How Adults Can Get the Distance They Need from Toxic Families

New research describes how they cut the ties that bind.

 September 01, 2018

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How Adults Can Get the Distance They Need from Toxic Families



According to the Family Communication and Relationships Lab at Utah State University, most family estrangements begin when communication between the generations declines in both quality and quantity.

“My daughter used to share everything with me, and now I get a cursory text or phone call only when she really needs something,” complains a client, whose 27-year-old reports that “it feels like she’s always criticizing or judging me, which makes me leave or hang up or lose my temper, and before you know it we haven’t spoken for weeks. When I finally call, I never tell her about anything that really matters anymore.”

Guarding or restricting verbal communication isn’t necessarily an indication of estrangement, but for many young adults, it’s the first step in an on-again, off-again journey that may last a week, a year, or even decades.

Cutting Contact With Toxic People Will Transform Your Life

Some data suggest that estrangement between parents and their grown kids affects almost as many families as divorce.[1] While both generations voice their reasons for dissatisfaction with the relationship in therapists’ offices, with their peers, and in over-40 Facebook groups with “estranged” in their name, Katherine Scharf, the Lab’s director, is the first to conceptualize estrangement as a continuum and to describe its elements as distancing behaviors that grown kids employ with their parents.

In “You’re Not Welcome Here,”[2] Scharf categorizes eight actions that adult children take in order to maintain physical, mental, and emotional separation from their parents. Ranked on a sliding scale by 52 study participants, in which zero is the least and 19 the most severe behavior, the eight components form the entire estrangement continuum, which is anchored at zero and 80. It is the combination and severity of the components, rather than any individual behavior, that determines the degree of estrangement. And because estrangement is a process rather than a binary event, movement along the distance continuum is dynamic, rather than fixed.

Creating and maintaining physical distance makes it easier for these grown children to maintain an inner boundary between the presence and absence of feeling occasioned by interactions with their parents.

“I refuse to let him push my buttons anymore,” said a 32-year-old. “I just smile tolerantly, which makes him crazy, even when it takes everything I have not to react. Afterward I’m exhausted from trying.”

Similarly, anticipating the positive or negative effect of communication is a useful distancing strategy for many grown kids. Said one young man, “If I have something to tell my parents that I know they’re not going to like or that directly contradicts their values, I do it in a letter. After I came out to them, they were so horrible that we didn’t talk for three years.”

Ignoring role obligations and expectations is another component on the continuum.

“I stopped being the quiet, accommodating, dutiful daughter, and they couldn’t handle it,” said a 35-year-old. “I said no to their dreams and expectations, and stood up for my own. I got divorced, which was unforgivable, and then had a child out of wedlock, which was even worse. I didn’t show up for my father’s funeral after he said I wasn’t welcome anymore. But I’m slowly finding my way back to my mother.”