Family Estrangement: Breaking Family Ties

Robyn Jones
Special to the Campus Times

In America we espouse family values and the ideal of close-knit family ties. In reality, many American families are fractured with nearly a quarter of the population estranged from members of their family.

An estrangement is typically described as a situation where a family member distances themselves from another family member that they no longer want to communicate with. These estrangements can be continuous where there is some communication along with distancing from the person, or it can be intermittent contact.

In a 2019 survey of 67 million people ages 18 years and older, Dr. Karl Pillemar, professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, stated that familial estrangements are more frequent than reported. According to Pillemar’s survey, 27 percent of the respondents were currently dealing with an active estrangement. Within that group, nearly a quarter reported being estranged from a parent, 30 percent were not speaking to their siblings and the remaining respondents reported not talking to other family members.

Twenty-one-year-old Maya Cumplido cut off all relations with her father over what she viewed as his negative parenting style.

“I no longer talk to my dad due to our differing beliefs on the importance of stability in a child’s life and the importance of the child being able to trust their parents,” Cumplido said. According to her, her father believes that children “just need a parent to put food on the table and give them life necessities and nothing more, no emotional support, no, actual stability and like, parent accountability,” she said.

Cumplido was 2 months old when her parents separated, leaving her mother to raise her. For years Cumplido gave her father the opportunity to become a more stable and consistent parent in her life, but the last straw came when he showed up to her high school graduation after the ceremony was over. She says that is when she realized the negative psychological impact he had on her

“It kind of makes me sad not having a dad, but it’s for the better because he didn’t agree that a child needs stability to have a healthy childhood,” Cumplido said. “Just a roof over their head and food was it.”

Family estrangements happen for many reasons and when adults cut off relations with a family member, it often has to do with differences in personal values, the result of divorce, differing expectations about family roles and relationships, neglect, abuse or maltreatment from a parent. Generational trauma is another factor that can play a role in the decision to become estranged from a family member.

Generational trauma is identified as a series of traumatic events a child experiences from the parent and passes it down to their child. Cumplido believes that this is also at play in her relationship with her father.

“I’ve tried to explain it in many ways because his father is the same way he is,” Cumplido said. “So I’d be like, ‘you know, how your dad makes you feel is how you make me feel.’ [but] he never really cared,” she said. “It was kind of like, ‘well, that’s how I was raised, so you got to deal with it.”

According to Terri Barach, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Beverly Hills, outside influences from society can also play a role in a person’s decision to cut family ties. She says the values that children learned from their parents are being replaced by the views and values of others who surround them which can result in family disagreements . She sees the issue as a cultural revolution where everyone is doing what they want to make themselves happy, even if that means removing people from their life.

“There’s a lot of advice out there,” Barach said. “You get your personal beliefs from friends, current articles, and TikTok. They tell you if somebody doesn’t feel healthy to cut them out of your life, so I just think it’s a cultural attitude.”

But she cautions, cutting off communications may do more harm than good.

“I have a bias against estrangement and I will try to see if there’s ways that we can open up the relationship to some contact,” Barach said. “I understand that you might think it’s the healthiest thing, but I will say outwardly that my bias is, you don’t do that,” she said.

Getting to the point of reconciliation can be a difficult process. One reason so many child/parent estrangements go unreported is because parents often find it embarrassing to admit they are no longer communicating with their child.

“People have a lot of shame and embarrassment about it,” Barach said. “All their friends are having what appears to be successful relationships. And it’s miserable. So you don’t want to let everyone know that your kid isn’t talking to you.”

Another obstacle that adult children experience during the reconciliation process involves the parent not acknowledging the part they play in their child’s suffering. In order for the situation to be addressed, Barach says that the parent has to own up to their part in the cut off.

“It’s hard, people tend to be defensive, and sometimes you’re really angry too,” Barach added, “When you’re hurt, it’s sometimes not the easiest thing to do because you might feel very angry with yourself.”

Cumplido says the only way she would be able to consider reconciling with her father is if he would also be open to attending therapy sessions with her to hash out their differences.

“(I want) him to go to therapy with me mainly to have a mediator there and talk everything out because he is a huge gaslighter,” Cumplido said. “So to have somebody there to be on neutral ground and kind of help both of us see if there’s (any) wrongs from my end (as well). I want to see that (too).”

While reconciliation might be the end goal when an estranged family member seeks counseling, in some cases distancing oneself from an unhealthy situation might be necessary according to some therapists.

