their parenting skills will be judged, and the shame attached to this could lead to social isolation.

There are, however, also situations where a breaking of ties can bring a sense of relief. People sometimes find it necessary and healthy to cut ties with a family member when the relationship involves harmful factors such as abuse — whether physical or psychological — or unwanted manipulation. Still, the emotional toll of taking this step and maintaining distance is often difficult, and you may benefit from the support of a counselor or other mental health professional as you navigate this.

Trying to mend broken ties.

If you determine that mending ties or maintaining some level of a relationship is desired, sending cards on birthdays and holidays can be a good initial step. “It lets the other person know that you still care,” says Dr. Sawchuk, though he advises keeping those communications short and sweet. “You have to watch out for over-engaging — trying to get the relationship back on track or trying to find out exactly why you are being cut off.”

Here are some steps to prepare for a possible reconciliation:

  • Examine the role you may have played in past hurts and take responsibility for your own behaviors.
  • Show empathy. Don’t try to persuade your family member to see things your way. Let go of the need to be right.
  • Accept your family members as they are and accept that reconciliation may involve establishing boundaries.
  • Forgive or work on letting go of resentment.

Copyright © 2021 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Rochester, MN 55905. All rights reserved.

Craig N. Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P.

Dr. Sawchuk is a psychologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In addition to his clinical practice, Dr. Sawchuk’s main research aim is to improve the treatment of anxiety and depression in primary care. 

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