Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

by Karl Pillemer Ph.D.


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Real solutions to a hidden epidemic: family estrangement.

Estrangement from a family member is one of the most painful life experiences. It is devastating not only to the individuals directly involved—collateral damage can extend upward, downward, and across generations, More than 65 million Americans suffer such rifts, yet little guidance exists on how to cope with and overcome them. In this book, Karl Pillemer combines the advice of people who have successfully reconciled with powerful insights from social science research. The result is a unique guide to mending fractured families.

Fault Lines shares for the first time findings from Dr. Pillemer's ten-year groundbreaking Cornell Reconciliation Project, based on the first national survey on estrangement; rich, in-depth interviews with hundreds of people who have experienced it; and insights from leading family researchers and therapists. He assures people who are estranged, and those who care about them, that they are not alone and that fissures can be bridged.

Through the wisdom of people who have "been there," Fault Lines shows how healing is possible through clear steps that people can use right away in their own families. It addresses such questions as: How do rifts begin? What makes estrangement so painful? Why is it so often triggered by a single event? Are you ready to reconcile? How can you overcome past hurts to build a new future with a relative?

Tackling a subject that is achingly familiar to almost everyone, especially in an era when powerful outside forces such as technology and mobility are lessening family cohesion, Dr. Pillemer combines dramatic stories, science-based guidance, and practical repair tools to help people find the path to reconciliation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525539032
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/08/2020
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 86,642
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized family sociologist and professor of human development at Cornell University. He is also a professor in the Weill Cornell Medical College. Pillemer is the author of the bestselling book 30 Lessons for Living and 30 Lessons for Loving.

Read an Excerpt

Once there was a boy named Christopher Robin. His greatest joy was to wander in the Hundred Acre Wood with his friends: the little bear named Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, Eeyore, and other quirky, lovable animals. Christopher Robin participated in their many adventures and misadventures, living an enchanted childhood in a se-cure, benign world. My guess is that you read and loved these stories as a child (and watched the many movies based on them). If you are of a cer-tain age, you have read them to your children and grandchildren. You probably know that the stories are based on a real person: Christopher Robin Milne. The real Christopher Robin’s father, the author A. A. Milne, wrote the stories for his son’s enjoyment, based on Christopher Robin’s menagerie of stuffed animals. The setting was a lovely forest near the family’s summer house where father and son wandered and played together. We see these stories as testimony to the love of a father for his son, bringing his childhood fantasies to life. We imagine the warm, loving relationship that Milne and the real Christopher Robin must have had.

What you may not know about Christopher Robin Milne is this: He became estranged from his father, and they remained alienated throughout their lives. Milne believed that his father had stolen his childhood. By early adulthood, he felt that his father had never approved of him because he was not living up to the family name. From the vantage point of midlife, the younger Milne leveled the accusation that his father “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.” The estrangement extended to his mother, whom he did not see for the last decade of her life. The feeling was apparently mutual, as his mother pointedly refused a last visit from Christopher when she was on her deathbed.

Given this family’s fame, why aren’t these facts well known? For the same reasons that you do not know about your friends, neighbors, and co-workers who are in precisely the same situation right now. Shame, isolation, and embarrassment pervade family estrangements. In a society in which few topics are taboo, most people in a family rift feel so alone that they avoid speaking about it even to their intimate friends. Estrangement is hidden within the confines of the family and, when revealed, implies failure, poor judgment, and suspicious family secrets. As reported by many people in this book, revealing an estrangement from a parent, a child, or another close relative leads other people to silently wonder, What’s wrong with you?

When I began my interviews with estranged people, I was not aware that they experienced such an acute sense of shame and isolation. One of my first interviews revealed the stigma attached to estrangement and gave me a powerful goal for this book.

Roy Shaw has never given up trying to maintain a relationship with his parents, despite periods of estrangement that have lasted years. His story, of which you will learn more later in these pages, is complex, involving a difficult childhood, rejection of his wife by his parents and sister, and dueling views of past events. I was struck by the degree to which Roy felt deeply alone. He told me:

There’s been many times where I have felt like I have the worst family situation ever. I know that’s not true, but when I’ve had some irrational moments, I think that my situation is the most bizarre, the weirdest that could ever happen. If I could hear from other people who have had family complexities like this, it would help to know that I’m not alone, that every family has issues. And I would certainly be able to let them know that they’re not alone if they heard my story.

The goal of this book is to bring the topic of estrangement out of the shadows and into the clear light of awareness and discussion. By mining the wisdom of hundreds of people who have experienced this problem, I will offer new insights, data, strategies, and practical tips for coping with and healing family rifts. Not all these ideas will apply to everyone, and some readers may fail to find solutions or will disagree with the advice offered here. However, I will feel that my years of work on this project and book are justified if I am successful in this one goal: creating an environment where people can freely acknowledge the problem and open up about solutions in productive and positive ways. If I accomplish nothing else, I want to reassure you that your family’s situation is not the worst or the weirdest in the world, and that you are not alone. 

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