How to navigate estrangement and toxic relationships

two women looking in different directions
Guest host Catharine Richert talks with two psychologists about estrangement and how we can navigate our most complicated relationships with family and friends.
Liza Summer via Pexels

Do you have a family member who you are just not speaking to right now? 

You’re not alone. About 27 percent of American adults say they have cut off contact with a family member, according to one study from Cornell University. 

So how do you decide when to cut someone off or to try to repair the relationship? And what about if you are the one who someone has stopped speaking to?

Guest host and MPR News reporter Catharine Richert talks with two psychologists about estrangement and how we can navigate our most complicated relationships with family and friends.

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Guests:

  • Joshua Coleman is a psychologist and a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-partisan organization that focuses on research about American families. He is also the author of “The Rules of Estrangement.”

  • Lindsay C. Gibson is a clinical psychologist and the author of “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents.”

Both guests agree that estrangement is a complete or almost complete cut off where one person doesn't want to be in contact with a friend or family member and the other person really does want to be in contact. Some of the pathways to estrangement are parents who were emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or neglectful; mental illness or addictions; divorce; therapists that misdiagnose and encourage an estrangement; and even when adult children feel too enmeshed with their parents.

Here are some key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

What were some of the common themes and ideas of estrangement you hear in your practice?

Lindsay C. Gibson: I identify a pattern of emotional immaturity, usually in the people around them. It's usually like they would like to be estranged, but they haven't taken that step yet and they may never take that step. They are caught in this kind of no man's land between not enjoying spending time with the family member, actively disliking the family member and then being really victimized by the family member by emotional abuse or other kinds of disrespect.

Yet, they don't feel they have the right to stand up to them or to declare their own boundaries. Instead, they feel like they've got to take care of that parent or that family member. They've got to keep the waters smooth. They also have to disconnect from themselves and suppress their whole individuality in order to have a relationship or a family bond with this other person.


Joshua Coleman: A very recent study found that 27 percent of fathers are estranged from children, and they're much more likely to be estranged from daughters than sons. In my practice, divorce can be a common pathway to estrangement because one parent may poison the child against the other parent, which is what we call parental alienation. Secondly, the child may independently decide that one parent is more to blame for breaking up the family and that may cause estrangement. Divorce and remarriage can bring in new people that compete with a child young or old, on emotional and financial resources. Finally, in a highly individualistic culture like ours, it can cause the adult child to see the parents more as individuals with their own kind of strengths and weaknesses and less of the family unit that they're a part of.

How does the parent’s cultural mindset influence estrangement?

Lindsay C. Gibson: We have all these cultural assumptions that all parents love their children, parents would do anything for their children, all these tropes that we accept as a society as being facts. It has to be proven to us that it's not a fact. Those kinds of emotional pressures we feel about continuing to be the child of a parent who has treated us badly cause so much conflict and pain. I always ask people: what if you considered your rights as a person, as an individual? And what if you took a stand toward this person, not as your mother, but just as another human being? 

Sometimes the child might, out of guilt, agree to spend time with the parent, sort of be there for them. We have a reversal of roles, instead of the parent being concerned about how the kids are doing in that situation, the child is now concerned about how the parent is doing in that situation. It is very common. The role of the other parent is to listen to the children about their conflicts between guilt and loyalty. Loyalty is a fine, important part of their character development, and to understand that you can be so torn and to understand why you are deciding to keep contact or not, is something that helps that child develop their own moral character, but not at the expense of their own psychological health. That's what that parent is there for, to help the child see all the ramifications of whichever decision they make.


Joshua Coleman: Parents often don't understand the reasons for estrangement either because culturally they were raised at a time or in a culture where “honor thy mother and father, respect the elders” was still very much the dominant ideology, or their ideas of what constitutes emotional abuse are different, making it harder for parents to empathize. I do believe that the buck stops with parents and that parents should be the ones taking the high road to reconciliation. And it has often been a one-way street for a long time.

