... But You Can't Choose Your Family? Or Can You?

Over the last decade, there has been a proliferation of parent-child estrangement scholarship. Yet, prior to 2011 (see Agllias), people who sought distance from a family member and/or family members who had been distanced could hardly find any information or research about their situation.

Despite the lack of information, researchers estimate that estrangement is prevalent and could be as common as divorce in some segments of society (Conti, 2015).

So, how is it that we know so little about something that touches the lives of so many people?

Research conducted by Dr. Kristina M. Scharp and Dr. Lindsey J. Thomas (2016, 2018) suggest there are social norms and expectations about parent-child relationships that generate stigma around the experience of estrangement. Expectations of "relationship endurance" (2016) and "inseparable connection" (2018) have created the impression that parent-child relationships have no possibility of ending. These expectations include cultural assumptions such as, (1) parents and children are forever connected through biology, (2) family webs create unending obligations, and (3) shared history is irreplaceable. Parents who initiated distance from their children also had to overcome expectations that all parents should display unconditional love toward their children and that the identity of "parent" is permanent (Scharp & Thomas, 2018).


Thus, a primary reason why we know so little about parent-child estrangement is that, from a cultural perspective, people generally believe that it should not exist.

Gerd Altman/Pixabay

Source: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

Yet, those in the process know all too well that estrangement is real.

As part of their research, Scharp and Thomas (2016, 2018) also identified ways adult children and parents respectively challenged the cultural assumptions outlined above. Adult children, in particular, resist expectations by emphasizing that parent-child relationships require maintenance and cannot be taken-for-granted. Instead of focusing on biological links, they discussed the importance of mutual support, care, and love. Finally, they explained discussed the ways that their individual need for safety outweighed expectations and obligations to forgive family members.

In a somewhat similar move, parent challenged assumptions about their role by discussing the need for mutual respect and emotional investment. They suggested that it was important that their children contributed to the relationship and that it was okay if they had an identity outside of their children.

In doing so, both parents and children challenged the cultural belief that family relationships are non-voluntary. Thus, instead of privileging biology as a marker of family, they privileged "behaving like a family" and "love" as the markers of what a family should be. Indeed, many people who identify as being in the estrangement process discussed finding voluntary kin (choosing their own family) to serve in traditional family roles.

Related: The Real Joys of Being a Mom