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The truth about family estrangement

It’s often said that food brings people together. But it can also split families apart.


Cookbook author Nandita Godbole has experienced this first-hand. Her affluent Indian family, who generally had hired cooks in their homes, disapproved of her choice of profession. By working with food, she was going against their expectations. When Godbole’s recent book Ten Thousand Tongues: Secrets of a Layered Kitchen delved deep into family history, she met even more resistance.

对于这一点,美食作家戈德博尔(Nanditi Godbole)深有体会。她出生于一个富裕的印度家庭,家里有专门的厨师,因此家人很反对她从事和美食打交道的工作,她背离了家庭的期望。不只如此,她最近还出版了一本新书——《千万种口味:厨房里的层层秘密》,书中探究了自已家族的历史,她也因此遭遇了更大的家庭阻力。

Clearly, this wasn’t just about the food. By changing traditional recipes – and exploring parts of her family history that others felt ownership over – she was perceived as challenging family hierarchies. Some relatives stopped speaking to her.

Godbole’s story may be unique. But her experience of disconnection from her family is far from unusual.


Family estrangement has been defined as distancing and loss of affection that occurs over years or even decades within a family. It isn’t clear if such estrangement is on the rise, since it is a relatively young field of research.


But it is common. Research by Stand Alone, a UK charity that supports people who are estranged from relatives, suggests that estrangement affects at least one in five British families. One US study of more than 2,000 mother-child pairs found that 10% of mothers were currently estranged from at least one adult child. And one US study found that more than 40% of participants had experienced family estrangement at some point – suggesting that in certain groups, such as US college students, estrangement may be almost as common as divorce.

现在所知道的是这种情况并非少数。英国有一家名为“Stand Alone”的慈善机构,专为与家人断绝关系的人提供支持。他们发现,英国有超过五分之一的家庭中存在这种现象。美国有一项调查,在调查了逾2000对母子后发现,有10%的母亲和成年子女关系疏远。美国另一项调查发现,超过40%的受访者或多或少都和家人产生过隔阂,某些群体,比如美国大学生中,家庭关系疏远几乎和离婚一样寻常。

Stand Alone founder Becca Bland, who has personal experience of estrangement as she has no contact with her parents, has also noticed that the topic is much more discussed now than it was even five years ago. This is borne out by Google Trends data showing steady growth in people searching for estrangement-related terms, primarily in Canada, Australia and Singapore.

布兰德(Becca Bland)是“Stand Alone”组织的创始人,她也有与父母关系疏远的经历。她发现,和5年前相比,如今家庭关系疏远的话题大大提升。在谷歌的搜寻数据中,家庭成员情感疏离的话题热度呈增长趋势,在加拿大、澳大利亚和新加坡尤为如此。

“I think Meghan Markle and the royal family have definitely made family estrangement news,” says Bland. The Duchess of Sussex, who in 2018 was the most Googled person in the UK (and second most Googled person in the US), has driven recent conversation around complex families due to her own difficult relationship with her father. So have other celebrities like Anthony Hopkins, who acknowledged in a 2018 interview that he’s barely spoken with his daughter in two decades. Celebrity gossip can be a useful way for ordinary people to process and explain their own life experiences.

布兰德表示:“我认为,梅根王妃(Meghan Markle)和英国王室的关系肯定也制造了家庭隔阂的新闻。”2018年,英国人谷歌搜寻次数最多(在美排行第二)的人物是萨塞克斯公爵夫人(Duchess of Sussex)。她和父亲的关系十分紧张,这种复杂的家庭关系成为公众热议。其他名人也是如此,如英国演员、导演霍普金斯(Anthony Hopkins)就曾在2018年的一个采访中承认,过去的20年里几乎没有和女儿有过沟通。普通人要处理和消化自身的生活经历,参考名人八卦无疑是一种有用的方式。

Though examples of estrangement can be found around the globe, it’s more common in some societies than others.


One factor seems to be whether a government offers strong support to residents. In countries with robust welfare systems, people simply need their families less – giving them more choice over whether to maintain ties. In Europe, for instance, older parents and adult children tend to interact more and live closer to each other in countries further south, where public assistance is more limited.


