The other day, I was having coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. We’d been close in college, and I’d spent a lot of time with him and his family—eating at their kitchen table, watching baseball games on chilly Minnesota afternoons, and, in the summers, hanging out on their boat. I was impressed by how tight-knit, loving, and supportive this family was. Through the many challenges they faced, they seemed not just to look out for one another, but to truly like each other.
So when my friend told me that he and his brother hadn’t spoken in years, my jaw hinged open. The tensions had begun with some back-and-forth about political differences, which had morphed into shouting matches and, eventually, had torn open a cache of old wounds no one had really been aware of. My friend said he didn’t know if he and his brother would ever be able to reconcile.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. Looking further, I found that serious, long-lasting family ruptures are more common than we might think. According to a national survey of 1,300 people conducted by Cornell University sociologist Karl Pillemer, one in four American adults is estranged from a family member. That’s around 67 million people. Half of them have been alienated for four years or more.
How have we come to a place where fully a quarter of Americans aren’t merely disgruntled with family members, but are distressed enough to actually cut them off? What’s the emotional fallout of these fractures, both for those who initiate them and for the rest of the family? And how can therapists best navigate this relational minefield and avoid missteps that could widen an existing fissure?
In this issue, we take a look at the complexities of family rifts. We explore the distinctive qualities of parent–child ruptures and sibling schisms, and the ways each can harden into estrangement if left to fester. The authors of these pieces take on some tough issues: What if the injury wreaked by one family member on another cuts so deep that healing simply isn’t possible? What makes therapists encourage or exacerbate cutoffs—sometimes purposely, other times unwittingly? We offer some time-tested approaches that clinicians can use to help family members begin to reconcile—or at least learn to coexist.
In the case of my friend and his brother, I’m rooting for some kind of reconciliation. But no matter what transpires—healing, a truce, or continuing silence—I hope he arrives at a place of peace.
— Livia Kent, Editor in Chief
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