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For families, holiday gatherings can be a sort of annual roll call. This year, familiar faces were absent from many family tables – often due to estrangement.
The alienated constitute a large, uninformed group, and one that is not easy to measure. Specific numbers are almost non-existent, in part because people are reluctant to admit to being estranged from family members. Despite the lack of hard data, however, some researchers believe that alienation is widespread and grossly underreported.
In general, the nuclear family is no longer the norm due to many trends. Young adults are delaying or rejecting marriage and postponing childbearing, leading to a decline in birth rates. Meanwhile, the baby boomer and millennial generations, compared to their parents and grandparents, tend to live further away from their families—a circumstance that limits contact. And while previous generations found themselves glued together by lifelong marriages and the many connections of large families, boomers have fewer relationships, fewer children and more divorces.
“We are living through probably the most rapid change in family structure in human history,” political commentator David Brooks wrote in a 2020 article for Atlantic Ocean. “The reasons are economic, cultural and institutional all at once.”
He noted that only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families, and only a third of Americans live in this type of family. Consequently, the nuclear family is no longer the most important source of identity, values, financial support and lifelong emotional sustenance.
Today’s family structure—transformed from an interconnected, widely distributed nuclear group to a smaller, decentralized, loose network of kin—also lacks the reasonably clear guidelines and expectations that sisters and brothers once had for their relationships. In the absence of demanding cultural mandates that families stay together, people today who find themselves in difficult, disrespectful or abusive family relationships are far more ready to find a way out than to endure it.
Although sibling alienation cuts across all cultures and classes, some groups are more likely to end family relationships. People with more education and higher social status are often more geographically mobile and less dependent on the family’s financial resources. Higher achievers also have a larger social network and are therefore less connected, emotionally and socially, to the family.
Families rooted in traditional immigrant cultures are the exception. Children in these families tend to feel an obligation to maintain relationships with their brothers and sisters, often to honor their parents. In general, stronger family ties are found among working-class and poor families compared to those in the middle class.
The latest poll numbers confirm earlier results.
Recent polls reflect these trends. A poll conducted last October by HarrisX for Deseret news showed that 7 out of 10 adults said they are on speaking terms with everyone in their immediate family – parents, children and siblings. About a quarter said they don’t talk to at least one family member.
These numbers are consistent with other studies:
One in four Americans reported being estranged from a relative in a 2019 nationwide survey of 1,340 Americans age 18 and older. Conducted by Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, the survey found that more than a quarter of respondents — 27 percent — reported current alienation. Most had a break-up with a close family member: 24 percent were estranged from a parent, 14 percent from a child and 30 percent from siblings. The rest were estranged from other relatives.
- Another 2015 study also found that at least 27 percent of Americans are estranged from a member of their own family, and research suggests that about 40 percent of Americans have experienced estrangement at some point.
- Alienation affected one in five families in the UK, according to a 2015 study for the British charity Stand alone. Analysis of 807 members of Stand alone community that conducted a survey found that 54 percent agreed with the statement that “estrangement or family breakdown is common in our family,” and 68 percent of adults estranged from one or more members of their families believe that a stigma accompanies family alienation. Respondents cited the fear of judgment and assumptions of guilt or blame as frequent sources of shame.
Politics has exacerbated the alienation.
Political divisions have further frayed family ties. In an opinion poll conducted last October by New York Times and Siena College, nearly one in five voters — 19 percent — reported that politics had interfered with their friendships or family relationships. Almost half of the voters in the survey acknowledged that they use politics as a basis for judging other people. 48 percent of respondents said that a person’s political views revealed whether someone is a good person.
Political divides affected some groups more than others. For example, while 20 percent of white and Hispanic voters reported that their relationships were damaged by politics, only 7 percent of black voters had that experience.
Tea New York Times and the Siena College poll also found that affiliation with certain political parties was more likely to take a toll on relationships. Twenty percent of Democrats and 21 percent of independents reported that politics had hurt their relationship, compared with 14 percent of Republicans. Most date the cuts to the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, and many report that they have not recovered from these breaches.
Those cut off from relatives can feel profoundly alienated, in part because family ostracism carries a stigma; many therefore avoid discussing the subject. But the numbers show that the oddballs are hardly alone. As David Brooks wrote, the reasons are economic, cultural and institutional. And as the polls show, the list should now include “political”.