In Fault Lines, Dr. Pillemer shares findings from his groundbreaking research on family estrangements and offers practical guidance on how to mend those fractured relationships. 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?
Table of Contents
- What Prompted this Book
- Common Causes of Riffs?
- The Lasting Impact of Riffs
- Are Riffs Permanent?
- How to Reconcile with Estranged Family Members
- How do You Move Past Hurtful Experiences and Repair the Relationship?
- Ways to Focus on the Present Relationship After Reconciliation
- Advice for People Who are Nervous to Reconnect with an Estranged Family Member
- When is the Right Time to Reach Out and Reconnect?
- If the Other Person Isn’t Willing to Reconnect
- Key Takeaways
What Prompted this Book
There are roughly 68 million Americans who have experienced family rifts. It’s much more common than one might initially think, but so few people talk about it, and not many resources exist to help. That’s what inspired Dr. Pillemer to found the Cornell Reconciliation Project and write Fault Lines.
This book is based on his findings from the first national survey on estrangement and in-depth interviews with people who have experienced estrangement, offering valuable insight into what causes those rifts and how to mend them. Dr. Pillemer jumped in to help when he saw that need. Estrangement must be painful, and with it affecting so many people, you think there’d be more resources out there to help.
Common Causes of Riffs?
On the surface, estrangements seem to be caused by one explosive event, like a fight. But research revealed that while it might be the final straw that sparks the decision, the blow-up event is always preceded by underlying dynamics. The author calls them pathways to estrangement. After conducting several interviews, he identified six common pathways that lead to family estrangement.
First, if there were traumatic events that happened in childhood such as neglect, estrangement was more likely to occur.
Divorce is also a common pathway to estrangement. Children can often get caught in the crossfire and end up losing touch with one of their parents.
Another instigator is tension with in-laws. Conflict can easily arise and lead to estrangement.
Disagreements, especially among siblings, over inheritance and money were identified as another pathway to estrangement.
Unmet expectations are a major source of conflict for families.
And lastly, if a family member has different values, it can become an instigator for disagreements and, eventually, estrangement.
Those are the six underlying dynamics Dr. Pillemer identified that can set the stage for explosive fights and lead to estrangement, which has a profound impact on everyone involved.
The Lasting Impact of Riffs
Estrangement is a devastating experience for the whole family. Dr. Pillemer explains that we’re biologically wired to form attachments, and estrangement disrupts those bonds, potentially triggering intense grief. The loss of that relationship can also feel like a personal rejection from people who are supposed to know you best. Psychologist George Slavich found that experiencing this form of rejection increases the risk of depression.
Dr. Pillemer goes on to say that estrangements can be harder to deal with than the death of a family member because of ambiguity, and likely lack of closure with the loss of that relationship.
Estrangement takes a toll on the whole family, too, leaving a trail of collateral damage in its wake. It could force family members to choose sides, grandparents could lose contact with grandkids. The effects are far-reaching and can impact a family for decades.
Are Riffs Permanent?
Every circumstance is different, but estrangement doesn’t have to be permanent. I’ll give an abbreviated version of what Dr. Pillemer shared about the story of Cliff, who had a rocky relationship with his brother and decided to cut off all communication. After eight years, Cliff decided to reconcile and called his brother, who was open to repairing the relationship. Things were still complicated, but Cliff’s decision gave him a sense of peace in knowing he did the right thing.
How to Reconcile with Estranged Family Members
One of the first things Dr. Pillemer suggests is to look back at the conflict and take responsibility for our role in it. He uses the example of Susie, who had an explosive fight with her son. She denied his request to drive him into town to see friends. In response, he packed his bags and left, leading to a long estrangement.
She was hurt and felt like his reaction came out of the blue. But after looking back, she realized her overprotective mothering had played a part in the situation. With that knowledge, she was able to reach out and reconcile with her son instead of waiting for him to initiate the conversation.