Parents should respond with empathy and curiosity and assume that there's a kernel, if not a bushel of truth in that person's complaints or desires to cut off contact. What I always advise parents to say is: “I know you wouldn't do this unless you felt like it was the healthiest thing for you to do.” So parents have to approach the person with empathy and be willing to do a deep dive, a fearless moral inventory of your own character flaws. But if the parents are trying to have a reconciliation, they have to come from the perspective of understanding, showing empathy and taking responsibility; not defending, explaining or saying they did the best they could. One of the things that is confusing for parents is being accused of emotionally abusing or neglecting their children when they were younger. There is an important study by psychologist Nick Haslam in Australia, who talks about the notion of concept creep and he found that over the past three decades, we've enormously expanded what we believe to be considered emotional abuse, harmful behavior, traumatizing or neglectful behavior. And so often, there's a very different conversation that's happening between younger generations and older generations.

Have you found that estrangement is more common today than it used to be? Why?


Joshua Coleman: Yes. The role of psychology, people looking at their childhoods, mental health and preservation of personal well being in orientation towards growth and happiness, have really become the dominant moral framework today. This helps people decide whether or not to keep or reject family members. It’s constituted on the basis of whether or not the relationship is aligned with our ideals for happiness and growth.

I think we're all just much more fragile, or much more on edge. We used to have the idea that you just don't talk about sex, politics or religion since they're potentially controversial. Now, they become these big forms of value signaling and identity markers and if somebody's on the opposite side of the party, we make all these attributions of who they are. On the one hand, I applaud the discussion about boundaries and setting limits, but I feel like we've lost our sense of obligation, responsibility, caretaking and compassion for other people, including family members. I think a lot of therapists aren't as mindful and often are too quick to embrace the whole no-contact, estrangement perspective in harmful and destructive ways.


What role do human rights play in estrangement?

Lindsay C. Gibson: Over the past few decades, there's been an explosion of awareness about human rights, and what human rights address is the importance of the individual and the individual's inner experience. We have defined this in terms of our human rights approach and we have accepted that people's psychological experiences are huge. They're paramount in a person's well being and mental health. 

So many emotionally immature parents and family members really trample on their children's mental health, self respect and human rights. They particularly are disrespectful of the child's journey to become an individual. As a consequence, they do not function as well and their relationships are not as mature and rewarding. Their success socially and in jobs is often affected by that.

Joshua Coleman: While there are emotionally immature parents, there are emotionally immature adult children who are very abusive to their parents. I think we have to be careful as a society when we're saying that estrangement is a natural, positive, healthy pathway to manage relationships. 

The other thing we have to be thinking about, in terms of rights, is the rights of the parent, particularly a parent who is willing to empathize, show compassion, take responsibility and repair. These are adult children who weren't physically abused, molested or neglected. I think it's important to think about the consequences of that estrangement because it is not typically just between that parent and the adult child, it often fractures families significantly. We have to be very careful when we're recommending it as an option.

How do you advise people who are considering cutting parents off for not respecting their identity? 

Joshua Coleman: If a parent is being abusive and they engage with their adult child in an ongoing, humiliating, shaming, rejecting way, whether it's around their religion, their gender identity, their sexuality, etc., it is very hard for any reasonable therapist to endorse continuing that person to be in contact with them. However, I think that you should start with compassion if you're a trans person, and you're announcing that to your parents, I don't think it's fair to a parent to immediately assume that they're transphobic. I think there's too much support for people cutting off parents who just have anxiety about gender affirming procedures. I think we should be supportive of the trans community, but also be supportive of the parents who are being asked to accept something about their child's identity that's completely at odds with their knowledge, rightly or wrongly. I do think that parents have to accept and embrace the adult child's identity because they get to decide who they are. A lot of estrangement could be reconciled or healed if the parent were to just embrace it and manage their feelings separately from that, but I also would ask the trans community and other people who are making these kinds of announcements to have compassion for the parents and educate them. 


Lindsay C. Gibson: My experience with my clients has been that parents hold enormous emotional power over the child, the child is still very emotionally dependent on the parent. They don't seek estrangement or cut their parents off, it’s quite the opposite. They're hanging in there, suffering, having their parents treat their grandchildren in ways that they don't approve of, scared to raise their voice to step in on the parent and set some boundaries. My clinical experience has probably been a little different from Josh's, because the people that come to see me are really struggling with this, either to live with this person or without this person, so that their self esteem and their self individuality can be preserved. If a person were to come into my office and say: “I'm going to cut my parents off, I need help with that.” I would, of course, want to know all about that but we would also very much talk about what the costs of that might be. I don't feel that a parent has a right to be in somebody's life or be in their children's life if they're not willing to respect and treat that person as an individual with their own way of looking at things. I just want to reiterate that I would very much encourage that person to build their strength, build their individuality by communicating with that parent, by trying to work things out and by asking for relationship repair. I always do that because if somebody just cuts somebody off and moves across the country, they don't grow from that.

