Emotional Distancing in a Family: Why Does It Happen?

Lack of understanding, different values, words that can't be forgotten... The emotional distance between family members can be due to different causes. It's also something that occurs more frequently than you probably think. Is it something you can identify with?
Emotional Distancing in a Family: Why Does It Happen?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Emotional distancing in a family doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, in general, it gradually accumulates in an excess of disappointments, silent grudges, harsh words, and silences. These kinds of dynamics can occur in any family member, leaving behind festering wounds.

Parents, children, brothers, uncles, cousins, grandparents… you can experience these kinds of problems with any one of them. Furthermore, emotional distance occurs more often than you probably think. Indeed, many households have a family member who no longer comes to visit or doesn’t even call on the phone to find out how everything’s going.

For many, this is natural. Because it’s never easy to get along with everyone in the family. However, the situation becomes a little more problematic when it arises between parents and children. Obviously, blood ties don’t guarantee affection, nor are they an imposition to maintain a bond. Nevertheless, these types of situations are often experienced with feelings of great sadness.

Let’s take a closer look.

Elderly woman thinking about emotional distancing in the family

Emotional distancing in the family: what are the causes?

Emotional distancing in the family has been a fairly neglected topic in the field of research, according to a study conducted by neuropsychiatric, Richard Conti, from Kean University in New Jersey (USA). He claims that these situations happen quite frequently and that they occur to a greater degree among cousins, aunts and uncles, and nieces and nephews. Nevertheless, the greatest feeling of anguish and psychological exhaustion arises in the nuclear family (parents and children).

Nowadays, this subject is discussed more frequently. This could be because we see public figures either practicing it or talking about it. For example, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex leaving behind the British royal family to start their lives in another country. Anthony Hopkins has also spoken more than once about the fact that he hasn’t spoken to his daughter in almost two decades.

Viewed from the outside, it might be sad and even incomprehensible. However, the dynamics woven in a home and between a group of people are extremely complex. Salvador Minuchin, a psychiatrist and prominent family therapist, used to say that growing up and maturing means learning to separate. Unfortunately, some separations occur in a painful and even distorted way, creating wounds forever.

Let’s take a look at the main causes of emotional distancing in the family.

Different expectations and values

How do you conceive your life? What do you expect from yourself? What are your values? Often, when you answer these questions, you discover that your relatives hold ideas that are diametrically opposed to yours but this shouldn’t be a problem. After all, the best families aren’t those who agree on everything, but those who, despite their differences, respect each other.

Nevertheless, unfortunately, this doesn’t happen too often. In fact, in many cases, the origin of emotional distance arises from a clash of irreconcilable values and expectations. For instance, some parents place unreasonably high expectations on their children and they don’t fit in with them.

Behaviors that wear down relationships

Emotionally cold mothers, authoritarian fathers, selfish children, children with violent communication and impulsive behaviors… In a home, there can be an infinite combination of unhealthy dynamics. In fact, many of them are often caused by undiagnosed psychological disorders. Others may be due to conflicting personalities that have been clashing with each other for decades.

This huge variety of characters means that open wounds are often created. Wounds that don’t heal, making coexistence unbearable. Gradually, the emotional distancing in the family becomes more patent and evident. The children leave home and visit occasionally, visits that become increasingly sporadic until they eventually cease to exist. Hence, the bond wears out.

Sometimes, this causes a certain degree of relief, as the painful and troublesome situations no longer occur. However, despite the lack of communication, the shadow of sadness and disappointment often remains.

Death, divorce, and new arrivals

Another cause of emotional distancing in the family can be explained by the presence of new figures in the family unit. Alternatively, by an absence of one of them.

  • Sometimes, the partners of children cause the family bond to be completely reformulated.
  • The same happens in cases of separation or divorce of the parents. Indeed, if either parent has a new partner, there may be a change in the relationship.
  • When one parent dies, dealings with the surviving parent can also cool down. This occurs especially when the children have a good relationship with their father and not with their mother or vice versa.
  • The loss of the most beloved figure can have an extremely complex impact. That’s because the child has to deal with the other parent with whom they’ve never gotten along.
Sad woman thinking that in the affective distancing in the family

Traumatic situations and emotional distancing in the family

There’s another decisive factor in the origin of emotional distancing in the family: traumas. Physical or psychological abuse, mistreatment, alcohol or drug use, and the dynamics that are created in these situations give shape to often insurmountable wounds. They contribute to the gradual breakdown of the bond.

Finally, there are many triggers for the breakdown of a relationship between family members. Nonetheless, it should be noted that this distance is usually justified due to insurmountable conflicts, suffering, domestic violence, etc. Sadly, despite the fact that distance is often necessary, society continues to view this fact with disapproval.

The family continues to be conceived as a sacred institution. Nevertheless, on occasions, it can be the scene and origin of a great deal of unhappiness.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Conti, Richard. (2015). Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science. 3. 10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.