Reconnecting with family

Family relationships can be difficult and not all conflicts can be resolved. But if you are ready to reconcile, these strategies can help
They say family is forever. But what if you’ve had a falling out with a family member? Are there ways to mend broken ties and find peace? In How to Rekindle a Relationship With Estranged Family Members, social worker Amy Morin addresses the topic. Writing for Verywell Family, she outlines research from the University of Cambridge and the non-profit Stand Alone regarding family breaks. Morin says 54% of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “estrangement or relationship breakdown is common in our family.”

If you’re thinking, “My dad never seemed very interested in me.” Or, “My mom won’t talk to me since I came out,” you are truly not alone. Feelings like these can cause painful divides in families.

Estrangement follows certain patterns. It can carry a significant amount of guilt and anxiety about whether or not to reconnect. It may be helpful to know that most estrangement situations are temporary. The longest-lasting break about eight years) is between a father and an adult child. Walkaways between siblings are next-longest. Breaks between moms and their adult kids are most common, and about 5.5 years on average.

If you’re considering whether or not to re-engage, it’s normal to have mixed feelings. “The mere thought of resuming contact might stir up a lot of uncomfortable emotions, though—such as fear, sadness, anger, or hurt,” Morin says.

But the idea of restoring a bond might also make you happy.

Morin suggests first identifying the reasons you want to reconnect. Managing your expectations can prepare you for various outcomes. Keep in mind that asking for resolution may not result in instant harmony.

In The New York Times article, The Causes of Estrangement, and How Families Heal, Paula Span notes that 27% of people in one online survey reported estrangement from the family. Of those, half had been out of contact for at least four years.

For the article, Span interviewed Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University family sociologist. Pillemer authored, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. He and his colleagues interviewed hundreds of people who had experienced family estrangement. Pillemer notes that older people (around 76 and up) tend to have a “hang in there no matter what” attitude. For them, cut-off isn’t an option. With boomers and younger adults, there’s a greater willingness to part ways, accept the riff and move on if things aren’t working out.

There are many reasons people stop interacting with family. Difficult childhood histories and divorce are among the common causes. Kids can be more likely to lose contact with one parent or the other. Other reasons? Strained relations with in-laws, arguments about money, disapproval of sexual orientation, and polar political leanings, Pillemer says.

Resolution may not be simple. Letting go of the past helps make reconnecting possible. Accepting that you will never see eye to eye on every issue also helps. Embrace the imperfect, but set boundaries. For example, you are welcome in my home, but let’s start with short visits. And I’d like to see your best efforts to be kind and accepting toward my partner.

Only you can decide if mending a relationship is right for you. In The Times, Pillemer says of the people he interviewed for his book, the majority of those who reconciled found it extremely rewarding. “People who reconcile describe the experience as letting go of the attempt to have the other person see the past as they saw it,” Pillemer states, “It did involve settling for less, in most cases. It was still worth it to be back in the relationship.” Others are glad not to have the person in their lives going forward. Neither is wrong. But if you’re willing to try, thoughtful planning can improve the odds of reconnecting in a healthy way.

“When you look at your life, the greatest happinesses are family happinesses.” – Dr. Joyce Brothers

Resolving family estrangements

Having a (semi-)permanent break with a family member is quite common. If you’ve decided to try to mend your relationship, Verywell Family outlines a few things that are helpful:

  • Figure out what it is you want or need for a healthy reconnection.
  • Plan what you’re going to say. For example: We don’t have to agree on it, but we can make things better between us going forward.
  • Prepare for multiple outcomes (good and bad).
  • Address the past but don’t expect a full resolution.
  • It’s not necessary for you both to have the same perspective.
  • If you get a positive response, build back trust slowly. Every positive engagement can bring a little more healing to you both.

Reconnecting with estranged family — establishing expectations

After a gap of years, you’ve decided to re-establish contact and possibly re-form a relationship with a family member. It might not happen overnight so it’s good to establish what it is you expect. Verywell Family mentions a few things to consider:

  • Do you hope to reconnect in a way that allows you to have a loving, healthy relationship?
  • Are you hoping to spend holidays together?
  • Do you envision regular, ongoing contact?
  • Do you think this person will be available for support? Will you be a support for them?
  • Do you expect that you’ll be able to communicate any time you want?
  • Are you hoping you can attend family functions without things feeling tense?
  • Do you hope to have a friendly relationship that doesn’t involve a deeper connection?
  • Are you looking for a relationship to only involve certain things, such as allowing your children to have contact?

In short, think about what your hopes are, and what you’d expect from yourself and the other person. Once you have clarity, try to be patient as you find out what kind of reconnection works for you both.

Reconciliation with a family member — steps to prepare

You’d like to try to mend ties with family members but don’t know where to begin. Small steps such as sending a holiday card (keep it short and sweet) will let them know that they are in your thoughts. But it may also take some hard work and challenging reflection on your part too. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some steps to help you prepare:

  • Think about the role you may have played in past hurts and take responsibility for your own behaviors.
  • Show empathy. Don’t try to persuade your family member to see things your way. Let go of the need to be right.
  • Accept your family members as they are and accept that reconciliation may involve establishing boundaries. It may involve managing your emotional reactions when faced with challenging traits in the other person.
  • Forgive or work on letting go of resentment.

By having a set of clear ground rules and workable responses, the reconnection process is more likely to stay on track.

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