During one of the histrionic scenes that has roiled my extended family over the years, I came up with an idea for a bestselling book. It’s called “WASP Therapy” and it teaches people how to keep their feelings bottled up.
My family is not quite big, fat or Greek — we’re Jewish and on the smaller size — but there is definitely an element of drama that seems to pervade our interactions: People who have never forgiven other people for not attending a wedding or not attending a funeral. People who have had fights that resulted in them not attending a wedding or a funeral. We have had blowups over small slights — like the wording on a birthday cake — and over big things, like marrying outside the faith. There are members of my family who exchange insults through letters to the editor of a local newspaper. (No, the editor doesn’t know they’re related.)
I have often wondered how common these kind of conflicts are. Reading about a recent survey by Cornell professor of Human Development Karl Pillemer, made me feel better (my family is not alone) and worse (my family is not alone). Of the 1,300 people Pillemer surveyed, 10% reported being estranged from a parent or child, 8% from a sibling and 9% from extended family members.
There are many reasons for this development, though we don’t know much about how prevalent estrangements were in the past. For Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and fellow Deseret News contributor, one reason behind the seeming upsurge of reports in estrangement between parents and their adult children is divorce. “When parents get divorced, children are often hurt. And now, it seems, some young adults are steering clear of one or both of their parents because they are angry about how their parents’ marriage ended.”
But it’s not just divorce. It’s also the fact that fewer people are getting married in the first place. Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute points to “the large number of unmarried fathers who disappear from their kids’ lives.” She cites a 2016 report from the University of Michigan Population Studies Center which found that 20% of young adults in the U.S. have absolutely no contact with their fathers (not including those who have died).
But just as marriage and relationships have become less about satisfying obligations to other people and to our community, so relationships with other members of our family have also become more about self-fulfillment. Josh Coleman, a psychologist and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, wrote that “deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy to achieve … happiness. While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualizing the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth as it is commonly done today is almost certainly new.”
If you read enough advice columns, you will see both the letter writers and the columnists describe relationships as “toxic” and discuss the extent to which they are simply problems to be cut out of one’s life. Whether doing so really solves the problem or simply replaces toxicity with a big gaping hole is a question that seems to go unexamined.
Pillemer’s study also helpfully looks at those who were able to reconcile. Almost all “abandoned a need for the estranged relative to accept their version of the past and to apologize. They instead focused on the present and future of the relationship, adopting more realistic expectations about the other person rather than trying to change them. ...”
Indeed, the study finds that “performing a sort of return-on-investment calculation, reconciled family members determined the minimum relationship they could live with to, for example, enable a relationship between grandkids and grandparents.”
This kind of practical approach to family seems rare these days. It involves a certain swallowing of one’s pride, and a sense that maintaining family ties is vital even if those family members are not everything you want them to be. There has to be an acknowledgement that there are things more important than being right. It’s a lesson that only comes with age, frankly, and too many of these relationships are cut off before people have reached that level of maturity.
Still, I wonder if there isn’t more we can do to prevent these conflicts in the first place. Maybe we don’t need to respond to every provocation on social media or lecture our elders at Thanksgiving dinner about how their language is outdated. Maybe, and this will sound truly old-fashioned, some things are better left unsaid.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Deseret News contributor.