Why So Many Families Are Living With Estrangement
Cultural, economic, and political factors can force breakdowns.
Posted January 2, 2023 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Recent polls show that roughly a fourth of those surveyed are not speaking to a member of their family.
- The family is undergoing some of the most rapid changes in history, and that has contributed to estrangements.
- A poll in October 2022 found that nearly one in five voters report that politics upset their friendships or family relationships.
For families, holiday gatherings can be a kind of annual roll call. This year, familiar faces were absent from many family tables—often because of estrangement.
The estranged constitute a large, undisclosed group, and one that’s not easily measured. Specific numbers are nearly nonexistent, in part because people are reluctant to admit being estranged from family members. Despite the lack of hard data, however, some researchers believe that estrangement is widespread and grossly underreported.
In general, the nuclear family is no longer the norm, due to many trends. Young adults are postponing or repudiating marriage and delaying having children, leading to a decline in birth rates. Meanwhile, the baby boom and millennial generations, compared with their parents and grandparents, tend to live farther away from their families—a circumstance that limits contact. And, while previous generations found themselves glued together by lifelong marriages and large families’ multiple connections, boomers have fewer connections, fewer children, and more divorces.
“We’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history,” political commentator David Brooks wrote in a 2020 article for The Atlantic. “The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once.”
He noted that only a minority of American households are traditional two‐parent nuclear families, and only one-third of Americans live in this kind of family. Consequently, the nuclear family no longer is the main source of identity, values, financial support, and lifelong emotional sustenance.
Today’s family structure—transformed from an interconnected, widely extended nuclear group into a smaller, decentralized, loose network of relatives—also lacks the reasonably clear guidelines and expectations sisters and brothers formerly brought to their relationships. In the absence of cultural mandates demanding that families stay together, people nowadays finding themselves in difficult, disrespectful, or abusive family relationships are far more ready to find an exit than to stick it out.
Although sibling estrangement cuts across all cultures and classes, some groups are more likely to terminate family relationships. Individuals with more education and higher social standing often are more geographically mobile and less dependent on family financial resources. Higher achievers also have a larger social network and are therefore less reliant, emotionally and socially, on family.
Families rooted in traditional immigrant cultures are the exception. Children in these families tend to feel an obligation to maintain relations with their brothers and sisters, often to honor their parents. Generally, stronger family ties are found among working‐class and poor families, compared with those in the middle class.
Recent poll numbers confirm earlier findings.
The most recent polls reflect these trends. A poll conducted last October by HarrisX for the Deseret News showed that 7 in 10 adults said they are on speaking terms with everyone in their immediate family—parents, children, and siblings. Roughly one-fourth said they aren’t speaking to at least one family member.
These numbers are consistent with other surveys:
One in four Americans reported being estranged from a relative in a 2019 nationwide survey of 1,340 Americans aged 18 and older. Conducted by Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, the survey showed that more than one-fourth of the respondents—27 percent—reported a current estrangement. Most had a rift with an immediate family member: 24 percent were estranged from a parent, 14 percent from a child, and 30 percent from siblings. The remainder were estranged from other relatives.
- Another study in 2015 also showed that at least 27 percent of Americans are estranged from a member of their own family, and research suggests about 40 percent of Americans have experienced estrangement at some point.
- Estrangement affected one in five families in the United Kingdom, according to a 2015 survey for the British estrangement charity Stand Alone. Analysis of 807 members of the Stand Alone community who completed a survey showed that 54 percent agreed with the statement that “estrangement or family breakdown is common in our family,” and 68 percent of adults estranged from one or more members of their families believe a stigma accompanies family estrangement. The respondents cited the fear of judgment and assumptions of fault or blame as frequent sources of shame.
Politics have exacerbated estrangements.
Political divides have further frayed family ties. In a poll conducted last October by the New York Times and Siena College, nearly one in five voters—19 percent—reported politics had upset their friendships or family relationships. Nearly half of the voters in the survey acknowledged that they use politics as the basis for making judgments about other people. Forty-eight percent of those polled said that a person’s political views revealed whether someone is a good person.
Political divides affected some groups more than others. For example, while 20 percent of white and Hispanic voters reported their relationships were damaged by politics, only 7 percent of Black voters had that experience.
The New York Times and Siena College poll also showed that affiliation with certain political parties was more likely to take a toll on relationships. Twenty percent of Democrats and 21 percent of independents reported that politics had hurt their relationships, compared with 14 percent of Republicans. Most date the cutoffs to the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, and many report that they have not recovered from those rifts.
Those cut off from relatives may feel deeply alienated in part because family ostracism does carry a stigma; many, therefore, avoid discussing the topic. But the numbers show the estranged are hardly alone. As David Brooks wrote, the causes are economic, cultural, and institutional. And, as the polls demonstrate, that list should now include “political.”
Facebook image: Worawee Meepian/Shutterstock
Collins, Lois M. (2022) How many Americans are estranged from family members?, Deseret News https://www.deseret.com/2022/12/21/23517721/1-in-4-americans-is-estrang…
Conti, Richard P. (2015) Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science http://jpbsnet.com/journals/jpbs/Vol_3_No_2_December_2015/4.pdf
Blake, Dr. Lucy, (2015) University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and Stand Alone, Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood, https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.F…