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Amid distance and estrangement and strain, some are happily replacing the clans they’re born into with chosen families.

Part of the Family Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The rules were simple.

Stephanie Drury set one boundary with her mother: Don’t shame me. Stephanie’s mom wasn’t allowed to shame her daughter for her hair or her wardrobe or the way she raised her own children. If she did, Stephanie would stop talking to her.

The boundary didn’t hold. Every time they spoke, Stephanie’s mom would inevitably shame her for one reason or another. Stephanie would cut off contact for a month or two, feel guilty, then call her mother back. Even when her mother promised to do better, she would fall back into her own patterns. So would Stephanie: She would cut off contact again, she would feel guilty again, rinse, repeat.

Finally, after a year of back-and-forth, Stephanie’s husband asked whether she and her parents would be willing to have a mediated conversation on how to improve their overall relationship. They asked a trusted family friend who was a pastor to mediate. When he sent an email to the people who would be participating in that discussion, Stephanie’s mother seemed to interpret the very act of asking for a meeting as an act of aggression. She replied with, “It’s too bad that Stephanie has decided to never talk to us again. It’s so sad that Stephanie has made this decision, and that we’re never going to see our grandchildren.”

“I was so relieved that someone else was bearing witness to this insanity that I grew up with,” Stephanie, who works as a risk analyst in Seattle, says. (Several people in this article asked that their last names not be used in order to speak freely about estrangements, abuse, and complex familial relationships.) “I had an extreme emotional response. I kicked a hole in the wall. It was finally real to me. And my...

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