Steps toward reconciling a family estrangement

So much of our suffering comes from the gap between the way our life is and the way we think things should be– including other people.

Estrangements from relatives are incredibly painful situations that affect many adults. And yet, there continues to be so much stigma and shame for the unfortunate people in the strained relationship.
Whether between siblings or parents and adult children, estrangement is increasingly common, and many desire guidance on how to navigate the emotional fallout of this loss, future interactions with the family member, and the ultimate fate of the relationship.

Books about estrangement are usually written by mental health professionals and/or individuals who have experienced estrangement themselves, which has the limitation of being from a singular view: one version of this experience, one individual’s personal viewpoint and advice. This can limit the generalizability and usefulness of these guides, as individual accounts often cannot capture the nuance and complexity of estrangement. 

Sometimes, the most valuable wisdom comes from your peers– those who have felt the same guilt, shame, grief, anger, and sadness, who can make you feel less alone in your experience, and who can offer hard-earned wisdom. Accordingly, sociologist Karl Pillemer conducted interviews with hundreds of individuals to research the themes that span their experiences with estrangement, which culminated in Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. I appreciated that this book gave me a window into the many faces of estrangement, and I want to share a few points about reconciliation that I learned.

To reconcile, or not to reconcile? 

We often know what led to an estrangement in the first place. It can stem from persistent abuse, differences in personal beliefs or values, poor communication or boundaries, or a single upsetting incident. What is less clear, however, is what comes after. Is that parent, child, or sibling lost and gone forever? Is there another way? 

Sometimes, we feel the best way forward might be reconciliation, that the relationship is more valuable than holding on to the perceived wrongdoings. But where to begin? If you are considering the possibility of a different future, formerly estranged adults who successfully reconciled recommended the following steps:

Decide whether you can let go of the past. Perhaps you feel that it is more important to you to focus on connecting with this family member as you both are now, rather than holding onto the past. The keys to this process, participants articulated, are letting go of (1) the belief that the estranged relative has to agree with your version of past events, as well as (2) the need for an apology. Instead, focus on how the future of the relationship could look with the mindset of a “clean slate” and new possibilities.

Take responsibility for the role you played in the rift, because defensiveness only keeps both parties entrenched. The truth is, any conflict is a complex interaction of both individuals’ thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and patterns arise from the dynamic of what each person brings to the table. Perspective-taking can be useful for seeing the other person’s side of the story; consider, “What would s/he say about what happened to us?” It can also help to get feedback from neutral third parties, especially those outside the family.

Change your expectations for this person. So much of our suffering comes from the gap between the way our life is and the way we think things should be– including other people. When we wait for our relatives to change to meet our expectations, we create unnecessary pain for everyone involved. Instead, take the situation into your own hands by learning to think more flexibly about who this person is able to and should be to you. One way to shift your perspective is to think about the minimum you would be willing to accept from this person; what is the least that would make reconciliation possible?

Help your estranged relative learn the new rules by setting clear boundaries. Reflect on what your terms are for making the relationship possible, and get specific. Articulate the consequences if the boundaries are violated, and stick to them. Try to be reasonable and to also consider what you are willing to change in your own behavior. Sometimes, the family member will need persistent reminders of these new rules of engagement, as with any time we are learning new habits. A therapist can be helpful throughout this process, whether supporting you individually or working with all parties involved.

Every situation is unique, and sometimes, the abuse and pain suffered warrant permanent estrangement. However, if you are considering some version of reconciliation, there can be ways forward, and there is guidance available from people who have walked in your shoes.

To learn more and consider your own path of reconciliation, I highly recommend checking out Fault Lines. (Please note this is not an official endorsement or affiliate link and I do not directly benefit from your purchase. This is solely my personal and professional opinion.)

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