As we already know, the explosive moment and decision to cut off a relationship doesn’t happen overnight. There are always underlying dynamics at play. While becoming defensive and assigning blame to the other person is a normal reaction, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate roles we may have played. Reexamining the story of how things unfolded may feel vulnerable, but an important step toward reconciling is acknowledging we’re not blameless in the situation. That’ll lead to a willingness to see the other person’s point of view, and openness to repairing the relationship.
How do You Move Past Hurtful Experiences and Repair the Relationship?
Reconciliation doesn’t magically resolve issues from the past. It requires being able to let go of the past and find ways to build a shared future together. That doesn’t mean you have to deny the hurt you experienced or abandon your version of events altogether. What it means is you have to accept that you and your family member may never agree about what happened, but that doesn’t have to prevent reconciliation from happening.
When estrangement occurs, that relationship is essentially frozen in time. Your experience and memory of that person get stuck. But people can and do change. Reconciliation with a family member can be built on the foundation of a new relationship focused on enjoying their company in the present, rather than getting stuck on what happened in the past.
Ways to Focus on the Present Relationship After Reconciliation
Dr. Pillemer provided some helpful real-life examples. For a mother and daughter, a new relationship was formed through a weaving class they took together. For sisters, playing slot machines together opened the door to spending time with one another. He explains that while it may sound superficial and like you’re sweeping things under the rug, there’s nothing superficial about finding ways to spend enjoyable time with someone you’ve had a rocky relationship with. And it’s actually through building a relationship on this new foundation you’re able to open the door to deeper and more productive conversations about the past.
Advice for People Who are Nervous to Reconnect with an Estranged Family Member
Boundaries. He emphasizes the importance that reconciliation is only possible if the relationship has good boundaries. It may be that you’re reconnecting with someone who’s been unreliable or erratic in the past, and you have fears they’ll repeat that same behavior. That thought holds many people back from even attempting to reconcile. And it’s 100% valid. Keeping the door shut can feel like a more predictable and safe option.
That’s why establishing boundaries is so important in reconciliation. It helps you feel more in control and lets the other person know what you will or won’t allow moving forward.
Going to therapy can be a great step in developing your boundaries, and help you navigate negotiating a reconciliation. Dr. Pillemer suggests being very clear in letting the other person know the least you’ll accept from the relationship, and communicating that to your family.
And it’s important you stick to those boundaries and continue to reestablish them as needed. The author shares Sanjay’s story of reconciling with his father. They’d reconnected on the condition that Sanjay’s father wouldn’t share his mean and critical opinions. When his father started to cross that boundary, instead of engaging, Sanjay would leave the room or make it clear they would leave if he continued. After seeing how serious he was, Sanjay’s father began to adjust his behavior. It sounds tough, but Sanjay discovered that can be an act of love because it allowed him to salvage a relationship with his father.
When is the Right Time to Reach Out and Reconnect?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Dr. Pillemer says only you know when you’re ready for reconciliation. Just like how there can be an explosive fight that leads to a complete cutting off of communication, you can have a light bulb moment and want to reach out. It can also be a gradual process, where you find yourself thinking about that person more and wondering what it’d be like to welcome them back into your life. That period of consideration is important because it gives you an opportunity to reevaluate the relationship and your role in how things turned out. It also gives you time to weigh the benefits and negatives of what reconciliation would mean.
The next step would be to formulate an action plan. Think through how you want to make contact for the first time. Do you want to write a letter? Go get coffee? This period of evaluation is also a good time to think about what you want this new chapter of the relationship to look like. It’s important to make sure your expectations are within reason. If you’re having doubts or want a sounding board, talking to good friends or a therapist can be helpful during this stage.
Once a plan is in place, all that’s left to do is follow-through.
If the Other Person Isn’t Willing to Reconnect
Reaching out can feel scary, but there’s often much more to gain than to lose. Even if your family member doesn’t reciprocate the desire to reconcile, you can find peace in making a decision you felt good about and did everything you could.
The key takeaway from this title is that estrangements don’t have to be permanent and that there are healthy and safe ways to mend those relationships.