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Estrangement, loneliness and the holidays

Originally posted December 16, 2019.

Have a peaceful holiday season, with a side of realism!

In May of 2018, Cigna surveyed 20,000 Americans about their feelings of connection to others. The study found that nearly half of the respondents felt lonely most or all of the time, 43% don’t feel their relationships are meaningful and 43% also felt isolated from others.

This is a staggering statistic. Current research, with a large cohort (number of participants), finds that loneliness is a defining feature of American society today.

Handily relying on your confirmation bias, you’ll probably look around and say to yourself, well, that can’t be true. I see lots of people with big families. I see lots of families on TV. You say to yourself, “I have a big family. Shoot, there were 35 people at our Thanksgiving (Christmas, Hanukah …insert any holiday) gathering…It’s out of control how many people we are! We have a great time!”

Then you laughingly point out your entertaining “burden” to your co-worker.

But you really didn’t notice that she just stands there with a weak smile, coffee in hand, did you?

What do you really know about her?

Loneliness is amplified during the holiday season. And the feelings of loneliness, nostalgia, stigma, shame, isolation and self-blame are exaggerated especially during the holidays, birthdays and being around other big families.

Loneliness and family estrangement walk hand in hand. Family estrangement is a new dimension of loneliness and family life that researchers are just starting to study. So the real number of estranged parent/child/sibling relationships is unknown at this time.

But we do know the statistics on sexual abuse. These statistics are staggering. 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). 94% of all CSA is perpetrated by parents, relatives (siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts) or other domestic partners of the parent. So, chances are, you probably know someone who is a perpetrator or a survivor (RAINN, 2019). And these families are not one big happy family. These families are estranged.

We do know the statistics on divorce. According to the Institute for Family Studies:

  • 42-45% percent of first marriages end in divorce.

  • 60% of second marriages end in divorce.

  • 73% of third marriages end in divorce.

And there is a lot of family upheaval associated with this familial change as well.

The study of family estrangement is new, but there are three researchers known for their work in this field: Dr. Lucy Blake of Edge Hill University in England, Dr. Richard Conti of Kean University and Dr. Kristina Scharp of Utah University. Dr. Blake’s 2014 study in Britain indicates that 1 in 5 families are touched by estrangement. Because of her research and her personal experience with estrangement, Dr. Blake created the non-profit organization called Stand Alone to help people cope with familial estrangement. Her research results, called Hidden Voices is very, very powerful.

Dr. Conti’s research in the United States indicates 94% of the respondents in his small study of 134 people experienced some form of familial estrangement. Dr. Conti found his data to be indicative that familial estrangement is as nearly as common as divorce.

Dr. Scharp’s 2016 research focuses on the development of and reasons for familial estrangement. She found the reasons for estrangement are often complex. Multiple stressors as multi-generational sexual, physical and emotional abuse, denial of this abuse, divorce, addictions, mental illness, family secrets and critical parenting create a long history of corrosive and negative personal interactions that often culminate in estrangement.

These results add up to literally millions of people estranged from their families.

And what are the holidays for these people? They are about being left out. They’re about missing loved ones who have let them down or abused them, or faded away with a divorce.

So, be mindful there are lots of people who have families that are broken apart by sexual abuse. And the estrangement that people experience for not having a well organized family is very painful.

If you don’t believe me, read some of these real like stories from The Loneliness Project on BuzzFeed. These are the stories of real America. These are real stories, from people whose families are changed from divorce, drug abuse, illness, death, or whole families were abusive physically or emotionally. Or these people are just different ..being gay, non binary or even one the “wrong” end of the political spectrum is just not acceptable and they’ve been shunned from their families.

Please just think about this for a minute before sharing with others in such a boisterous manner. In reality, there are lots of people who are lonely during the holidays.

Have a peaceful holiday season, with a side of realism!


Blake, L., Bland, B., & Golombok, S. (2015). Hidden Voices: Family estrangement in adulthood. Retrieved from

Conti, R. P. (2016). Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 3(2), 28–35.

Scharp, K. M. (2016). Parent-Child Estrangement: Conditions for Disclosure and Perceived Social Network Member Reactions. Family Relations, 65(5), 688–700.

Institute for Family Studies (2019), What is the divorce rate anyway?

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, RAINN (2019), Children and Teens Statistics of Sexual Abuse


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