Estrangement hurts. We are, after all, social creatures and want to be close to others.
Feeling rejected, misunderstood or cast outside the family circle seems to diminish us at our core. So how do we get back in once we're on the outs?
Therapists say reconciliation is a process -- a long and arduous one. There's no one route and it's likely to be bumpy. The guidance of a therapist is often necessary for the hard work of self-examination, honesty and change that must be achieved within before making an overture to an estranged family member or friend.
If you are estranged, know one thing: You are not alone. Therapists say it's almost inevitable, given the intensity and closeness of family relationships, and the fact that family members are often very different from one another. "Families are a very complicated unit," says Nicholas Strouse, director and practicing clinical social worker at Westport Family Center.
It's easier to reconcile with friends. "Friends can pick up where they left off," says Mark Sichel, author of Healing from Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace after Being Cut Off by a
Family Member, and a family therapist. "They can tread more lightly. Family is much more fraught, much more powerful."
Taylor Letendre of New Canaan says she made "enormous efforts to reconcile" with a family member for years, to no avail, but has recently reconciled with a friend. "I do find it much easier with friends," she says, "They're more forgiving. The family dynamic is so deep."
Laura Casale of Norwalk had been estranged from a friend for 20 years when she recently ran into him by chance. "I was shocked to see him. We ended up talking for an hour and we asked `Do you remember why we stopped being friends?' It was probably over something really stupid." Their renewed connection has been rewarding, "We're at similar stages in our lives," Casale says, "You learn so much in life. We're more mature." Technology is making it easier to reconnect with friends. Social media replaces a telephone call with a short message.
Family estrangement can seem like a black mark, but there's no need to feel ashamed. "Estrangement is not a character flaw," says Strouse, of Westport, "It doesn't indicate pathology." In fact, Sichel believes that "cut-offs" are becoming more common. "There's more intolerance and small-mindedness," he says. "There's a belief in freedom and standing on convictions." In the past, "People didn't feel `entitled' to break up."
Nancy Richards was deluged with e-mails from people suffering from estranged relations with family members after she published Heal and Forgive II: The Journey from Abuse and Estrangement to Reconciliation. "Our society is rampant with estrangement," she says. But she believes it's nothing new. We're just talking about it more.
Physical estrangement can be a necessary step that precedes reconciliation. "I don't regret it for a second," Richards says of the 15 years she didn't see her mother. "It was one of the healthiest decisions I made. I worked with a therapist and I became so healthy I could come back and find a balance and have a relationship with my mother." They've been reconciled for seven years.
But don't expect a Hallmark moment. "The fantasy is that you both grow and change and renew a deeper, transformative relationship," says Laura Davis, author of I Thought We'd Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation. "And that that does happen sometimes, but it's not the most common outcome."
Experts advise taking it slowly. "Time is a crucial element of reconciliation," says Davis. Don't dive into the renewed relationship with abandon. "I have my mother over for a certain time limit and I give myself plenty of time to recover from her, like a month or so," she says.
Many therapists recommend not rehashing the past. There are two versions of the story. There are layers of complicated, often contradictory and counterintuitive feelings. "It's such a raw topic," Richard says.
A therapist can help us understand how and why the rift happened. A full-fledged rift occurs because of an injustice, says Sichel, between an "injustice collector" and a people-pleaser. "The injustice collector is the king or queen of their imaginary kingdom. They hurl accusations." The people-pleaser has an overly developed sense of responsibility and a belief that they can fix the significant others in their lives. Yet they are full of shame and self-doubt.
Strouse says the person who is cast out of the family, the black sheep, might once have been the golden child who had to "live up to unrealistic standards." Their successes pleased their parents, but brought a sense of competition and rivalry to siblings. Those feelings can intensify as children become adults. "Generally, the person who is estranged is the healthiest," says Strouse. "They've been observing the family's patterns," he says. "They've gained the ability to attune to others' pain and insight about their own pain. They seek help."
People who reveal that they were sexually abused by a family member are often shut out by the family. Davis speaks of her first-hand experience and of others who were ostracized. Families have a strong desire to keep the status quo, the dynamics and equilibrium they are familiar with, no matter how dysfunctional. "They view the estranged one as the problem," Davis says.
A people-pleaser can be an injustice collector, too. Davis writes about a woman who was cast out of her family because she came out as a lesbian. "She'd done nothing wrong. But her mistake was she hung on to her resentment. She relived it, sharpened it. She carried her resentment for 20 years."
Author Ruth Brennen's family reconciliation came almost too late. "My mother was in her 80s with dementia and she said to me, `Don't I have a sister? How come she doesn't visit me?'" Brennen explained that they'd had a rift long ago. Her mother replied, "I can't remember what it was about. So it can't have been that important. I'm so lonely for my sister."
Brennen, as she recounts in Gathering Family, called her aunt, who came to visit. "They talked quietly," Brennen, who lives in Trumbull, says. Watching them, she felt a sense of regret for her mother and her aunt, but also for the way the rift had infected her generation. "It split the family; everyone had to take sides. To this day, my cousin barely tolerates me."
"The worst thing is to pass (the estrangement) on
to the next generation, who had nothing to do with it," says Davis.
Children can be used as weapons, says Sichel. "(Withholding the children is) a tool an adult child can use to hurt their parents," he says. "I had a client whose son would not let her see his children, until one of them was diagnosed with autism and they needed her help."
Richards, however, says it was her kids who pointed out the depth of dysfunction that had become normal to her. "When my kids were 9 and 11, they said, `It's not good for us to be around your mom.' When I saw that her behavior was affecting my kids, I told my mother I couldn't be around her anymore."
But children also can bring families back together. "I negotiated a civil and cordial amnesty with my father so that my children could have a grandfather," says Sichel. Did it last? "For a while," he says. Davis reports a happier ending, "If you had told me 30 years ago that I would be my mother's caregiver, I would have said you were crazy," she says, "But I do it willingly and happily."
Tips on Reconciling
There's no one right way to reconcile, and sometimes it's not possible or advisable, but for best outcomes, experts offer these tips:
- Do your homework. It takes maturity, acceptance, sensitivity and judgment, compassion, honesty and accountability. Whew! Working with a therapist is recommended.
- Go slowly. Reconciliation is a long, slow process played out over time.
- When reaching out, start with today. Apologize and move forward. Don't rehash.
- Don't be disappointed if your initial overtures are not met responsively. The family member hasn't had the same amount of time to prepare that you've had.
- Rebuild on safe, common ground.
- Establish boundaries, meet for prescribed amounts of time and give yourself plenty of time to process (recover from) each meeting.
- Forgiveness is worthwhile even if you don't reconcile with a family member. Freeing ourselves of bitterness and resentment is good for us. Start with having compassion for yourself, then widen the beam of your compassion upon your family.