Among the interviewed Dr. Pillemer found children who never knew their grandparents or who missed all kinds of family events – holiday celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, vacations, even funerals – due to a gap between two adult relatives.
Unresolved cracks can cause chronic stress in one or both of the participants, which 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.
On the other hand, cracks can sometimes be harmful to the health of the person who triggers them. For example, people can cut out of their lives a relative who is physically or emotionally abusive, or engages in criminal activity or other anti-social behavior that they find threatening or obnoxious.
A cousin with whom I enjoyed many visits as a child disappeared forever when he got married and his wife cut off contact with his family because the father-in-law was a crook.
“Alienation can be adaptable,” said Kathleen Smith, a Washington, DC family therapist and author of “Everything Is Not Horrible,” told me. “Alienation can be a way of dealing with unsustainable tensions and fears.”
Dr. Smith added that people should realize that family breaks often come at a cost, especially when it comes to what Dr. Pillemer called the “loss of social capital”: the people you can rely on for mental, physical or even financial support in times of need or stress. Who will help look after children or run the family business when parents are seriously ill or injured?
Reconciliation is often not easy, but the people Dr. Interviewed by Pillemer and who achieved it said it was worth the effort. I can testify to that. This summer I helped clear a raging divide between two relatives – a father and a son – who I knew really loved and needed each other, but who had radically different views about how to live. Though it boiled long beneath the surface, the final rift was fueled by unfiltered emails filled with heart-wrenching, angry accusations from the son and statements like “You ruined my life, I can’t live in it with you” which the Prompted father to email detailed counterargument denying any wrongdoing.