The Missing Missing Reasons
Members of estranged parents' forums often say their children never gave them any reason for the estrangement, then turn around and reveal that their children did tell them why. But the reasons their children give—the infamous missing reasons—are missing.
My sons consistently refuse to reply to my emails and let my calls go to voicemail, or barely speak if they do answer. They accuse me of being a terrible person, but won’t elaborate about exactly what I’ve done. Well, sometimes they do, but it doesn’t make sense, at least to me. For example, it’s hard to be part of the birth of my grandchild if I didn’t know that I was going to have one!
All this started because of a personal email they felt entitled to read on my computer.
— Elizabeth Vagnioni, "Why Some Grown Kids Cut Off Their Parents"
What were the other reasons her sons give? Not knowing about the birth of her grandchild can't be the only one. What was in the email that caused both her sons to cut her off? We're supposed to be distracted by the hinkiness of the sons reading the email, and never notice that Vagnioni just told us that she knows exactly why her sons cut her off. Pay no attention to the missing explanation behind the curtain.
I was abandoned by my daughter 6 years ago this June. I received a text message that said, "The keys are under the mat I have moved out, don't coming looking for me I never want to see you again you have ruined my life". I... got home and found my husband standing in her empty room. [....] She had a prepared speech that she emailed to me - she did [not] even say Mom or Dad anywhere in it - it was **** or my husband's first name. She stopped communicating with me about 1 year after - but each time I asked why I got the prepared speech or some slung together four letter words that I didn't appreciate. [....] [All my husband] said was "She 18, I was expecting this." I wasn't.
— A mother's account from Abandoned Parents: The Devil's Dilemma
What was in the "prepared speech"? Why did her father expect her to move out at 18? The mother has two different sources of explanations at her fingertips, and she turns to neither. Nor does she repeat so much as a scrap of her daughter's allegations.
Sometimes when I've tried all I've had back is pages and pages of abuse. It kills me and my husband when we have to read what a despicable person I am-how I'm evil and twisted and negative-and a thousand other things too.
I sent an email to the middle son-asking WHAT we had ever done as after all these years no-one has EVER spelled it out to us.
The reply last night was unbelievable. The things he said were cruel, vindictive and completely untrue. He remembers thing in a totally distorted way and he believes 100% that this stuff is true-no matter how much we try to tell him he has it wrong.
— a member of a group for estranged parents
What was in the "pages and pages" that her sons wrote her? Why did it count as "abuse" and not as an explanation? Were her sons really able to fill multiple pages with nothing but, "Dear Mom, You're despicable, vile, twisted, and negative. I hate you. I really, really hate you, because you're vile. And twisted. And negative. You're a bad person, and you should feel bad. I feel bad because you're so bad."? Or was there anything solid in there, anything at all, to explain why they thought their mother was despicable?
In the same vein, members who confront their estranged children report that their children "screamed at them" or "used such foul language that I was shocked," but don't repeat anything their children said. The mother who wrote "A letter to... my estranged daughter" describes her daughter's voice as "A small, frightened whisper, which, though I knew it to be in your voice, didn't seem like you at all", but doesn't say what her daughter whispered; the letter is marked by the complete absence of the daughter's words, even as reported speech.
When members do say what the allegations were, they paraphrase heavily, choosing the most trivial offenses and trimming away all context. Elizabeth Vagnioni said her son accused her of not being part of his child's birth, even though he hadn't told her he was having a child. The accusation is stripped of all seriousness because it's so bizarre, an impression created by the total lack of context. Another estranged mother, the woman quoted above whose sons sent her "pages and pages of abuse," said,
Last night he scraped the bottom of the barrel.
When I was on holiday with him and his second wife and his kids (not hers) three years ago. I was there as a babysitter to do them a favour-although I had to pay for two weeks car rental.
Apparently, I had called [insulted] his ex-wife (who he walked out on five years earlier for another woman) and get this-
I CALLED [insulted] HIS DOG!!!!! Which by the way was a bit disturbed and he eventually he had to re-home it.
She establishes that she was doing her son a favor at the time, that he had no place being insulted by anything she said about his ex-wife, and that his dog (whom she called a "lunatic badly behaved dog") deserved the insult. What's missing is the context of the insults—whether her son has had trouble in the past with her bad-mouthing people and things he cares for, whether her insults were veiled criticism of him, whether the insults she quoted were two in a vacation-long stream of insults and he was tired of her insulting everything and everyone, whether this was the straw that broke the camel's back... One allegation, out of context, shaved down to reductio ad absurdum.
Why Do They Do It?
"So their children's words can't reflect badly on them" is the obvious reason. Members who have aired their children's grievances outside the endlessly enabling warmth of estranged parents' forums have been stung by people who took their children's side, and they've learned not to give their opponents ammunition.
