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Q&A with the Annual Symposium's

Distinguished Guest Lecturer

This year’s Distinguished Guest Lecturer at the Bowen Center’s Annual Symposium on November 8-9 is Karl Pillemer, PhD. Dr. Pillemer is Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Senior Associate Dean for Research and Outreach in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.
Bowen Center associate faculty member Kathleen Smith interviewed Dr. Pillemer recently to learn more about his upcoming presentation, his research on estrangement, and his encounters with Bowen theory.

KS: How did you become interested in learning about estrangement?

Dr. Pillemer: I am a sociologist who studies the family, and my research program on estrangement emerged from my career-long research interests. For over 30 years, I have studied family problems, such as conflict, domestic violence, and parental favoritism. I have helped pioneer the study of ambivalence in families, recognizing that our idealized expectations of the perfect family are never met. Thus, I was primed by years of research to look at family complexity, focusing not only on the cheerful outward appearances that make up social media posts but also the darker sides of family life in which people feel unfulfilled, abandoned, or abused.

Then, while I was doing in-depth interviews of older people for a study of elder wisdom, I was surprised to hear the intense emotions that were raised by discussions of estrangement. Older individuals who experienced a cutoff with a child or sibling found it extremely painful and as an enormous piece of “unfinished business” at the end of life. As I explored the topic of family rifts, I learned that they likely affect millions of people and have devastating effects. As someone who specializes in research that informs practical solutions to human problems, it seemed like an area ripe for study.

KS: Have social scientists studied estrangement extensively?

Dr. Pillemer: To my great surprise, after an exhaustive search I realized that the answer to that question is largely “no.” From a research standpoint, only about a dozen studies have been published in academic journals on the topic of estrangement. There is also very limited clinical literature on the topic (with the notable exception of Bowen theory). The monumental Handbook of Family Therapy does not have an entry on “estrangement” in its index. Even the self-help literature on family estrangement is scarce, with only a handful of books published in recent years that offer guidance for dealing with family rifts. It seemed to me remarkable that for a problem that affects so many people and has such negative outcomes, there was so little scientific interest or professional guidance. People are mostly on their own in finding solutions to estrangement.

KS: You’ve been interviewing therapists about how they understand estrangement and how they work with clients who may be estranged from their families. What has surprised you the most about these interviews?

Dr. Pillemer: I conducted a national survey of 60 family therapists with a variety of orientations. Most encountered estrangement in their practices relatively frequently. I am not sure whether this is surprising – indeed, I expected it somewhat – but a number of family therapists were pessimistic about their ability to help people reconcile with family members. They see the biggest barrier as the difficulty in getting the estranged family member to join the client in the therapy. Therapists influenced by Bowen theory were the exception, both in seeing the value of working with an individual family member on cutoff issues and on having a clear theoretical orientation to the issue.

KS: How did you become connected to the ideas in Bowen theory?

Dr. Pillemer: Let me first make a disclaimer. I have read extensively on Bowen theory and discussed it with practitioners, but I am definitely an example of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That said, one cannot explore the issue of estrangement for very long without encountering Bowen theory. In my research, I have conducted a national survey of 1350 individuals to learn the extent of estrangement, as well as over 300 in-depth interviews with people who are currently estranged or have reconciled after a rift. Analyzing the data, I found that Bowen theory has answers to questions I was encountering.

Among many ideas, I would point to two examples of how Bowen theory has influenced my research. First, Bowen pioneered the idea that we are better off if we are not estranged, even if the relative is a difficult person. My research on over 100 people who have reconciled with a family member supports this idea; such individuals are very glad they did so and found that the process of reconciliation was an engine for personal growth. Second, my studies generally confirm that a driving cause of estrangement is anxiety; parents and children, in particular, may stay estranged because they are anxious about conflict, the relative’s demands, or losing their identity in the relationship. Seeing anxiety as a core reason for estrangement, rather than hostility, anger, or resentment, shed light on the stories of many families.

KS: Many of the presentations at the Symposium will be addressing the Bowen theory concept of cutoff, which some would argue is different than estrangement. What questions or answers do you hope will emerge from this discussion?

Dr. Pillemer: I am extremely interested in understanding the overlap between the concepts of estrangement and cutoff. One obvious difference is researchers on estrangement define it as a complete cessation of contact, whereas Bowen theory practitioners also consider emotional cutoff in a relationship where there is still contact. I hope our discussions can shed light on this issue.

KS: Are there any other particular presentations at the conference you’re excited to hear?

Dr. Pillemer: All of them! I am particularly interested in learning more about the concept of emotional cutoff, and the degree to which it may precede physical cutoff. I think the presentations can also shed light on the process of reconciliation, which is my main interest now.

KS: You’ll also be presenting your ideas about how to bridge research and clinical practice. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?  

Much of my work at Cornell University is dedicated to bringing about a better marriage of science and service. We talk about “translational research” – that is, scientific research that adds to basic knowledge, but simultaneously has the needs of eventual end-users of research in mind. There is a wide gap between knowledge generated by universities and actual relevant to and use by practitioners. So my colleagues and I have worked extensively on ways to bring researchers and practitioners together, to come to consensus on research priorities, and even to plan and conduct research and intervention studies together. I will pose some questions about the “two worlds” of research and practice, as well as how to bring them closer together.

KS: Is there anything that attendees can read prior to the conference to supplement your lecture? 

Dr. Pillemer: We have published one article on estrangement and are working on a number of others and a book on the topic. Attendees may find the article to be of interest, as it shows how researchers may approach the topic of estrangement:

Gilligan, M., Suitor, J. J., & Pillemer, K. (2015). Estrangement between mothers and adult children: The role of norms and values. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(4), 908-920.

They might also find this article on ambivalence to be of interest:

Pillemer, K., Munsch, C. L., Fuller‐Rowell, T., Riffin, C., & Suitor, J. J. (2012). Ambivalence toward adult children: Differences between mothers and fathers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(5), 1101-1113.

Also relevant is this article on the practical implications of my research on parental favoritism (follow the link):

Pillemer, K., & Gilligan, M. (2018). Innovation in Aging, 2(1). Translating basic research on the aging family to caregiving intervention: The case of within-family differences.

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