How Estrangement Can Echo Through Generations

The costs and consequences of multi-generational estrangement.


Long-standing cutoffs often may be modeled and replicated in families, generation after generation.

When someone is shunned—even by a stranger, even only briefly—the same area of the brain that registers physical pain is activated.

Young people crave the sense of belonging a functioning family provides and, without it, they may turn to dangerous alternatives.

Source: Askar Abayev/Pexels

A revealing story of how estrangement ripples through generations comes from Marjorie Watson, 64, of Bangor, Maine.

To her regret, Marjorie has little contact with several family members, while her husband hasn’t spoken to his sister and brother‐in‐law in more than 16 years. She discovered how that affected her children recently, when her adult son sat down on a train next to an oddly familiar-looking man.

As Marjorie relates:

Discreetly, he used his iPhone to take a photo of his seatmate. Then he sent the photo and this text to me: “Mom, is this Uncle Michael?” I looked at the picture and, even though I hadn’t seen him in years, I was sure it was him. But my son didn’t introduce himself. It made me sad that my son couldn’t even recognize his uncle on a train.

In cases of abuse and violence, cutoffs can be necessary and protective. However, in other families long-standing estrangements may become an acceptable model of coping with stress, replicated generation after generation. In these families, when conflict arises, siblings may easily cut each other off, having seen their parents do just that with their own brothers or sisters.

Responding to a survey I conducted for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, 65-year-old Helene Pendergast of London blamed her family history for the 50-year heartache of having no relationship with her only brother. “Those who come from well‐adjusted, happy families are most fortunate,” she says. “If those who are estranged were to track their family histories for two or three hundred years, I am sure they would find that brokenness stretching way back.”

The need to belong

The distinguished psychologist Abraham Maslow identified the crucial need to belong in his “Hierarchy of Needs,” a meticulously defined pyramid ranking fundamental human requirements. The need to belong—whether through family, friendship, shared interests, or sexual intimacy—places just after the body’s basics: food and water, shelter and sleep, and physical safety. And, like these fundamentals, the human need to belong is lifelong.

Without a sense of belonging—this feeling of emotional safety and context—people come to fear that their very lives are at risk. Their ability to trust others dwindles; they become consumed by the challenge of surviving alone.

The family—that original constellation of relationships—is the primary, natural place of belonging; it provides the opportunity to develop deep, lifelong connections transcending the transient nature of human existence. Exclusion can cause pain that cuts deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury, according to psychologist Kipling D. Williams of Purdue University, who is known for his studies of ostracism.

When someone is shunned—even by a stranger, even only briefly—Williams found that he or she experiences a strong, harmful reaction, activating the same area of the brain that registers physical pain. The difference is that social injuries linger: In studying more than 5,000 people, Williams used a computer game to reveal how just two or three minutes of ostracism can produce ongoing negative feelings.

“Our studies indicate that the initial reaction to ostracism is pain,” he explains, “which is similarly felt by all individuals regardless of personality or social/situational factors. Ostracism then instigates actions aimed at recovering thwarted needs of belonging, self‐esteem, control, and meaningful existence.”

Multi-generational cutoffs and consequences

The deep divisions of estrangement may produce serious family complications. Siblings who aren’t speaking can’t discuss important issues: What kind of care does our ailing father need? Should we move Mom out of the family home? Is it time to sell the family business?

As estrangement ripples through the family, important historical and health‐related information spanning generations may be lost. No one may know, for example, that a great‐grandparent suffered an illness now plaguing a descendant—or how the condition was successfully treated.

Countless posts in estrangement chat rooms, as well as responses to my survey, describe how cutoffs damage children, stepchildren, and grandchildren. These young family members feel like “lone stars” in the universe, lacking a stable place in a recognized constellation. Young people typically crave the sense of belonging that a functioning family provides. When those needs aren’t satisfied, they search elsewhere, substituting unrelated people—surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—for their missing relatives.

That search carries its own risks, as some young people may turn to more ominous alternatives. “The gang has quite a bit to offer the very young,” explains sociologist Zina McGee of Hampton University in Virginia, who is the author of Silenced Voices: Readings in Violence and Victimization. “There is that sense of acceptance, there is that sense of value that comes from being a member of that gang. [The young] gain their sense of self from that group.”

A 2010 survey found that many gang‐involved youth feel cut off from their families. The survey, sponsored by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by psychologists at the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, asked adolescents about their family histories and if they knew stories about their ancestors. Those adolescents who had personal knowledge of their family history, this research demonstrated, had a greater sense of well‐being. They tended to be higher achievers, and their families generally were more stable and functional.

Clearly, when estrangement echoes through generations, adults and children don’t only lose family members who might play an important role in their lives. They also suffer the lingering pain and consequences of ostracism and isolation.

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