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Family estrangement is a problem 'hiding in plain sight': How to make amends

The former Meghan Markle is among millions of Americans estranged from close relative. A new book examines the pain of family rifts and how to reconcile.
Prince Harry visit to Cardiff Castle
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, has been estranged from her father.Ben Birchall / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The strained relationship between Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and her father Thomas Markle generates tabloid headlines, but it’s a family dynamic many people are all too familiar with in their own lives.

More than a quarter of Americans, 27%, are estranged from a close relative, according to a survey conducted for “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” a new book by Cornell University sociologist Karl Pillemer.

Based on responses from 1,340 people, he called it the first national survey ever done on the prevalence of family estrangement. If applied to the general U.S. adult population, it would mean about 67 million people are currently involved in a family rift.

The problem is hiding in plain sight because it’s typically experienced in silence, Pillemer found.

“Even in a world where people air their most intimate problems on social media and elsewhere, this is an issue that causes extraordinary shame, guilt and feelings of isolation,” he said.

“People feel stigmatized and embarrassed when they tell someone they no longer have contact with their mother, father, son, daughter or sibling… (others think) there must be something wrong with you.”

The survey found 10% of the respondents were estranged from a parent or child, 8% from a sibling and 9% from another close relative.

Lane Moore, author of “How To be Alone: If You Want To And Even If You Don't” — a book about her own experiences with family estrangement — said there’s sometimes no alternative to breaking family ties.

“I absolutely advocate for people moving away from having a blind devotion to their families, especially if they treat them poorly. You're allowed to require your family members to be safe and kind to you, and to work with you towards having a relationship that feels good to both of you,” Moore told TODAY.

“If you made that choice because it's best for you, it can still feel extremely lonely, and you can feel like you're the only one feeling that pain and loss.”

Indeed, estrangement from a close relative is persistently painful and a source of chronic stress, Pillemer found based on interviews with 270 people who experienced a rift. It involves rejection, which can be particularly damaging; uncertainty and broken bonds.

Why people stop contact:

Still, family rifts continue to happen. Pillemer’s research revealed six major reasons why people become estranged:

Difficult childhood: adult children often can’t forgive harsh parenting or parental favoritism.

Legacy of divorce: this may cause trauma if the non-custodial parent becomes more distant, or if the stress of divorce forces children to take sides.

Marrying the “wrong” person in the eyes of the family: it could be a person with a difficult personality, someone who is of a different race or practices a different religion, or a partner who isolates the individual from the family.

Money: fights over inheritance or other financial matters.

Values and lifestyle differences: conflicting political or religious views can lead to extraordinary family tensions.

Unmet expectations: Pillemer cited the example of a woman who cared for her aging parents and was angry her siblings didn’t help at all.

Estrangements can last for decades, but unless the situation continues to be dangerous or abusive, it’s at least worth a try to reconcile, he said. When Pillemer talked to 100 people who were able to do it, many told him they did it for themselves, not the other person, and felt a huge sense of relief.

“They found having contact with the relative, even if imperfect, allowed them to continue to process the relationship instead of having it be frozen in time,” Pillemer said. One man told him: “I woke up in the morning and realized I didn’t have in the back of my mind that I haven’t spoken to my brother in 25 years.”

Karen Gail Lewis, a therapist based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who specializes in adult sibling therapy, said she gets several calls a month from people who want to reconcile with a brother or sister they haven’t talked with for years.

She tells clients that if they were close in childhood, they can be close in old age.

How to start a reconciliation

The experts offered these tips:

Notice your own feelings: A reunion often begins with contemplation. “The usual first step is it’s on somebody’s mind,” Pillemer noted. “People enter a stage where (estrangement) doesn’t feel right — it bothers them.”

Consult other people: Seek advice from a supportive spouse or a friend about ending the estrangement.

Anticipate what it will be like: Understand that you could be rejected if you make an overture and rehearse that possibility. Eliminate high, unrealistic expectations of what might happen.

Don’t choose a major family event: A wedding where you’ll both be guests isn't a good venue to make the approach, Pillemer noted. Choose the right time and place. Lewis suggested starting with a phone call or letter simply saying, “I miss you. Can we talk about what happened that caused us to grow apart? I want to hear your version.”

Don't expect an apology: Based on Pillemer’s interviews with 100 people who were able to end their estrangements, almost everyone abandoned the idea they could impose their narrative of what happened in the past on the other person. They focused on the present and the future.

Examine your own role: How did you contribute to the estrangement?

Set clear boundaries: Offer the relative a chance under very specific conditions. That’s especially important if there was abuse. In those cases, it’s possible to reunite if people have changed or the situation has changed, but it’s usually better to do it with the help of a counselor, Pillemer said.

It’s OK if it doesn’t happen now: “If you feel moved to try (to reconcile), absolutely try, but if it's still painful, maybe the timing isn't right yet or you sadly have to grieve the loss that it can't happen,” Moore noted.