Social estrangements, or the loss of a friendly relationship with someone, can cause psychological harm to all involved parties, even if severing the relationship was in their best interests. New research published in EvoS Journal found that some traits associated with borderline personality disorder are related to an increased number of estranged relationships.
Humans are highly social and having many estranged relationships can result in a worsened mood, anger, antisocial behavior, and in severe cases, substance dependence.
“As is often the case in the behavioral sciences, this research was partly inspired by experiences I saw in my own social world. I’ve seen estrangements wreak havoc on communities at various levels across my life. So as an evolutionist, I started thinking about this phenomenon from an evolutionary perspective,” explained study author Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology and founding director of evolutionary studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
“Specifically, I started to think about how social estrangements would play out in small-scale groups where everyone knows one another, as our basic social psychology evolved under such conditions. My first thought was essentially this: Wow–under ancestral conditions, when human group sizes were very small relative to group sizes today, even a small number of estrangements would be extremely problematic in terms of survival and long-term reproductive possibilities.”
The authors were particularly interested in whether impulsivity, risk-taking behavior, and borderline tendencies (i.e., traits that characterize borderline personality disorder such as trouble maintaining interpersonal relationships and self-destructive behavior) are related to the number of estranged relationships one has.
They were also interested in Life History strategy (LHS), which refers to one’s overall lifestyle survival choices, and how it might relate to estrangements. “LHS is developed through childhood, and living through unpredictable and harsh conditions as a child can result in fast life history strategies, which include, high number of sexual partners with little attachment, less parenting to offspring and early maturation,” the authors explained. “Fast life history strategies have been seen to have negative influences on interpersonal relationships and emotional functioning.”
The authors recruited a final sample of 392 adult participants by distributing an online survey on a small college campus and on social media sites. Participants completed measures of all the relevant variables. Results indicated that borderline tendencies were related to the number of estrangements participants reported having. Specifically, more borderline tendencies were associated with more estrangements. Impulsivity, risk-taking, and life history strategy were not related to estrangements.
“We may be seeing these results due to the fact that borderline tendencies include black-and-white thinking and idealization and devaluation which may account for the number of estrangements associated with borderline tendencies,” the researchers explained in their study. “Although risk-taking and impulsivity are also associated with borderline tendencies, they alone may not cause cut offs or estrangements.”
“Cutting someone out of one’s life makes sense under certain contexts,” Geher told PsyPost. “In our research, for instance, we found that after having been betrayed by a close other, estrangements are particularly likely and perhaps adaptive as well. But we also found that the number of people from whom one is estranged, the more difficult that person’s life is both emotionally and socially. So I’d say that people should consider cutting others out of their lives with extraordinary caution, thought, and care. Estrangements can make life extremely problematic for a broad array of reasons.”
The authors do cite some limitations to their work. Namely, their sample was mostly from a small college campus, which might have limited the scope of variability in the relevant measures. For instance, the mean age of participants was 21. Perhaps including more older adults would have shown more variability in the number of estrangements people reported.
“If trust has been fully broken between two individuals, estrangements are very likely and such a strategy might have benefits that outweigh costs,” Geher said. “But many questions do remain on this topic. Particularly pressing questions on this topic, to my mind, include the following: Under what conditions do the benefits of forgiveness outweigh the costs associated with betrayal? Are estrangements more likely under some cultural conditions (e.g., in individualistic cultures) more so than in others? What factors predict healing in a relationship—getting past estrangement toward mutual forgiveness? How does the work on the adverse consequences of estrangements relate to work on the utility of cutting “toxic” people out of one’s life?”
“The social world is difficult to navigate—to say the least,” the Geher added. “Keeping in the good graces of others, generally speaking, has all kinds of benefits for oneself, one’s relationships, and one’s community. Maintaining important social connections is, at the end of the day, a foundational goal in terms of our evolved psychology. Maybe people should think about that before cutting someone out of their life for good.”
The study “Predictors of Social Estrangements“, was authored by A. Sung, G. Geher, and M. Wice.