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Coping with a Family Rift

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

By

Updated April 09, 2004

We read so much about family estrangement, about mothers and fathers and their grown children who simply enter a cold war of ceased communication: Eminem and his mother, Jennifer Aniston, Kim Basinger, Jenna Malone, and their mothers, Gerard Depardieu and his son, the Reagans, whose estrangement from their children even merited prominence in the TV special about the former First Family. The list goes on and on.

While glamorous stars get into the spotlight when there's a rift in their family, the problem afflicts ordinary folk with a surprising frequency as well. There's a shocking lack of statistics available on the subject of family estrangement, but as a psychotherapist in practice for many years, it's my impression that cut-offs have become a lot more common than they used to be. I hear this from other therapists, too. I also teach family counseling to pastors of all faiths and they tell me that family rifts are an increasingly frequent problem brought to the clergy's attention.

In my own practice, I'm reminded of Gail*, a young mother and freelance commercial artist in New York. Gail has two of the most wonderful daughters in the world, but her mother hasn't spoken to her since she married Carlos, her college sweetheart, who's unacceptable to her mother because he's Latino. Janet is a grandmother of four who's got a great relationship with her two sons, but whose daughter Shelly hasn't spoken to her since she divorced Shelly's father.

Why are so many family members not speaking to each other these days? If I had to isolate the common thread in these situations, I'd have to say it's because of intolerance. Certainly that's evident in instances where family members bury each other for lifestyle choices such as homosexuality and choices to marry outside one's religion, race, nationality or ethnicity. But intolerance is also the root cause of family fights that lead to rifts, and by that I mean a prejudice toward differing points of views, small-mindedness when it comes to giving up a grudge, or pettiness and nastiness about forgiveness. It's very similar to the intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice that create rifts between nations and among diverse groups in our cities, states, and nation.

There are other factors, of course. For example, these days people feel freer to stand behind their convictions and don't feel as much of a demand to comply with rules that don't make sense to them. This may be expressed in intermarriage or coming out of the closet. People are increasingly unwilling to deny their real selves and their genuine feelings and desires. I think that's a wonderful sign of progress in our society. Unfortunately, often their family doesn't think that's so great. They think that by cutting off the family member they will change his or her behavior.

Increased freedom has also brought on changes in rules for civil behavior. Family members who at one point might have been constrained by religion or social custom now feel free at times to act on impulses that are devoid of spiritual or social appropriateness.

Living with a family estrangement is extremely painful and can even be debilitating. But I know from personal experience and from treating hundreds of patients in this situation that healing is possible. The central premise of this article is that all healing starts from within. The most important reconciliation is the one you make with yourself. That way, your family's willingness or unwillingness to participate in a healing process will not be able to take away your peace of mind. When you feel good about yourself and the ways in which you relate to others and are at peace with your spiritual side, you'll be okay whether or not your family speaks to you.

For a more detailed guide to overcoming the panic brought on by dysfunctional family experiences, read Mark Sichel's new book, Healing From Family Rifts : Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off From a Family Member.

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