Financial factors also intersect with other factors, such as education and race. In Germany, higher education levels of adult children are associated with higher rates of conflict with their parents. One theory is that highly educated family members are likely to be more geographically mobile, and less likely to need each other financially.


The research of Megan Gilligan and colleagues, on caregiving-related conflict in US families, has shown racial differences in the experiences of adult children. But it can be difficult to separate out the influences of culture and class. Gilligan, a gerontologist at Iowa State University, notes that in the US, “minority families tend to co-reside more; they tend to be more reliant on exchanges”.

吉利根(Megan Gilligan)团队研究了美国家庭中的养老问题,发现种族问题也是冲突的一个因素。但很难把文化和阶级因素的影响区分开来。吉利根是爱荷华州立大学(Iowa State University)的老年病学家,她指出,“少数族裔家庭更习惯于家庭成员住在一起;对于利益互换的依赖度更高。”

In Uganda, family estrangement is on the rise, says Stephen Wandera, a demographer at Makerere University in Kampala. Ugandan families have traditionally been large and extended – which proved crucial in recent decades as family members stepped in to care for people orphaned or devastated by civil war or Aids.

乌干达坎帕拉(Kampala)的马克雷大学(Makerere University)的人口统计学家万德拉(Stephen Wandera)表示,在乌干达,家庭关系疏远的比率也在增加。几十年来,很多人因战争、艾滋病等原因沦为孤儿。此时,规模庞大的乌干达家庭发挥了重要作用,很多孤儿会由亲人代为照顾。

But in recent research, Wandera and colleagues found that 9% of Ugandans aged 50 and over live alone – a surprisingly high percentage. That’s not the same as estrangement, of course. But Wandera says that as families get smaller and more nuclear, and as urbanisation increases, the prevalence of estrangement is likely to rise.


This won’t be happening right away. “Cultural norms are still strong, and they take time to fade,” he says. But Wandera expects change within 20 years or so.


This doesn’t mean that governments should limit financial support to older people to encourage stronger families. Spanish family culture has been called “more coercive” than, for example, Norway’s, where intergenerational relationships are generally more amicable because they’re chosen and less financially pressured.


Why it happens


Divorce contributes to the loss of family relationships, especially with fathers. So do secrets. The abandonment of relatives with marginalised identities is also a common factor, such as family rejection of sexual and gender minorities in Vietnam.


But estrangement is often quiet and undramatic. Gilligan explains that it’s typically gradual, rather than a big event. The people she’s interviewed have often said “I don’t quite know how this happened” rather than pointing to a specific incident, she says.


Still, even if the triggers seem trivial, they reflect long-lived tension. Families looking to reconcile should recognise that conflicts are unlikely to be just about isolated incidents, so it could be helpful to engage with the past.


For those seeking reconciliation – or to prevent estrangement to begin with – suspending judgement may also be helpful. In her research with older mothers, 10% of whom were estranged from an adult child, Gilligan found that the most significant factor in the estrangement was a mismatch in values. For instance, “if the mother really valued the religious beliefs and practices and the child had violated them, the mother… really viewed it as offensive”, she says.


Factors went beyond religion too. One mother who highly valued truthfulness cut off a son who told lies, while a mother who highly valued self-reliance stopped speaking with a daughter who she believed was dependent on a man.


In fact, these violations of what mothers saw as their personal values made estrangement even more likely than when there were societal norm violations – such as the child having committed a crime. And this value congruence was more important to mothers than to fathers.


The mothers “were kind of describing the things they just couldn’t let go [of] – things that had happened that had been upsetting to the mother”, Gilligan says. “It just constantly kept coming up in the relationships. So they never got over it.”


And as in the classic Japanese film Rashomon or the TV series The Affair, two people can have such different memories of the same experience that it’s almost as if it wasn’t the same experience at all.

