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Distancing by Choice

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Illustration of a family photo in frame with some faces torn out.

“Estrangement is so complex, because you’re in a family system,” says Kristina Scharp. "...It can be messy.” Media credit: Ho Kwon Kim

 

Many people distanced from family this year due to coronavirus will mourn the loss of their usual holiday gatherings. Others, living with family, may wish they had more distance from their relatives. But for those who are estranged from a parent or other family member, it’s far more complicated.

“Estrangement is so complex, because you’re in a family system,” says Kristina Scharp, assistant professor of communication and director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab. “Distancing yourself from one person oftentimes means negotiating some difficult interactions with your other family members or distancing yourself from your whole family. It can be messy.”

Scharp has studied estrangement for the past decade, and is one of few scholars to explore estrangement between adult children and their parent(s). She defines estrangement as a process that occurs when at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally distances themselves from another family member in response to what they perceive as an often ongoing negative relationship.

Sometimes estrangement can be a healthy solution to an unhealthy problem.

That negative relationship often involves abuse. In interviews with hundreds of adult children estranged from a parent, Scharp has heard stories of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Sometimes there is a substance abuse problem. There may be neglect. Ideological differences around sexuality may also be a factor.

“In this culture, in order to get to the place where you want to distance from a parent, it’s not because the parent grounded you or slapped you on the wrist,” says Scharp. “Typically something very bad has happened for someone to decide they are completely done with their family. There’s definitely a misconception that adult children are overreacting, but I haven't seen that.”

Scharp notes that societal norms around family make estrangement unthinkable for most people. There’s the common belief that love ‘em or hate ‘em, biology creates an unbreakable bond with your family. “I’ve studied a lot of different marginalized populations, and some of my estranged participants are the least well understood,” says Scharp. “There is so much judgment that comes from being estranged, so much stigma around wanting to distance yourself from your family.”

Portrait of UW Communication Professor Kristina Scharp

“I’ve studied a lot of different marginalized populations, and some of my estranged participants are the least well understood,” says Kristina Scharp.

Even well-intentioned friends feed into this narrative. They might enthusiastically support a friend leaving an abusive romantic relationship, but a friend estranged from an abusive parent? They will more likely encourage forgiveness and a second (or third or fourth) chance, impressing upon their friend that family is a lifelong commitment. 

“Even when friends are not saying that, the culture is,” says Scharp. “In television shows, every time a family member forgives some horrendous act, the message is that you need to forgive family despite what’s happened. And while that’s an encouraging, uplifting message about unconditional love for many people, there’s definitely a dark side to that message for people in really bad situations.” (For the record, Scharp gets along fine with her family.)

Given the barrage of societal messages touting the sanctity of family, it’s no surprise that many estranged individuals struggle with their decision. Rather than estrangement being a one-time, permanent separation, it tends to fluctuate over time. In a current study, Scharp is finding that COVID-19 presents an added complication. People who are estranged may not want to be contacted by their family, but they also wonder why their family isn’t reaching out to check on them during a deadly pandemic. “People are trying to grapple with feeling both,” says Scharp.

If people act like family, care about each other, and do things for each other, that can be a family — no family tree necessary.

While COVID-19 and the holiday season certainly trigger such ambivalence, Scharp says that every day presents a challenge. “Families come up all the time in conversation, so there are many things that could be triggering,” she says. “Obviously holidays, but also birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, weddings, funerals. Even just talking to a co-worker or classmate who has a positive relationship with their family can be triggering.”

So what should people do to support a friend who is estranged from family? Scharp suggests asking how you can help rather than assuming you know what they need. Offer to be a nonjudgmental listener, but don’t push them to talk. Do not give advice or encourage them to reconcile with their family. Check in with them on holidays and other times when people are likely to gather with families.

“Lots of people I’ve interviewed mentioned that they just want someone to say, ‘I’m here for you, you can talk to me if you want to,’” says Scharp. “They didn’t actually want to talk about it, but they liked knowing that someone was in their corner and had their back. So just checking in, remembering the friend on holidays and other times when people are likely to gather with families, can make a difference.”

Despite all the challenges of estrangement, Scharp stresses that it can be a positive thing, an empowering act of self-protection. And she believes our definition of family needn’t be limited to one’s biological relatives.

“We place so much emphasis on biology, but there are other ways to make a family,” she says. “If people act like family, care about each other, and do things for each other, that can be a family — no family tree necessary.”