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Fault Lines

Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

By Karl Pillemer
15-minute read
Audio available
Fault Lines by Karl Pillemer

Fault Lines (2020) examines a common problem that no one talks about: family estrangements. Over a quarter of Americans experience being cut off from friends and family during their lifetimes, which has devastating psychological impacts. Fault Lines explores the common causes of estrangement and gives surprising and insightful advice on how to work towards reconciliation.

  • Anyone who’s experienced the pain of family estrangement
  • Budding sociologists who are fascinated by human relationships
  • Parents wanting to learn how to navigate conflict with their kids

Karl Pillemer is a sociologist and gerontologist, and the Hazel E Reed Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. He’s also director of the Cornell Legacy Project. His previous publications include the widely acclaimed book 30 Lessons for Living.

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Fault Lines

Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

By Karl Pillemer
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Fault Lines by Karl Pillemer
Synopsis

Fault Lines (2020) examines a common problem that no one talks about: family estrangements. Over a quarter of Americans experience being cut off from friends and family during their lifetimes, which has devastating psychological impacts. Fault Lines explores the common causes of estrangement and gives surprising and insightful advice on how to work towards reconciliation.

Key idea 1 of 9

Six common pathways lead to family estrangement.

What makes someone decide that they’re done with a family relationship? That they just can’t carry on trying anymore?

Usually, that decision is spurred by a volcanic event like a fight. One woman stops talking to her mother after her mother verbally and physically attacks her for revealing she’s gay. Another man decides he wants nothing to do with his sister after she’s rude to his adopted son at a family reunion.

Events like these can lead you to decide, “I’m done.” This relationship is too complicated or harmful, and I’m better off without it. But even though volcanic events might be the final straw, they don’t come out of nowhere. There are always underlying dynamics that precede it – what the author calls “pathways to estrangement.”

The key message here is: Six common pathways lead to family estrangement.

So what kinds of underlying dynamics can lead to estrangement? The author interviewed hundreds of people and found that several instigators came up again and again.First, people were more likely to become estranged from family if there were traumatic events that had happened in childhood; for example, if a parent was neglectful or if they showed favoritism toward one child. Second, a major instigator of family estrangement is divorce. Children often get caught in the crossfire of their parents’ conflict and can end up losing touch with one parent. Third, in-laws can cause tension in families. For example, conflicts can arise if a new son-in-law doesn't get along with the rest of the family.

A fourth, very common instigator of estrangement, especially between siblings, is conflict over money and inheritance. Even if the estate is equally divided between the children, conflicts can arise over whether to sell a business or family home. Added to this, if for instance, one child has nursed her parents in her last years, she may feel entitled to a bigger share of the inheritance.

A fifth and major source of conflict in families is unmet expectations. For example, parents might expect their children to nurse them in old age and become upset if that doesn’t happen. Lastly, conflicts often arise if a family member has different values from the rest of her clan, for example, if she embraces a religion or political affiliation.

These underlying dynamics can easily set the stage for a volcanic fight to occur, leading to 

estrangement, with the effects having widespread consequences for the whole family. 

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