像日本经典电影《罗生门》或电视剧《婚外情》(The Affair)中一样,两个人对同一段经历有着完全不同的记忆,其所经历的仿佛是截然不同的事情。

Adult children in the UK, for example, most often mention emotional abuse as the cause of their estrangement from their parents. But parents are much less likely to mention emotional abuse (which refers to persistent attempts at control through humiliation, criticism or any of a number of other damaging behaviours). Instead, they referred more often to causes like divorce, or mismatched expectations.


Since Gilligan’s research was focused on mothers, she didn’t speak with their children. So, it’s difficult to know if the same trend would have applied. But either way, this disconnect is common. “The estranged adult child and the parent are not communicating about what’s upsetting to them, so I don’t really think they’re on the same page at all,” she says. And, of course, if one person is defensive or unwilling to listen, the pair might be speaking without truly communicating.


Bland sees this disconnect as stemming from how the generations have very different conceptions of family.


“There was a rigidity about family in the post-war generation” in the UK, she says. People saw their family relationships in terms of concepts of duty and self-sacrifice, which sometimes meant people putting up with emotional or physical abuse – or not perceiving it.


For siblings, mismatched values and expectations also play a role. But parental favouritism is another significant factor.


Estrangement’s upsides


While it could be easy to see estrangement as solely negative, the reality is more complicated. Just as traditional taboos against divorce can keep women tethered to abusive and exploitative marriages, a dogmatic belief in the sanctity of families can keep people suffering needlessly.


“Some of the clinical literature would say, actually, estrangement is maybe the best way to deal with these types of relationships,” says Gilligan. “If [relationships] are this conflictual, if they’re causing this much anguish… maybe this is the healthiest way for parents and adult children to deal with that.”


People can feel that cutting out toxic relationships was the right choice. The Stand Alone report found that, for more than 80% of people affected, choosing to end contact is associated with at least some positive outcomes like freedom and independence. It can be a crucial step away from a legacy of abuse.

断绝有害的关系,普遍认为是正确的选择。“Stand Alone”组织有一项报告指出,断绝联系后有80%的家庭能感受到积极的作用,如自由、独立等。这可能是摆脱虐待的关键所在。

It’s also important to note that estrangement isn’t always permanent; people cycle in and out of distance and reunification. Nor are conflicts always with every other member of a family. Trang Nguyen, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University, comments that among Vietnamese families where there’s parental rejection of LGBT women or trans men, “usually siblings are closer, and a supportive sibling helps a lot”.

有一点需要指出:家庭成员断绝来往并不是永远的,人们常在产生隔阂与和解之间反复。家庭冲突也不会仅针对其中某一位成员。约翰霍普金斯大学(Johns Hopkins University)的公共卫生研究员阮桥庄(Trang Nguyen)说,越南父母对于LGBT中的女性和跨性别男性(女变男)接受度低。“一般来说越南家庭兄弟姐妹之间的关系更亲密,如果能有兄弟姐妹的支持,对于个体来说也会有很大帮助。”

Family estrangement is painful partly because it’s an ambiguous loss, one without finality or closure.


It’s also one many other people don’t understand.


“There definitely seems to be consequences of estrangement psychologically, but maybe the consequence is the stigma,” Gilligan says. In other words, cutting off contact with a family member might be most painful because of the way society misunderstands and attaches shame to it.


One online article aimed at pensioners blames individualism, divorce culture, psychotherapy, and “a child’s immaturity” for estrangement. Even therapists commonly blame, dismiss or disbelieve their patients who are describing estrangement. Women are especially likely to be stigmatised. Some people limit their social interactions to avoid discussing family.


But experts say that people who are already isolated from their families shouldn’t be made to feel even more alienated over their situation – whether it was one over which they had little control, or a decision unlikely to have been reached lightly. From an academic standpoint, the stigma also makes it hard to know exactly how many people are estranged from their families. It’s especially likely to be under-reported in cultures where it’s socially unacceptable to discuss family conflict.


Cookbook author Godbole is familiar with that stigma. “I have accepted that it may take a while for people to come around, and some never may,” she says. “I am OK with that.”


Estrangement, it seems, doesn’t always need to be “fixed”. But as with other painful experiences, the shame of the situation might.

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