Family Estrangement: Is it possible to reconcile?

Something that has come up a few times the last few weeks in my client work is the topic of reconciliations, especially unexpected ones. Some of my clients are finding themselves in an unusual position where a reconciliation might be on the cards or they are keen to try.

The video below explores reconciliations: if they are possible, how they are possible and what makes an enduring reconciliation.

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So the first question is: “Is a successful (i.e. lasting) reconciliation possible?”

YES, in some cases and I stress “some”. One piece of research in the US found that 46% of nuclear families (i.e. immediate families) had reconciled (Conti, 2015). But this was not a long term study, so there is no way of knowing if the reconciliation lasted.

For an estrangement to be successful there has to be an internal psychological shift in perception which triggers a desire on one or both sides to have a different relationship.

There also has to an acceptance on both sides to actively work on it and depending on the reasons/behaviours/history of the relationship, there might need to be at least an acknowledgement and at most a ‘legitimate’ apology. Not everyone insists on an apology and some are happy to let go of the past in favour of a better future, but we have to be careful around resentment silently growing…and also establishing a new dynamic of what is acceptable after the reconciliation.

In terms of working on it, this involves developing relational skills such as listening, compromising and respecting boundaries. Educating yourself of the challenges others may be facing, different perspectives and the inner reality of other family members, i.e. becoming more self-aware, is important, as is catching reactive patterns of criticism, blame, judgement and anger.

This also involves not just respecting individuality but promoting it, i.e. encouraging differences in perspectives, beliefs, hobbies, etc.

However, I think naively hoping for change without addressing the root issues is dangerous and can lead to more problems later in the relationship or just falling back into the old default position in the relationship before the estrangement.

“Why do families reconcile – what drives the reconciliation?”

I have found that many reconciliations are heavily circumstantial, such as a sickness, a death, a change in status or a change in stage in life which triggers a reassessment of prioritises and values, including the value that is placed on individuals within the family. The circumstantial change may facilitate finding context to certain issues and help individuals empathize with others in the family.

That’s not to say a reconciliation cannot be willfully created. I have had clients who have found find the right words to frame their experience in a way that could be understood. Family therapy can be effective in facilitating new ways of communicating and understanding each others.

Other times the sense of loss, grief, guilt, shame, etc. from the broken relationship can be so overwhelming that someone is driven to pick up the phone…and reconciliation is initiated.

“Will the reconciliation last/endure the lifetime of the relationship?”

This is a tough question and once the initial excitement, happiness, relief, etc. has passed, the reality of having this person or people being back in your life starts to sink in and old ways of relating can return.

One thing I’m always curious about is how many reconciliation were there in the past? Research highlights it is common to cycle in and out of estrangement up to 4 times (Stand Alone, 2015), so it is important to reflect on lessons learned, what mistakes were made and has there been any real change in the time since the last reconciliation.

“Is it the right time to reconcile?”

I always encourage my clients to never react and make sure to protect themselves first…many have done the tough emotional work on themselves and it’s important to not undo that. So don’t run into a situation where you may get hurt; think it through and maybe discuss with your support network.

But it is also important to trust your instinct. I’m not always right, there have been times where some of my clients experienced tough emotional distress and I would tell them to be careful around reconciling as there was no indication of any change. And they have decided that enough is enough and they are going to confront the person or people…and they were right. A client did this recently, where she wrote to her mother and she could finally see the impact of her behaviour on her daughter and this caused a profoundly positive change for everyone in the family (the impact of estrangement is not exclusive to just those directly estranged, other family members will feel the stress, loss, etc.).

“Conclusion – can all families reconcile?”

I wish I could say yes…family is the foundation of our society and I would love to see everyone in a family connected and loving/respecting each, but this is not always a reality.

Some families remain completely stuck and they are exactly where you left them before the estrangement.

There are too many complex factors, such as personality differences, pride/ego, not being prepared to compromise on the power dynamics, laziness, lack of desire, selfishness, narcissism, too much negative history, etc. But fundamentally it’s about the hurt individuals are carrying and how prepared/unprepared they are to own it.

From my experience, there is not always enough love, awareness, personal responsibility in a family to facilitate a reconciliation. But each case has to be viewed individually and taken on its own merits.

I hope this was helpful and I would be curious of your experiences with reconciliations: is it something you are open to or is it simply not safe to have this person or people back in your life?

If you have reconciled in the past, what triggered it? If you temporarily reconciled, how many estrangement cycles have there been?

Take care and as always let me know if I can help in anyway.


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