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How to Heal a Broken Family Relationship

by Katie Moritz
December 13, 2018 | Love

Family stuff is tough for a lot of people. You might have relatives you don't talk to anymore, or ones you feel uncomfortable interacting with. But holiday nostalgia has a way of fading some of the bad feelings. It's a common time to think about rekindling relationships with loved ones that have fallen to the wayside.

"Working as an individual and couples' therapist in New York City, I find that this question comes up a lot at this time of year—partly (because of) nostalgia and partly because of anticipated loneliness and feeling left out," said Mark Borg Jr., a psychoanalyst and co-author of “Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships.”

If you attend family holiday parties, you might have no choice but to see the person or people you've fallen out with. If you don't attend because of past conflicts, you might be wishing things were different.

But if holiday feelings are inspiring you to smooth things over or make amends, or at least reach out, start small, Texas-based therapist Heidi McBain said.

"You can’t control what they are going to say and do, so try not to expect an apology from them," she said. "Try to come from a place of connection where you say what you’ve missed about them, what you learned about yourself during this time, et cetera."

The only person you can control in the conversation is yourself. If you want to broach the topic, here are some ways to set yourself up for success.

What went wrong?

Oftentimes, family estrangements are complicated.

Illustration of extended family watching television together. Broken Family pbs rewire
Make sure you've already come to a place of forgiveness before starting the conversation.

Before you reach out, "take time to think about how and why you became disconnected from this family member or members,"  California-based psychotherapist and author Tina B. Tessina said.

"Once you understand how the estrangement happened, you’ll have a clue as to what you need to do to fix it," she said.

"Maybe you need to apologize or make an offer of peace. Other times, all you need to do is reach out to connect with someone you haven’t seen in a long time."

What to expect

Before you reach out to your relative, think about what you want to get out of the interaction. Then ask yourself if it's reasonable.

Don't assume that your relative will apologize for whatever happened to cause the relationship to fall apart. Don't look at an apology as the goal. Instead, the eventual goal should be what Borg calls "living amends."

"This means that the action of reconnection and reconciliation—the willingness, the suggestion, and, especially, the taking of responsibility for one's part of why the disconnect happened in the first place and then committing to amend that behavior—is far more effective than anything resembling an apology," he said.

It's easy to get rose-colored glasses about how this will go. Going in to the conversation, expectations "must be tempered and left at home if the amends will have a chance of success," Borg said. Approach the interaction with as much neutrality as possible.

Broaching the topic

You might find it most comfortable to send a text to start the conversation. Contacting them via text allows them to think before responding.

"The key here is to send a simple yet reassuring text message that doesn't convey any pressure," said Alissa Schneider, a Florida-based therapist who specializes in anxiety, stress and relationship issues. "An example may be, 'Hi there, I know we haven't talked in a while but I have been thinking about you lately. I would love to talk soon if you are free. Hope to hear from you, and wishing you are having a great holiday season.'

"This gives them the ability to either respond, or not respond. It leaves the ball in their court and they can decide what they want to do with this text message."

This is especially important if "you feel that the relationship ending was more on your side than on your family member's."

"You want to help the family member feel that they are not going to be rejected by you, especially if you have rejected them or ended the relationship in the past," Schneider said. "Helping them to feel that they have a sense of control in the relationship can be very healing."

Be ready to forgive

If your relative did something to hurt you, there's a chance they haven't brought it up with you because they're worried about your reaction. Make sure you've already come to a place of forgiveness before starting the conversation.

"Many people may be afraid of pursuing a lost relationship because they are fearful of getting rejected or hurt," Schneider said. "Your family member may be terrified that you do not want a relationship again or to ever speak with them again, but taking the first step by doing something such as inviting them to lunch or over for a cup of coffee can let them know that you are moving past what occurred previously in your relationship."

You can also write a letter rather than sending a text, if that feels more appropriate. A letter allows you to more thoroughly lay out your thoughts before starting a dialogue.

Make sure you give them time to respond.

"Remember, you’ve been thinking about this, and the other person may not have been, so give him or her a chance to get their thoughts in order," Tessina said.

If they don't want to talk

"Hopefully, the other person will be receptive, and you can start over with your family connection," Tessina said. "Plan a time to get together, and keep the connection going with periodic contact, even if you just text 'I hope your day is good' from time to time."

However, you have to be okay with the fact that they might not be ready to talk to you, now or ever.

"If the other person declines, just say, 'OK, I just want you to know I’d like to talk it out whenever you’re ready,'" Tessina said. "Then leave the ball in that person’s court. You can’t force a reconciliation."

Knowing when the time is right

Growing up, parenting coach MegAnne Ford was strong-willed, and her mom didn't know how to handle her, she said.

"So when I was 18 I was cut off, and watched my younger sister get everything," she said. "I grew frustrated with the treatment and after going to therapy for years... I called up my mom one evening to talk to her.

"In that conversation I asked, 'Why don’t you love me the same?' and her response (was) 'I don’t know' and I replied 'Well then, I will need to take a break, and will not be coming to Thanksgiving.' That was the start of an eight-year estrangement."

Years later, Ford was invited to her family's Christmas celebration. She agreed to go, just for an hour.

"When I saw (my mom) I knew she was sick and made the decision to reconnect, while maintaining my boundaries," Ford said. "I was able to go and visit her in the hospital a few times before she passed that March. And when she passed I said 'I totally forgive you, I hope you forgive me too. We were both doing the best we knew how' and her passing with forgiveness unlocked me from the pain."

Getting resolution to the conflict with her mother helped Ford move on and remember her mom fondly.

"It’s definitely been a journey, but after almost six years I can say I have a closer relationship with her than I did when she was alive," Ford said.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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