But it runs deeper than that. Many members truly can't remember what their children said. Anything tinged with negative emotion, anything that makes them feel bad about themselves, shocks them so deeply that they block it out. They really can't remember anything but screaming. This emotional amnesia shapes their entire lives, pushing them to associate only with people who won't criticize them, training their families to shelter them from blows so thoroughly that the softest protest feels like a fist to the face.
But it runs even deeper than that. Posts in estranged parents' forums are vague. Members recount stories with the fewest possible details, the least possible context. They don't recreate entire scenes, repeat entire conversations, give entire text exchanges; they paraphrase hours of conversation away. The only element they describe in detail is their own grief or rage. Nor do the other members press them for more information.
Compare this with the forums for adult children of abusers, where the members not only cut-and-paste email exchanges into their posts, they take photos of handwritten letters and screenshot text conversations. They recreate scenes in detail, and if the details don't add up, the other members question them about it. They get annoyed when a member's paraphrase changes the meaning of a sentence, or when omitted details change the meaning of a meeting. They care about precision, context, and history.
The difference isn't a matter of style, it's a split between two ways of perceiving the world. In one worldview, emotion is king. Details exist to support emotion. If a member gives one set of details to describe how angry she is about a past event, and a few days later gives a contradictory set of details to describe how sad she is about the same event, both versions are legitimate because both emotions are legitimate.
Context is malleable because the full picture may not support the member's emotion. If a member adds details that undermine her emotion, the other members considerately ignore them. For example, one woman posted that she felt wounded and betrayed because a few days beforehand, her daughter had agreed to let the mother and one of the mother's friends drop by her house to visit. On the day of the visit, the daughter said she wasn't up for a visit. She had gone to the doctor so the doctor could examine her incision for infection. She had gotten the incision two weeks earlier, when she had a C-section while miscarrying a near-term baby the day before Christmas. The mother was broken because her daughter accused her of being selfish. The members all agreed that the daughter was the selfish one, that she had no right to speak to her mother like that, and that she should be more supportive of her mother in her mother's grief for her lost grandchild.
Emotion creates reality.
In the second worldview, reality creates emotion. Members want the full picture so they can decide whether the poster's emotions are justified. Small details can change the entire tenor of a forum's response; members see a distinction between "She said I'm worthless" and "She said something that made me feel worthless." Members recognize that unjustified emotions (like supersensitivity due to trauma, or irritation with another person that colors the view of everything the person does) are real and deserve respect, but they also believe that unjustified emotions shouldn't be acted on. They show posters different ways to view the situation and give advice on how to handle the emotions. In short, they believe that external events create emotional responses, that only some responses are justified, that people's initial perceptions of events are often flawed, and that understanding external events can help people understand and manage emotions.
The first viewpoint, "emotion creates reality," is truth for a great many people. Not a healthy truth, not a truth that promotes good relationships, but a deep, lived truth nonetheless. It's seductive. It means that whatever you're feeling is just and right, that you're never in the wrong unless you feel you're in the wrong. For people whose self-image is so battered and fragile that they can't bear anything but validation, often it feels like the only way they can face the world.
What Can Be Done About It?
When denial runs that deep, when avoidance is that in-ground, a person can't be separated from it any more than they can be separated from their bones. It's why I aimed this site at estranged adult children and outsiders: because members of estranged parents' forums can't be helped. Their entire system of defenses is designed to make them unsavable.
From my own experiences with a former friend who had the same difficulty absorbing negative input, I can tell you that by framing criticism very, very carefully, with lots of positive input and as little emotion as possible, you can coax someone to accept little slivers of negative feedback. But you have to explain it so gently that they don't understand how serious the situation is, and in a few weeks they're back to their old selves.
You can also train them by addressing each problem in the moment. As soon as they do something wrong, you tell them what they did and give them immediate consequences, like ending the visit. Each time you do it they'll tantrum and spray abuse in all directions, but with repetition they'll learn that doing thing-they-like X causes thing-they-hate Y. Maybe they'll stop doing X. Maybe they'll stop visiting, and they'll tell the rest of the family how controlling and cruel you are. Maybe your mental health will survive the tantrums and abuse and escalating tactics long enough for them to pick one or the other. It's like training a toddler, but without any hope that the toddler will grow out of it.
There's a reason the members of estranged parents' forums are estranged.
If you're an estranged adult child and you're looking for a way to get your parents to hear what the problem is, I'm sorry, but you have your answer already. They don't want to know. They may be incapable of knowing. There are no magic words that will penetrate their defenses.
