3 Things to Look for If You Want to Reconcile With Estranged FamilyIt doesn’t have to be forever, ya know.
Families are complicated. (I know, I know…this is the understatement of the century.) While we might all have disagreements with our parents, siblings, or other family members from time to time, for some of us, those unhealthy family dynamics can become so challenging that we may consider becoming estranged.
In my experience as a licensed marriage and family therapist, deciding to end a relationship with a family member isn’t a thoughtless decision. It can take a person years to arrive here, often after many, many attempts to find a path forward or reconcile.
The reality is that most people want their family relationships to be better. They do whatever they can to make it work. But when the boulder doesn’t budge, not even a little, not even after so many valiant attempts, you might find yourself accepting that the only way forward is to have no relationship at all.
This decision can offer relief, it can offer grief, and oftentimes it offers both. But I don’t think anyone really wants to become estranged. This isn’t a desired outcome. In our families, we want to feel loved, accepted, honored, respected, safe, secure, and trusting. And yet, for many, that’s not the case. Sometimes, estrangement is the most supportive and relieving option that a person has in order to protect them from family relationships that are harmful or deeply distressing.
There are a lot of scenarios where cutting yourself off from that person (or people) is the healthiest option. For people who have experienced abuse and don’t want contact with their abuser, they might eventually wind up here. Others might be dealing with an emotionally immature family member who’s consistently defensive, super reactive, shut down, manipulative, punishing, passive-aggressive, or finds every possible way to skirt responsibility. When that behavior is directed at you, you may no longer want to be a part of it.
Other folks might arrive at this decision because they find their differences with their family to be too intolerable. Of course, it’s common to have some differences with family, but when values and viewpoint differences lack respect and maturity about those differences, ceasing contact is an option some might consider. When you do that, you’re shielded from deeply distressing commentary on your political, social, or religious views.
Whatever the reason for your estrangement, you should know that no-contact doesn’t have to last forever. While trying to reconcile after estrangement isn’t for everyone (for good reason), some people do mature, heal, and evolve, making it possible to start a new or different relationship together.
So why might you consider this?
Because we’re all human. And not human in the sense that someone should be let off the hook. Not that. But because our humanness requires our grace. It also requires accountability and ownership. And you can’t have one without the other to move forward.
I’m not suggesting that you give anyone another chance. That is solely for you to decide. Some people’s mistakes are so bad that your relationship can’t be repaired or reconciled. Sometimes the consequence of their behavior is not having you in their life.
That said, there are a few scenarios in which someone’s healing, ownership, and accountability intersect with your grace and compassion—and that can enable you to reconcile. Here are the signs that you could be ready to make amends with your estranged family.
1. They truly understand your experience and their part in it.
Part of why we find ourselves in estranged relationships with family is because they have a hard time accepting your experience without invalidating it or making excuses for why they did what they did. But validation and acknowledgment are a sign of emotional maturity and could be a green flag for reconciling.
Acknowledging your feelings and what you went through while owning their part can create the experience of feeling seen, heard, and understood by the person who hurt you (or contributed to your pain). So when an acknowledgment presents itself….it’s huge.
If they’re being genuine and coming from an integrated place, it’s possible you may want to explore what it could be like to spend more time together. It can be hard to tell if you can trust them, of course, but look for indicators that they’ve reflected on whatever the issue is and they really understand their part and its impact on you.
2. Their words and actions line up.
Remember, people can be convincing. Sometimes people say the “right” thing, but it’s just a way to re-engage you. That’s why you want to look for words and actions lining up. You might not be able to tell if someone is to be trusted until they show you, over and over again, until it becomes something you can trust. That’s why you have to be discerning here before you reconcile, looking for a genuine, authentic expression of reflection and acknowledgment.
There’s a quote about trust from Ernest Hemingway that I’ve always loved and shared in my book, The Origins of You. He says, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” I think this can be a helpful way to think about reconciling with estranged family who say they want to change. Trusting isn’t meant to be a reckless act, but rather an intentional practice that enables you to see whether more trust can be built.
So if you decide to open the relationship up again, you’re allowed to do so carefully. An opening doesn’t mean that a close can’t happen again (although I’d be mindful of how often you do that), but if someone is showing positive signs it could be worth the risk to see whether their words and behaviors match.
If the risk doesn’t work out, you can change your mind and disengage again. Even if you don’t get the outcome you want, you’ll benefit from the awareness that they aren’t willing to go as far as you need them to.
3. You’ve accepted their limitations and changed your response to them.
Sometimes what can open a relationship back up to reconciliation is our ability to accept where their limitations are. Meaning, you see what they can and can’t do. If you’re willing to accept them and you feel prepared to soothe and regulate yourself when they activate you, you could learn to spend time with them again—despite their lack of growth.
What you’re doing here is tolerating their limitations and choosing to relate to them differently. You can see what they will and won’t do. Then, you can decide to stop seeking the things you’re convinced you need from them, like ownership, accountability, or an apology. The truth is, your conversations might be fairly surface level with little deep connection, but it can be a way to help you interact with someone you don’t want to cut off entirely.
If you decide to reconcile, keeping space for their usual behavior and choosing to respond differently requires self-trust. This is a big one. Instead of trying to prove your point, remind yourself that you can’t change them. You can only change your response and how you relate to them.
- Do I have the tools to regulate myself even when someone else is dysregulated?
- Do I have the tools to ground myself even when someone does or says something I feel activated by?
- Can I trust myself to stay connected to myself and my experience instead of needing to prove my point or convince the other person?
It’s a hard lesson to learn, yet an important one: When we can’t change other people, the arrow points back to us. So might you remember that when you can’t change them, you can focus on changing the way you relate to them, you can remind yourself of what you know to be true about them, and you might even remind yourself that you don’t have to keep being surprised by unsurprising things.
Remember that you can accept their struggles and limitations without reconciling with them, and you don’t have to put yourself back in taxing situations if it doesn’t feel safe or worth it to you.
At the end of the day, there’s no manual for reconciling with estranged family. There’s no certainty about what will happen after you let that person back into your world. The decision will either be re-wounding or reparative. I hope for the latter, but you should know that’s often not the case.
You have a choice every step along the way. So if you’re interested in reconciliation, let your antennae come out, scan for what you do and don’t know, observe things as clearly as you can, remind yourself of the risk, and then work towards acceptance and finding self-trust. You can always change your mind.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.