Anatomy of Estrangement and Reconciliation

This essay is longer than usual, but I think it will be worth reading:-)

Estrangements can occur in any relationship. Within my friendship circle, I know people who are estranged from a child, a sibling, parents, grandparents, spouses and friends. The more people I talk to, the more I realize that family estrangement is far more prevalent than I imagined. It is so shaming to be estranged from a family member that many of us don’t talk about it. Yet I believe that estrangements are the family system’s way of breaking open—sometimes in very painful ways—so that healing can begin. If we see it that way, we don’t need to dwell on the shame but can rather see the potential for healing. Working through estrangements in a healing way may be one of the most graced experiences in our lives.

Let me tell you the stories of several families with painful estrangements.

Karen and her daughter:

Karen’s eldest daughter announced that she no longer wanted to be associated with any of the family, especially during holidays. Before that announcement, she talked with Karen on the phone for two hours to tell her everything Karen had done to ruin her life. Then she and her grandchildren stayed away (and allowed Karen no contact) for six years.

Joy and her sister and mother:

Joy’s mother and sister send her hate mail periodically, including a snake skin in a bag, delivered to her door, because they say she has neglected them and has not provided for them. But her sister works full time at a job she’s held for twenty-five years. The two lived with Joy for several years because she felt responsible for providing them with a home, but the constant conflict drained her emotionally and financially and she finally asked them to leave. Her mother became preoccupied with blame, shame, hatred, anger and the need to punish her daughter. Two of Joy’s other siblings have committed suicide and Joy feels her mental health depends on not having any contact with her mother and sister.

Lou and her brother:

Lou’s alcoholic brother has not been involved in the family for more than twenty years. He was the oldest and the only son among five children. Lou’s mother favored him and when he began to stay away from the family after high school, her mother supported him and took his side against the rest of the family. He married four times and a few of his former spouses are friendly with the family. When Lou saw her brother at her mother’s funeral, she had not talked to him for ten years.

Sharon and her daughter:

Sharon thought she and her daughter had worked through the problems that came from a boyfriend of Sharon’s having inappropriately touched the daughter when she was a teenager. But now, as her daughter enters midlife, she is accusing Sharon of many other things that she says happened during that time. Sharon went to counseling with her only to be attacked by two ardent therapists, one of whom said she was there as Sharon’s advocate. Sharon believes that her daughter is being set against her.

Ned and his brother:

Ned’s brother is homeless in a large metropolitan area. They have several other siblings but the homeless brother does not see any of them often. Their mother feels a lot of guilt about the loss of this relationship and their father goes to see Ned’s homeless brother whenever he can find him. Occasionally the homeless brother shows up at family events and wants to be involved, but his behavior is disruptive and makes for hard feelings among the siblings. The homeless brother has tried to deal with his multiple issues but nothing seems to improve the situation.

 

Steps on the Path of Estrangement and Reconciliation

One of the first steps in the process of reconstruction, for an individual and for a relationship, is owning the estrangement. Many families try to keep these estrangements a secret, perhaps out of pain and shame, but also hoping that by not mentioning them they will somehow go away. But in acknowledging the pain and telling the story to a person we feel safe with, we allow the pain out into the fresh air of healing for the first time.

It helps to use a wise and trusted professional—a therapist or a spiritual director—in the process of healing. And if we make our spirituality a part of the process we stand a better chance of healing and making amends than if our soul is not involved. Praying, writing about the issues, doing rituals of forgiveness and making amends are all spiritual in nature. This is Holy ground and the courage it takes to do this work can be supported and encouraged by our faith. Forgiveness and healing are part of a process that changes us, even though the timing of each step is different for each person.

 

The Hard Times in the Middle

Choosing not to be codependent: It is especially hard for “good mothers” not to overwork the process of reconciliation with their children. Our culture has so much pain and shame around this issue that we rush to make amends and we work much harder than the other person does. And if we get either no response or a negative response, we work even harder to restore the relationship. It may be helpful to reach out to the estranged person in love during an estrangement but discernment is key here. What is a genuine compassionate act of love and what is our need to be redeemed. If we find we are consistently overreaching toward the other person, we may be dropping into codependent or addictive behavior.

Choosing self-care and safety over premature reconciliation: The pain of estrangement is so great that often we try to reconcile to ease the pain rather than to heal the cause of the estrangement. We give up ourselves and sometimes even our own emotional safety. So it is essential to take good care of ourselves during a time of estrangement. This includes body, mind and spirit. A team of supporters—friends, a doctor, a spiritual director, a pastor, and a therapist—can be helpful.

The pressure on children whose parents are estranged is enormous, especially as parents grow older and need care. Resentment of older adults is a growing issue as baby boomers’ aging parents become dependent. We face so much pressure to be responsible, to be good sons and daughters, that we get caught in an excruciating vise—sometimes at the risk of our own safety or well-being. It is not an easy road nor are there simple answers.

A lot of physical symptoms are related to resentment, unhealed relationships, revenge and remorse. One way to enter into the healing process is simply to watch and read your own physical symptoms, using a guide such as Dr. Chris Northrup, Carolyn Myss, Wayne Muller or Louise Hay, who all attach emotional and spiritual issues to bodily symptoms. For instance, jaw problems like TMJ may be associated with anger, resentment or a desire for revenge. Dry eye may be associated with anger, spite or a refusal to see with love. These symptoms can alert our psyches to a deeper meaning, a deeper need, and help us look more deeply to the healing that is available to us.

Finding your role in the estrangement; remorse and compassion: Many people who summon the courage to tell their estrangement stories get stuck at that stage. They find relief in telling the story, but the next step is still hard. Acknowledging guilt, anger and resentment is difficult, especially when family members are involved. But each of these feelings, once acknowledged, leads to new awareness and potentially to healing. For instance, the other side of guilt is resentment.

