KARL PILLEMER: I've spent many years as someone who studies the family, but this particular project on estrangement moved me more both into some of the darker recesses of family life but also some very bright spots in it, some unexpected positive aspects that emerged in ways I'd never thought of before.
I began the study focusing on estrangement. I quickly moved to a more intensive study of people who had reconciled. I wanted to tap the expertise of these reconcilers, who I considered to be the real experts on how to do it.
So I found that fully 27% of a random sample of the US population identifies themself as currently being estranged. And the way we asked the question left very little doubt. We asked, "Is there someone-- is there a close family member from whom you are currently estranged? That is, you have no contact with them." So we used a fairly clear version of it.
Almost everyone who reconciled abandoned the idea that they could impose their narrative of what went on in the past on the other person. We're very attached to our narratives, and it's very unlikely that two brothers, one of whom believes he was only doing normal brother teasing and another who believes he was emotionally abusive, are 20 or 30 years later going to come to an agreement on exactly what happened in their past. Often people abandon the notion of an apology to reconcile, and they really begin to focus on the present and the future.
Second, people who reconciled were sometimes, after years or decades, finally examined their own role in the estrangement. Many people who become estranged evidence what I refer to as defensive ignorance, in which they insist they have no idea why it occurred. I learned in my interviews that they often do, but it's a natural process for us to be defensive or when we feel rejected. And we become unable to see our own view of our own role in the other person's perspective.
High expectations and unrealistic ones permeated a number of estrangements and-- so people had to move beyond that. And, finally, not only just setting clear boundaries but setting very clear limits. Offering a relative a chance under very specific conditions was important.
And I'm going to leave you with what for me was the most surprising finding, and that's how many people who achieved a reconciliation, after years or decades, found it to be an engine for personal growth. Many of the people said something along the lines of if I could do this, I can do anything.
So one argument-- there are a number of arguments I make in the book for why, unless the situation is dangerous or abusive, why in many cases it's at least worth a try to reconcile, because people found it profoundly important. They found that it was a difficult task. Working at it was helpful. They found that having contact with the relative, even if imperfect, allowed them to continue to process the relationship instead of having it be frozen in time.
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Cornell University sociologist Karl Pillemer will discuss the stigma of estrangement and steps to reconciliation as he launches his newest book, “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.”