But are psychotherapists partly responsible for the increase in family fractures? Joshua Coleman says it's possible. "The role of the 21st-century therapist is to help the individual experience deeper feelings of freedom and well-being," he says. "Today, people decide whether to remain close or distanced based on how immediately fulfilling the relationship is. What concerns me is, what are we sacrificing for that freedom?"
For Steve Sayre, 53, a San Francisco marketing director, the freedom was worth the sacrifice — until, one day, it wasn't. Afraid to tell his parents in person that he was gay, Sayre came out to them in a letter in 1982. "I was 24 years old, and I was a child of my mother's Chinese reticent ways," he explains. But Sayre's mother never saw the letter. His father told Sayre he had thrown it away — which triggered an estrangement that lasted a year. Sayre and his parents hardly spoke at all.
Finally Sayre summoned his courage and invited his parents to his apartment, where he said aloud that he was gay. "My mother reached for the box of Kleenex, weeping, and said, 'What did I do wrong?' " he recalls. But one month later she sent him a letter. "She said, 'You're my son. I gave birth to you, and I'll always love you for whatever you are,' " he recalls. "That was really nice."
Sayre pauses, then adds pensively, "The challenge for all children is figuring out how to grow up. That's what I was going through the year I didn't speak to my parents. And in that moment when I told them my truth and stood up for myself as a man — that's when I became an adult."
But even if a family splintering is fed by a child's immaturity, experts agree that the best way for parents to facilitate reconciliation is to change their own behavior and take responsibility for their own mistakes. (See box "When Your Kid 'Divorces' You" for additional tips.) When Deborah Jackson was able to do that, it opened a crack in the door her son had slammed in her face. "Looking back on it," she says now, "I saw that while I was going through my divorce, Marcus needed more emotional support than I was able to give."
She called Marcus and apologized, and he responded. "I seem to have moved forward with my son," she says. "I think partly it's due to my decision to let him live his life, and partly to his own understanding and growth.
"I spent time with him around the holidays," Deborah says with a broad grin. "You can only imagine how my heart soared."
Meredith Maran is the author of 10 nonfiction books. Her first novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, was published this year.