17th June 2021

Family Rifts and Estrangement Threaten Mental and Physical Health

Among those Dr. Pillemer interviewed were children who never knew their grandparents or who missed out on all manner of family events — holiday celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, vacation trips, even funerals — because of a rift between two adult relatives.

Unresolved rifts can precipitate chronic stress in one or both participants that undermines their emotional and physical health. The resulting anxiety or depression can worsen heart disease and diabetes, cause reproductive problems, undermine immunity and even shorten the person’s life, studies have suggested.

On the other hand, rifts can sometimes be health-saving for the person who precipitates them. For example, people may cut a relative out of their lives who is physically or emotionally abusive or engages in criminal activities or other antisocial behaviors they find threatening or abhorrent.

A cousin with whom I had enjoyed many visits growing up disappeared from my life forever when he married and his wife severed all contact with his family because the father-in-law was a crook.

“Estrangements can be adaptive,” Kathleen Smith, a family therapist in Washington, D.C., and author of “Everything Isn’t Terrible,” told me. “Estrangement can be a way to manage unsustainable tension and anxiety.”

But, Dr. Smith added, people should realize that family rifts often have a cost, especially in what Dr. Pillemer calls “loss of social capital”: the people you can rely on for spiritual, physical or even financial support in times of hardship or stress. Who will help care for children or manage the family business when parents are seriously ill or injured?

Reconciliation is often not easy, but the folks Dr. Pillemer interviewed who achieved it said it was well worth the effort. I can attest to that. This summer I helped resolve a fury-filled rift between two relatives — a father and son — who I knew really loved and needed one another but held radically different views of how to live. Though long simmering beneath the surface, the final rift was fueled by unfiltered emails filled with heartbreaking, angry accusations from the son and statements like “You ruined my life, I can’t live with you in it,” prompting the father to email a detailed rebuttal denying any wrongdoing.

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