The good news is that you're free. You can stop now. If you need permission, I'll give it to you: You are hereby allowed to stop trying to get through to your wilfully deaf parents.
Another Example, and an Expert's Analysis
A mother posted on a mixed forum, asking for help understanding a new estrangement from her daughter. She and her husband, the daughter's stepfather, had been estranged from the daughter and her family for several years, until a surprise visit they paid to the daughter's house brought about a fragile reconciliation. At a time of escalating tensions, the mother and stepfather had a run-in with the daughter at their grandson's soccer game.
I brought [a bag of used] clothing and was talking to another mother re giving her daughter (son on team) some of the clothes if they might fit. [....] Within approx. 5 min [daughter] appears behind me and say I want to talk to you NOW! I replied just a moment. NO NOW she raises her voice. I turn from lady on bleachers and say I'll be with you in just a moment when I finish speaking. Then she goes beserk and starting verbally attacking me. Note I have no idea why or what she is talking about. I say to her it seems we are not able to communicate and perhaps my husband and I are not able to either because I do not know what you are talking about @ which point I walk to him. I never say anything and she goes off on him.
The fight ended with her daughter cutting her off again.
When other members of the mixed forum asked her about her history with her daughter, she said she had no idea why her daughter had previously cut her off for eight years. She also said her adult children came to therapy with her
to give them the oportunity to share any and all things that had bothered them during childhood during divorce and the teenage years in order to move forward as an ADULT respectful relationship---I got things like you packed corn chips in lunch every time and didn't change that up when they didn't eat at school. REALLY is that all you can come up with????? Seriously!!
Another member replied,
If you don't mind, I'm actually going to go back to the "corn chips" issue for starters... Is it possible that your DDs brought that up as a way of saying that you don't seem to pick up on certain cues? Like the fact that they never ate the corn chips didn't prompt you to try something else or ask them what they'd prefer? By the same token, and in more serious matters, perhaps your estranged DD feels you don't pick up on sone important cues now? Like maybe she mentions that her dad might be coming b/c she doesn't want you all there together, as I discussed above? And you're just not gettting it?
The mother replied,
I read your posts to DH and at some points he was laughing just because of this way of connecting. Because of the not picking up on the cues comment. Just FYI I am so hyper vilient [vigilant] re picking up on most everything due to my past that it is a hoot sometimes. If there is the most remote chance of something I usually always pick up on it.
Another member, a 60-something grandmother and licensed psychologist who worked as a guardian ad litem, had a reply so perfect and thorough that I'm going to let it stand as the conclusion to this article.
Of course you know why you are cut off.
According to you, your daughter stood in front of you at the baseball game and TOLD you why. I presume she used words you understand in a language you both speak. Thus you DO know.
I can understand you did not like the delivery method. But the delivery method does not affect the MEANING of the words, nor does it invalidate her feelings or opinions. You may feel justified in turning off your listening because you didn't like her delivery, but that's not helpful at all for you. It's like refusing to accept your paycheck because you want it printed on a pink check not a green one. The money is still the same. [....]
I can understand that you may not agree with whatever it was she told you is the problem--but again, that does not mean there is no problem. She told you in a language you understand what the problem is, and you understood her meaning. That you disagree with the problem is immaterial. It's still a problem whether you agree with it or not. It will be a problem forever until you deal with it. Saying, "I don't understand the problem" when you really mean, "I don't agree this is a problem" will not make the problem go away. It will make the person who DOES think it a problem go away--and you had a 8 year cut off demonstrating that principle.
If your daughter thinks it's a problem, IT IS A PROBLEM, whether you agree or not. SHE--not you--has the final say on whether she has a problem with you or not. Here again is a power struggle between you: HER: "This is a problem", YOU: "I see no problem". Guess who's going to win this debate? Not you. [....]
This game of 'I don't understand what happened' when you have been told in words what's wrong is really counterproductive. Yes, it permits you to shield your ego/self esteem from criticism and 'exposure' of your inadequacies in the relationship--but it loses you the relationship.
In order to solve the problem, you have to decide what is more important to you: your daughter and grandchildren, or your ego and belief that you are innocent of doing anything but little insignificant wrongs. It's very common, especially for people from abusive backgrounds who were not adequately nurtured as children, to stop protecting their egos--way to threatening. And many--especially if they have other emotional outlets (such as a supportive spouse and friends)--will choose ego over a relationship. It's easier and more comfortable--but ultimately very self defeating and impoverishing.
(The mother never replied.)
(But she did keep going to her grandchildren's games uninvited and cornering her grandchildren to talk to them.)
 Or even the main one, since it had to post-date the estrangement by months.
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The analyses on this page are my own opinions and should not be construed as medical advice or statements of absolute fact.