However they arrive at estrangement, parents and adult children seem to be looking at the past and present through very different eyes. Estranged parents often tell me that their adult child is rewriting the history of their childhood, accusing them of things they didn’t do, and/or failing to acknowledge the ways in which the parent demonstrated their love and commitment. Adult children frequently say the parent is gaslighting them by not acknowledging the harm they caused or are still causing, failing to respect their boundaries, and/or being unwilling to accept the adult child’s requirements for a healthy relationship.
Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” the historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”