Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

by Karl Pillemer Ph.D.
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: 404,533
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. 

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

How This Book Came About 3

From Estrangement to Reconciliation 6

What You Will Find in This Book 12

Part 1 The Landscape of Estrangement

Chapter 1 You Are Not Alone 19

Defining "Estrangement" 22

Are You Alone or Not? 24

A Problem for Everyone 26

Chapter 2 Pathways to Estrangement 29

The Long Arm of the Past 33

The Legacy of Divorce 34

The Problematic In-Law 37

Money and Inheritance 41

Unmet Expectations 43

Value and Lifestyle Differences 46

Breaking the Ties That Bind 50

Explore Your Narrative 52

Chapter 3 "It Never Stops Hurting": Living in a Rift 55

The First Threat: Living with Chronic Stress 58

The Second Threat: Broken Attachment 62

The Third Threat: The Pain of Rejection 66

The Fourth Threat: The Perils of Uncertainty 68

The Silence of Absence 73

Chapter 4 Collateral Damage 76

The Wrong Kind of Family Tradition 81

You Don't Know What You've Got 'til It's Gone 83

The Contagion of Stress 88

To the Seventh Generation 93

Part 2 The Road to Reconciliation

Chapter 5 Why Reconcile? 99

Do It for Yourself 101

The Four Benefits of Reconciliation 107

The First Benefit: Avoiding Regret 108

The Second Benefit: Getting Back into the Family 110

The Third Benefit: Access to Resources 111

The Fourth Benefit: Shared Lifetime 115

Are You Ready to Reconcile? 118

1 The Circumstances Have Changed 118

2 You Start Developing a Plan 119

3 You Get a Sign 119

Chapter 6 Volcanic Events 122

"Why Is a Single Event So Powerful? 126

The Tool Kit 129

The First Strategy: Uncover the Meaning of the Event 130

The Second Strategy: Act Quickly 132

The Third Strategy: Look for Your "Lightbulb Moment" 136

Changing the Narrative 137

Chapter 7 Let Go of the Past 141

Confronting the Past in the Present 143

The Tool Kit 147

The First Strategy: Accept That Your Pasts Will Not Align 148

The Second Strategy: Abandon the Apology 153

The Third Strategy: Build a Future 157

Living Life Forward 160

Chapter 8 Taking Responsibility 163

Defensive Ignorance 167

The Tool Kit 175

The First Strategy: Try Perspective- Taking 175

The Second Strategy: Harness the Power of Writing 179

The Third Strategy: Expand Your Feedback Loop 181

Stepping Back to Move Forward 186

Chapter 9 Changing Expectations 187

Expectations Are Relative 189

The Parent-Child Divide 191

The Tool Kit 197

The First Strategy: Change Your Expectations 197

The Second Strategy: See How Your Relative Has Changed 201

The Third Strategy: Determine the Least You Can Accept 205

You Can Go Home Again 208

Chapter 10 Setting Boundaries 210

Estrangement and Anxiety 211

The Tool Kit 215

The First Strategy: Set Clear Terms 215

The Second Strategy: Be Persistent in Setting Limits 219

The Third Strategy: Get Counseling 222

Good Fences 228

Chapter 11 One Last Chance 229

Are You Really "Done"? 230

A Tale of Two Last Chances 234

The Tool Kit 239

The First Strategy: Use the New Leverage in the Relationship 240

The Second Strategy: Limit the Risk 242

The Final Strategy: Jake the Chance to Grow 244

Acknowledgments 249

Appendix: How the Study Was Conducted 253

Notes 261

Index 269

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