Ambiguous loss

When parents and children don’t speak.

Rebellious teen and worried mother (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Rebellious teen and worried mother (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
How many times do you speak to your adult children? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month? As children become adults, they move away from their family unit, but for some, the contact is not just sporadic, it is nonexistent. These are the families where estrangement has caused a complete and total breakdown in communication.
Phillip and Emily, a couple in their 60s, came to the hotel dining room for the Seder. The American couple to their right introduced themselves and, as they did, Emily felt the tension rising. She knew the question was coming. Once names had been exchanged and a little Jewish geography played, the inevitable follow up: “Do you have any children? What are they doing for the holidays?”
What could she answer? That she had two children. One was with her in-laws for Passover, but she didn’t know what the other one was doing since her son had not spoken to her or her husband for three years, and they hadn’t seen their grandson in that time. It was so hurtful, so embarrassing that Emily turned away, reluctant to engage in conversation and felt a desperate sense of aloneness.
Emily is not alone. Parental estrangement is a common, though widely unreported, phenomenon.
Although in Israel there have been no studies to reveal how widespread this issue is, a recent survey in the UK by Stand Alone, a charity that supports people who are affected by family estrangement, found that of the people they surveyed, 8% had themselves cut off contact with a family member. A US study found that 7% of adult children were disconnected from their mother and 27% of children were disconnected from their father.
It is hard to analyze the data as people usually don’t talk about the issue – it is painful and, for many, embarrassing that their relationship with a child is at a point where there is no communication.
In Israeli society, where family ties are particularly valued, this can make family estrangement even harder to deal with and talk about. Family estrangement is a hidden form of divorce, creating waves of pain through the family. And since the estrangement is not public, people experiencing it are left unsupported.
In most cases, it is the child who decides to cut off all contact with the parents. One study found that children are five times more likely to cut themselves off from their parents than vice versa, and that the severing of communication is more likely to be initiated by a son than a daughter.
Finding reasons for the estrangement can be complicated. In some cases, it can be a healthy response to an emotionally damaging relationship, but the explanations for any estrangement will be as exhaustive as the different families themselves. While reasons can be given for the estrangement, a large proportion of parents are left confused and in the dark.
THERE HAS been some light shed on the issue by research conducted by Cambridge University.
The research found that the most common reason given for a rift between a parent and a child stemmed from issues surrounding the divorce of the parents. In recent years, there has been increasing awareness of a condition known as PAS (parental alienation syndrome). This condition arises when one parent purposefully alienates the child from the other parent. PAS usually happens when the children are younger but can continue well into adulthood and explains the high levels of estrangement in children of divorced parents.
The second most common reason concerned in-laws. In the survey, 25% of the men who had cut off contact with their parents mentioned issues related to their in-laws, while only 14% of the women cited their in-laws. This indicates that when it comes to in-laws, a daughter-in-law is much more likely to inflate the situation than a son-in-law, a fact most people instinctively feel to be true.
In one situation, the mother-in-law felt the daughter-in-law to be an unsuitable match for her son. The daughter-in-law, well aware of her mother-in-law’s views, took every opportunity to avoid spending time with her in-laws. The continuing tensions led to a situation where tempers flared and a row ensued. Initially, this led to the son visiting his parents alone, but as the parents brought up the topic of his wife every time their son visited, he came less and less often until contact was cut off completely.
One other major factor in estrangement is where the child makes a life choice that is not in line with the family’s values. These can include issues relating to sexual orientation or religion. In values cases, it may be that the parents or the children feel they have no alternative but to choose between values and family. Ellen G. Benswanger, in her paper “Strategies to Explore Cut-offs,” explains that this is particularly prevalent where a family perceives the choice as a threat to family solidarity, identity and survival. In Israel, an example of this concerns those who leave the haredi lifestyle and, with it, their families.
The pain felt on both sides by estrangement is deep and continuing. Dr. Pauline Boss, a family therapist, coined the term “ambiguous loss” in 1975 as a concept that describes circumstances in which a person is physically present but psychologically absent or physically absent but psychologically present.
Parental estrangement is where the child is physically not there but exists in the parent’s mind. The parents cannot deal with their “bereavement or grief,” as it is ongoing. Hurt can be exacerbated by social media, as parents or children can follow events in each other’s lives but not actually have contact. In Emily and Phillip’s case, they search Facebook for friends of their son so they can view pictures of their grandson.
The good news is that in many cases, communication can be reestablished. It is a delicate process that can take time, a great deal of effort and a lot of restraint to not play the “who’s at fault” game. Key is a persistent and slow approach coupled with a realization that the relationship may have changed into something different than it was before the rift.
SO WHAT do you do if your child has decided to cut off from you? The first advice from all professionals would be to keep the lines of communication open.
Try to talk, or don’t

Communication depends on the situation. If the estrangement is relatively new, both sides might be willing to sit down to try to talk about why they are in this situation. In the event that they need more help, they can see a therapist or mediator. It is hard to gauge, but conversely, talking is sometimes not the answer, as the other person could be pushed farther away by feeling pressured into a discussion. If you feel you are on this side of the equation, try to pretend all is normal. Calling on Sundays or going for Friday night dinner as normal, even if you feel the disconnect, might ease you back into a place where you can communicate about the relevant issues.
Keep lines of communication open

Many times, the situation has deteriorated to a point where the child does not want to talk. If this is the case, communication will be one-sided, and although hard to maintain, keeping an open line of communication is crucial even if it is not reciprocated. This can be as simple as WhatsApping or emailing every week. If even this is not available, a hand-written letter or postcard shows the child that there is a way back if they choose to take it. Try not to put pressure on the other person and do not discuss the issues you feel are contributing to the estrangement, as this could make the child more reluctant to engage.
Don’t try to prove your point
Sheila Sheen, co-author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, advises not to try to prove to the other person why you are right and they are wrong. In many cases, the facts have already been laid out and will just draw you back into an argument and the same intractable position. A better tack is to explain that you miss the person and to set a time to meet or do something together.
Stay off topic
Sheen additionally advises doing something together that is pleasant to both of you and which has no connection to the rift between you (going to a movie, playing tennis or going to a sporting activity). Sheen explains that many people will avoid the other person because they don’t want to discuss the issue that is bothering them, so actively not discussing the issue will allow communication to take place.
Stay in the game
One last – but very important – point to note, as Joshua Coleman, author of When Parents Hurt, explains, is to “stay in the game.” He writes that most people give up after a certain amount of time (and this time period is too short). After a certain interval, you can slow the amount of contact, maybe from an email once a week to an email each month, but it should always be kept going so the door is constantly open.