The last time my father and I spoke was two-and-a-half-years-ago. This period of no communication between us is just one of several intervals in our relationship where we have gone months or more without contact. This one is the longest.
I decided to take an indefinite break from my dad after yet another feud left me too sad and weary to go for another ride on the messed-up merry-go-round we’d been on since my teenage years or even earlier: he hurts me emotionally, the hurt is never acknowledged, we cease contact, I feel guilty for not having a good relationship with him, we try again, soon enough he hurts me. Around and around and around.
So I chose to opt out of the cycle, as wrong as it felt. Children – even adult children – are hard-wired to want love and approval from their parents. Which is what makes it so difficult to break that link, even when the relationship becomes unhealthy, says parenting and divorce coach Marina Sbrochi.
Children – even adult children – are hard-wired to want love and approval from their parents.
“Children are born with an internal drive to please parents because they are our protectors,” explains the Dallas, Texas-based author of Nasty Divorce: A Kid’s Eye View.
It’s not just a biological instinct that continually draws us back to our parents. There’s also a fear of being judged by others for ‘giving up’ on a relationship with a mother, father, son or daughter – it’s seen as taboo.
But it’s more common than we might think. A 2015 study by Megan Gilligan of Iowa State University, J. Jill Suitor of Purdue University and Karl Pillemer of Cornell University published in the US Journal of Marriage and Family found that one in 10 families had a mother estranged from an adult child.
“It’s apparent in our research that this isn’t unusual – it’s happening in a lot of families,” says Gilligan, Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University.
“But often people are hesitant to talk about it. There’s a stigma or shame associated with estrangement from a family member – a sense of failure.”
Regardless of what others think, if a parent is treating us badly and shows no remorse or desire to change that behaviour, it’s important to practice self-respect and cease that relationship, even if only temporarily, says Sbrochi.
When a friend speaks fondly of their father, I feel like I’ve been cheated out of something.
“It doesn’t matter who it is – romantic partner, friend, colleague, parent – your mental health is too important to not remove yourself from that damaging relationship. We have to call out bad behaviour, even if it is from parents.”
Sbrochi says it’s important to communicate with the parent the reasons you have decided to cease contact. She recommends using non-accusatory language – lots of sentences starting with ‘I’ not ‘you’.
“The message should be ‘I don't accept this behaviour, and until you change your behaviour we can't have a relationship because I find it damaging.’ It's about setting and keeping boundaries of what you will accept in your life.”
If you have your own children, it’s important to be a role model and teach them what kind of behaviour they should take from others, Sbrochi says.
“You have to be an example to your kids. It’s your responsibility to help them foster self-esteem and set them up for healthy relationships later in life.”
It’s only recently that I’ve felt okay with discontinuing contact with my father. After years of accepting behaviour from him that I never would from anyone else, I realised it made sense that I don’t want to go back for more of the same. I try to focus on the positive, supportive relationships in my life. But sometimes I still feel pangs of guilt. Or just sad about it all. And when a friend speaks fondly of their father, I feel like I’ve been cheated out of something.
“You might feel ripped off that you don't have that, and you have to mourn that relationship – it’s like a death,” Sbrochi says. “You'll never lose the pain of that parental figure you’re missing. It's a wish that children have.”
It’s possible that speaking up about your feelings to your mother or father could be the catalyst for breaking down barriers between you and finding a resolution to your problems. Or, it might not. Either way, things will get better, Sbrochi assures.
There’s a stigma or shame associated with estrangement from a family member – a sense of failure.
“Focus on the present and enjoy a more peaceful, less argumentative life. It's like when you get out of a bad relationship and for some reason you still miss it – even though you were so unhappy. But every day you'll feel more comfortable with your decision and eventually you’ll wonder why you put up with it for so long.”
However, a family estrangement is never an isolated incident, and often puts strain on or causes deep hurt for other family members. Also, both parties lose out on support and resources, whether it’s financial help or care-giving.
Gilligan says the best outcome would be to try to resolve a conflict before the relationship becomes damaged beyond repair.
“The issue might seem really important now, but in 10 years will it still be so important that it was worth losing contact?”
She says it’s important to shake off feelings of shame or embarrassment than can come with a dysfunctional relationship with a family member, be it a parent or otherwise, and not be afraid to discuss it with others.
“We all have good things happening in our families, and also bad things. The more people talk about it they might realise that a lot of others have experienced it.”