Family estrangement: USU professor finds lack of research ‘shocking’

MA-Kristina-Scharp-2

When Kristina Scharp was growing up in northern New Jersey, she never imagined she would become one of only three scholars in the world to study estrangement in a systematic way.

However, as she read an essay by Leslie Baxter, a University of Iowa scholar in family and relational communication, she realized it was the topic she wanted to devote her academic career to.

“It just clicked. It made so much sense to me,” said Scharp, a professor of communication studies at Utah State University.

Scharp said estrangement is when people deliberately distance themselves from their families because of negative relationships. She said the topic caught her fascination because of its commonality, yet lack of research.

Scharp worked both independently and with Baxter studying broader topics in relational communication and conflict before specifically focusing on estrangement.

She began her research by opening an online Listerv allowing the entire student body at the University of Iowa to contact her with their experiences with estrangement. It generated hundreds of responses.

Scharp said she found the lack of previous research on the topic shocking. A 2014 study conducted by Stand Alone, a United Kingdom-based group, found that 19% of people surveyed were estranged from their families, and 27% of people reported they knew someone else in the same situation.

Scharp also explained that the phrase “blood is thicker than water” is commonly taken out of context and misunderstood when speaking of families and estrangement.

She said it is usually misinterpreted to emphasize the importance of biological relationships, or “blood.”

“It’s actually an old phrase that means the blood you shed in battle is thicker than the water you share in the womb. So it actually means the exact opposite of how we use it today,” she said. “The phrase was meant to say the people who you’d give your life for are more important than your biological relations.”

Scharp attributes the lack of research to the belief that families are not relationships that one can simply choose to leave or maintain. She said this idea is completely false, however.

“People break up with their families all the time,” she said.

Recently, Scharp received a national platform on her research when it was mentioned in The New York Times. Scharp attributes this to the fact that she is one of three scholars in the world who focus solely on estrangement — the other two are in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Though the three don’t work together, they communicate often.

Though Scharp said people tend to think of estranged as not talking to family members, characteristics also include lower quality of communication, physical distance, lack of feeling or negative feeling, or even involving legal action.

Scharp explained there are many reasons why families can seek distance and become estranged.

With adult children, she said, estrangement often results from mental health issues, substance abuse or neglect. With parents, however, estrangement is often caused by children engaging in dangerous behaviors or a child’s partner who is problematic for the family.

Scharp completed her dissertation at the University of Iowa on the different ways people maintain distance from their families, which brought her to the specific topic of estrangement.

It particularly interested her because step-families, foster families and adopted families tend to receive more stigmatization than traditional families, even though non-traditional families are more common than “nuclear” families that fit the traditional mold.

Though many researchers take interest in fields personal to them, this isn’t the case for Scharp, who has a “very close relationship” with her parents.

“I’m certainly glad it’s what I do now, but that wasn’t my goal growing up,” she said.

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