Can the Four Tendencies Framework Help Explain Patterns of Family Estrangement?

Two people hugging while watching the sky

I just read Karl Pillemer’s book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them (Amazon, Bookshop) where he explores the subject of family estrangement.

It turns out that family estrangement is far more common than is popularly supposed, and tends to follow certain patterns. Dr. Pillemer draws from his Cornell Family Reconciliation Project to explore how rifts begin, why estrangement is so painful, and how reconciliation happens.

This book is interesting for many reasons, but I was particularly struck by what looked, to me, as evidence of the Four Tendencies at work—in particular, Obliger-Rebellion.

In a nutshell, the Four Tendencies personality framework sorts people into four categories, based on how they tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a request from a friend) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations, and they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense; they respond to inner expectations
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

(Want to know your Tendency? Take the quick, free quiz here. More than 3 million people have taken the quiz.)

The biggest Tendency, for both men and women, is the Obliger Tendency. And there’s a phenomenon with Obligers that, although it’s common, is often mystifying to them and to others: the striking pattern of Obliger-Rebellion.

Obliger-rebellion occurs when Obligers meet, meet, meet, meet expectations, and then suddenly—they snap. They say, “This, I will not do!” and they refuse to meet an expectation. This refusal can be small and symbolic (refusing to answer someone’s emails for a week, being deliberately late for work), or it can be explosive, huge, and fateful (ending a long friendship, quitting a job, getting a divorce—or breaking off contact with a family member).

When Obligers feel exploited, over-taxed, neglected, ignored, or taken advantage of, Obliger-rebellion may kick in to give them an exit. They refuse to do what’s asked of them. To the Obliger and the people around the Obliger, this refusal often looks sudden, unexpected, and disproportionate. Obligers themselves often say things like, “I don’t know where that came from” or “I’m acting out of character.”

Although it can have destructive effects, Obliger-rebellion is meant to be a constructive phenomenon—it’s the emergency parachute that allows an Obliger to escape from a situation where expectations are too high.

Obliger-Rebellion builds slowly over time. It may look sudden, but it’s a response to a longstanding burden. In a moment, the Obliger explodes, refuses, and says, “Enough, I’m finished, this is over.”

In Fault Lines, Pillemer describes what he calls “volcanic events” where seemingly in a moment, a relationship ended. For instance, he recounts an interview with Eliot:

Eliot had long felt that his mother disapproved of his marriage and of his wife. His family was one in which people rarely discussed their feelings, so his resentment simmered beneath the surface. The signature incident [when his mother refused to pay for college for Eliot’s stepson as she’d done for her other grandchildren] embodied long-standing, unresolved conflicts, which then exploded in an unexpected way. For many people, the volcanic event crystallizes everything that was wrong about the relationship. Out of many similar moments, they are pushed toward dramatic action by this particular event, even if they do not understand precisely why. [my emphasis]

Pillemer quotes from an interview with Ella Landry, a mother estranged from her daughter, who recalls:

We had argued before, but there was something different that day. She kept telling me that she wanted a tiny wedding with just the parents, brothers, and sisters. I knew it would deeply hurt her grandparents not to be invited. I guess I told her that one too many times and in too strong words. She exploded, shouted at me, “Well, if that’s the case, I don’t want you to come!” She stormed out, and since that day three years ago, I haven’t seen her again.

My husband and I were not invited to her wedding, and we have not seen our first grandchild, who is one year old. I think about that moment—I even dream about it—over and over. How could everything turn on just that one time, just that moment? [my emphasis]

When I read this, I almost yelled out, Obliger-Rebellion! Building resentment, simmering anger, the feeling of being  unheard or exploited…building, building, building until the EXPLOSION. From the outside, it may look as if one little thing set it off, but in fact, it has been brewing for a long time.

Over and over, I’ve talked to Obligers—or the people around them—who’ve experienced this.

It’s a very important phenomenon to understand, because the consequences can be so dramatic, as in family estrangement.

And here’s a hard truth I’ve learned from Obligers about Obliger-Rebellion: once it starts, it must run its course, and that can take years. It’s far better to stay alert for that building anger and resentment, and take steps to fix it, than to wait to see the explosion.

If you want to read more about the Four Tendencies generally, with a lengthy discussion of Obliger-Rebellion, check out my book The Four Tendencies.

If you want to read more posts about Obliger-Rebellion:

If you want to see examples of Obliger-Rebellion in movies:

If you want to listen to me discuss Obliger-Rebellion on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast:

Have you seen the Four Tendencies play a role in family estrangement? I can imagine all four Tendencies having an influence, in different situations.



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