Family relationships are on many people’s minds during the holiday season as sounds and images of happy family celebrations dominate the media. Anyone whose experiences don’t live up to the holiday hype may find this difficult or disappointing, but those feelings may be felt even more acutely among those involved in family rifts.

I have done a significant amount of research on ambivalence and conflict in families, which led to a five-year study of family estrangements.

At the outset, I was surprised at how little evidence-based guidance exists on the frequency, causes and consequences of family estrangement, or how those involved cope with the stress of family rifts. There are few studies published in academic journals on the topic, as well as limited clinical literature. I sought to fill these gaps through a series of interrelated studies and have presented and described my findings in my 2020 book “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.”

My findings suggest that estrangement is widespread and that there are several common pathways people take on the way to a family rift. Also, people who decide to try to close such a rift have discovered a number of different routes for getting to reconciliation.

To get an idea of how much estrangement is going on, in 2019 I conducted a national survey that asked the question: “Do you have any family members (i.e., parents, grandparents, siblings, children, uncles, aunts, cousins or other relatives) from whom you are currently estranged, meaning you have no contact with the family member at the present time?”

Over a quarter of the respondents – 27% – reported a current estrangement. Most had a rift with an immediate family member: 24% were estranged from a parent, 14% from a child and 30% from siblings. The remainder were estranged from other relatives.

This study was the first in the field to focus intensively on individuals who had successfully reconciled after years or decades of estrangement.

By carefully analyzing their detailed accounts, my research team identified a number of strategies and approaches that worked for them:

  • Focus on the present. Many interviewees reported that the history of the estranged relationship was inseparably interwoven with present circumstances. In some family rifts, the past almost entirely overwhelmed the present moment. As a result, many people interpreted relatives’ present actions as signs or symptoms of underlying, decades-old pathologies. Nearly all who successfully reconciled reported that one key step was giving up attempts to force their interpretation of past events on the other person. They abandoned efforts to process the past and instead focused on the relationship’s present and future.
  • Revise expectations. Often respondents said that family values held them back from reconciling, because the other person had violated their standards for proper family life. Reconciliation involved modifying or dropping past expectations and abandoning the urge to force the relative to change.
  • Create clear boundaries. Interviewees reported that making the terms of the reconciliation as unambiguous as possible was key to moving beyond old grievances and patterns of behavior. Even people who had severed ties because of intolerable behaviors were able to create clear, specific, take-it-or-leave-it conditions for one final try to repair the relationship.
  • One positive finding of my research is that those who reconciled their rift found it to be an engine for personal growth. Reengaging with the family – after careful consideration and preparation – was almost never regretted. However, it was a highly individual decision and not for everyone.

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