Your stories of estrangement

Listeners called into the show and shared their stories. Here are a few of them.

‘I felt like I had to make this bond because she's my mom’

My mother kicked me out when I was 18, and I ended up living with my father. She was emotionally abusive, and she kept in contact with me. For years, I tried to keep the relationship going, I tried to make this bond with my mother. I felt like I had to because she's my mom. Years later, I realized that she would never take accountability for what she had done, and the hurt that she had caused me. I haven't spoken to her in like three years now. 

I’ve navigated those feelings through lots and lots of therapy, and thankfully, I've had support from my partner and older sister. She also experienced pain from my mother, so we were able to rely on each other for support.

— Ally in Duluth

‘I don't know anything about my daughter’

Me and my daughter were estranged for 20 years after an extremely acrimonious divorce. Looking back, I know that she was most heavily influenced by her mother and her grandmother and she chose to cut me off as her dad. I waited. I wrote to her. We had a few very tense conversations, mostly via email. We would send Christmas cards or birthday cards, and I would occasionally take her out for a meal if she was in town, which was very uncomfortable. But after 20 years, she called me and said: “I'd like to see if we could have a cordial relationship,” and I asked her what that meant. She said: “Well, we can sit down and talk to each other and see where it goes.” So I took that and ran with it. We had a series of pretty uncomfortable conversations for the course of the first six months, and then it started to smooth out. It's been three years now, but I feel it's been a one-way relationship. I mean, if I call her she'll respond, but I don't know anything about her. I don't know who she turned out to be. My hope is that at some point, we can have a conversation about who she is as a human being.

— Robbie in Minneapolis

‘Being estranged from my mother was one of the best and healthiest decisions I have made’

I’ve been estranged from my mother since the day after Christmas in 2014. She was emotionally, verbally and sometimes physically abusive. I kind of grew up my whole life trying to fix my own attachment issues and to get my mother to be the mother figure that I really wanted. I was living far away from home and on Christmas Eve there was a giant blizzard, and I didn't feel safe driving the four hours home. My mother was very upset with me, she shamed me for the last time about that and called me a bunch of names. I didn't decide that day I was going to be in no contact forever, but I had blocked her on all these things. I had actively been in therapy since I was 18 and I think I was 24 at this point. Being in recovery, I decided: “Today, I'm not going to talk to her, tomorrow, maybe I will.” But now, after 10 years, I can say with confidence, although I've struggled greatly with whether or not I should try to rekindle that relationship, it was probably one of the best and healthiest decisions I have made in my adult life.

— Ashley in Minneapolis

‘My mother refused to acknowledge my trans identity’

A couple of years ago, when I came out as trans to her, she refused to acknowledge my identity. After a while, she and my stepfather ended up moving out of state. I cut them off. It's a little bit easier to cut someone off when they live across the country from you. My father was supportive of me, but he passed away in November. That was the first time I actually heard from my mother in so long, she called me to say that she was sorry that my dad died. And I talked to her for about two minutes and haven't spoken to her since.

— Gabriel in Woodbury

‘My son told me his new stepmom is the only mom he needs’

I got divorced and my twin boys were quite young. And for the first four or five years, my ex husband would show up on weekends, but day to day, I was really in their world. Flash forward, we both had an idea that one of my sons could be gay and we were supporting him the best we could and giving him space to be who he wants to be. During high school, my son started pushing back on me. I know that I was emotionally trying to cling to them because they were really my only family. I probably overreacted and tried too hard. Over the years, he's really pushed me away and I've only really seen him one time a year. I tried to be very flexible and open, he's even said to me his new stepmom is the only mom he needs. So long story short, this past year, we've had kind of a crisis with his twin brother and during this time of concern about his brother, he reached out to me and shared that he's really been so appreciative that I've been able to be so open and loving and just wanting to know everything about him. He does know that I tried the best I could. I was so excited about this conversation but then he went radio silent.

— Shawn in Minneapolis