“I never really like to encourage estrangement, but they’re super common when they’re having complex trauma experiences where emotions have just gone to extreme levels, usually with a parent (where) the child felt unsafe in some way around them,” said Katie Zindskind a holistic licensed family and marriage therapist from Connecticut who specializes in post traumatic stress disorder, couples and relationship therapy, and families that want to reconcile after years of estrangement.

Natalia is a 20-year-old student studying economics who no longer communicates with her father because of what she describes as an abusive relationship. Natalia’s parents divorced in 2003; she lived with her mother who supported her while she still remained in contact with her father and saw him on the weekends. She eventually cut things off with her father completely because of the physical and emotional abuse she says he inflicted on her while she was growing up.

“He was pretty abusive, it was mostly emotional, but all the physical and other types of abuse too, that honestly I didn’t really make the connection with until years after I stopped seeing him. I was like, Okay, I can’t do this anymore,” Natalia said.

Natalia says her father has tried reconnecting with her off and on in the last two years but she resists because she doesn’t believe he will ever change.

“He’s very focused on himself,” Natalia said. “I’ve noticed that he doesn’t have any will to improve or even to be empathetic. He’s just very in his own head. He’s not capable of stepping into the perspective of another person. He does not listen to the things that I said, that my mom has said, that the people who he’s abused have said like, there’s literally no way that he is going to listen, like he’ll (not) go to therapy or anything. He’s kind of a lost cause, honestly,” she said.

In extreme situations where reconciliation is not a possible solution, setting personal boundaries is an alternative route that some therapists have proposed instead.

“Maybe there’s a limited phone call or always seeing the person in public versus in the privacy of their home,” Zindskind said.

In cases like Natalia’s, where the person would like to forget the family member and move on, therapists can help the abused person find outlets to release their anger and help them continue on in life and heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.

For the last three years Natalia has been in and out of therapy dealing with the negative thoughts and feelings that tend to stir within her.

Talking about her experience in therapy, Natalia discovered that because she has never experienced love and affection from her father it led her down a path that caused her to become a person she did not like.

“I have a tendency to be a very insecure person. So for a while I had a lot of social anxiety,” Natalia said. “Going to therapy kind of made me realize that the reason why I just don’t care (anymore) is because I wasn’t enough of a reason for him to go to therapy or to get help. I just wasn’t important enough for him,” she said.

In order to help heal or undo the damage that was done, Natalia’s therapist suggested that she write a letter to her father that she will never send, but for Natalia, she found that being the adult her younger self needed is what she found to be more useful.

“I’ve just been trying to heal childhood wounds by maybe thinking back to (some) memories that really affected me, and then trying to imagine myself being there and telling (my younger self), what it is that I needed at that moment,” Natalia said.

Similar to Natalia’s therapy experience, Cumplido went into therapy right after cutting off all relations with her father.

After being in therapy for two years, Cumplido found that she has experienced a lot of personal growth during her own healing journey.

“Learning how to let go of all that pain and turning it into something better…and realizing maybe he was that type of parent for a reason, helped shape the person that I am today,” Cumplido said.

Her therapist also provided her with other coping techniques such as breathing exercises where she breathes in and lets go as she exhales. Cumplido also found that writing a letter each day that contained the words she had been wanting to tell father, then burning the letter also helped  her with the process of letting go.

“In the beginning, it helped me a lot. But now I’m kind of just like, I’ve run out of things to say,” Cumplido said.” I feel like that was the main thing I was seeking therapy for.” 

According to Pillemer, most estrangements typically last up to four years because both individuals in the estrangement begin to miss having some form of communication with each other after a while. So In order to begin reconciling a relationship, therapists recommend that both the parent and child should start by entering therapy together.

“There’s a beauty in that because the parent can start to see what the child went through, and not continuously blame the child for the estrangement,” Zindskind said.

In addition, Barach says that finding a good therapist that is experienced in estrangements and willing to work with both the adult child and the parent is the first step.

Working toward reconciliation is a slow process. Putting an end to family rifts through therapy is the end goal all therapists share. Reconciliation is a tough internal thought process that both estranged individuals have to be ready to face together in order to mend the relationship.

Robyn Jones can be reached at

Robyn Jones is a senior journalism major and sports editor for the Campus Times. She is also a member of Iota Delta and a freelance photographer whose work can be found on Instagram at @jnaisphotos.

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