So when you feel guilt, ask, “Who or what do I resent?” That gives you another way to unwrap the situation causing the guilt. Just learning to name feelings is a long-term process for those of us who were not given permission to feel in our families. The process is like unpeeling an onion. Every layer reveals yet another.

At some point in every healing process is an opportunity to step back and look at the part you played or still play. What did you do that you are sorry for now? What choice did you make that you would now want to change? Was there someone you needed to stand up to and didn’t? Was there a point at which you decided, usually subconsciously, to keep going in a direction that would be unsafe or unwise for yourself or for others. In the essay “Forgiveness as a Process,” I’ve written in more depth about this step.

It is a healing moment when you feel compassion for the person you were at an earlier time, the person who couldn’t make a decision to change the course of a relationship. Compassion allows you to act on your own behalf and to be more of the person you want to be. It also allows you to have more compassion for the other person if you choose to.

Deciding to Make Contact with the Estranged Person

Knowing when and how to make contact: If you choose to make contact with the person you’re estranged from and you have done as much of your own inner work as you can, you have a number of ways to move forward, but premature contact may be unwise. However, mistakes that occur with premature contact may also be good teaching experiences.

These mistakes help you to be clear about what you really want to do and what is wise for you to do. My therapist asked a good question as a guideline: “Who are you making this contact for, yourself of the other person?” Let prayer undergird anything you do and provide a way to listen for the best way to make contact. Several ways to make contact are possible, depending on your comfort level and the willingness of the other person.

One is to write a letter of amends (the essay on forgiveness as a process contains an illustration of this) which you either send or simply write for its own sake. This works best when you write it as a vehicle for your own amends and not as a way to get the other person to make amends.

Another approach is to do a ritual of forgiveness that you do not tell the other person about but that will have an affect on the relationship because it releases something in you. Some people reconcile in the presence of therapists, one for each member of the conflict, representing that person but having everyone’s interests at heart. Others meet alone with the person they are estranged from, although this can be risky if either party is not healed enough to be responsible for his or her own feelings.

Still other people do something special for the person, or give something special, to show that their heart is open. A genuine act of love with no expectations in return is powerful for the giver and the receiver. But again, this works best when people do it for themselves and for its own sake, not with the expectation of a response. Sometimes it takes years before an act of grace is acknowledged, and it may even heighten the friction in the short run.

Once you make the first step, a waiting time occurs, and this is when you have to release the other person. If there is to be any contact, it will come in time and within a process. You have done what you could and that is enough. Just keep reminding yourself that you have done what you could. Reconciliation is wonderful when it happens, but it is not an all-or-nothing experience. People often find only a hint of reconciliation, or find nonverbal reconciliation. A reconciliation event may last a few minutes or an hour, and then the relationship may resume with much, but not all, of its previous dynamic.

If any kind of mutual reconciliation has occurred, both of you will know that something is different. Some relationships do ultimately heal, and they are transformed in the process. Any level of reconciliation is sheer grace. And sometimes reconciliation means that you acknowledge what happened, make some kind of amends and have no further contact with the other person. This too can be a deeply healing experience.

So reconciliation is complex, but just being on the journey of reconciliation is so vital to our emotional and spiritual health that any level of change adds to our lives.

Stories of Ongoing Reconciliation Are Rarely Ideal or Complete

Karen and her daughter: Karen had almost no contact with her daughter or grandchildren for six years but kept them in her prayers and worked on her own issues and feelings of loss. They later experienced limited reconciliation; Karen sees her daughter infrequently and works to maintain boundaries, since her daughter still flings barbs occasionally. For Karen the relationship is healthier and she is grateful for what she has learned about herself and her daughter.

In addition, Karen was given a deep and loving relationship with her stepdaughter during her estrangement with her own daughter. Her stepdaughter became a surrogate daughter and offered her the love and closeness that Karen was missing. It was like a gift from God, acknowledging the hard work she was doing, both inside herself and with her daughter.

Joy and her sister and mother: Joy has chosen to complete two degrees in psychology since the break with her mother and sister, and she is deeply aware of the mental health issues in her family. She did not react to the hate mail or the phone calls and viewed the situation from a healthy distance, even though it saddens her. She finally made peace with the fact that she would never be in contact with them again.

When Joy’s mother was dying, though, she had a chance to break through the silence and go see her, avoiding her sister, delicately, in the process. Her mother slowly opened her heart to her and they were much closer when she died. Since then Joy has also had much easing of tension with her sister and gradually they became friends. Joy is good at taking care of herself and still knows her vulnerabilities with her family. The experience has been a source of deep healing for her.

Lou and her brother: Lou’s brother is still not back in the family but he did appear at his mother’s funeral a few years ago. He seemed depressed but he was no longer drinking. He is in declining health and maintains contact with his father but not the sisters.

Sharon and her daughter: Sharon is in the middle of the turmoil and is asking what she can do to understand the situation and act in her own best interest. She loves her daughter but feels defensive when they meet. She has good support through her recovery community, so she will be able to cope, but she is still reeling from the shock that this could happen to her and her daughter.

Ned and his brother: Ned’s brother is still on drugs and homeless, and that has caused the family to turn inward a bit. Instead of just reacting to him and his situation, they are starting to understand his role in the family. They still have to set boundaries on his behavior when he is high, but they are finding ways to be with him when he’s not high.

They have also acknowledged that he is the family scapegoat—the one who carried and acted out most of the family pain. This knowledge is bringing them to a new recognition of the family dynamic and has given them more compassion for themselves and for their brother. He may never be cured but the family may heal at a deeper level.

 Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2005, from Living Into the Light, a e-Book available at http://www.janethagberg.com

 

Reflecting on this essay:

1. Would you consider moving more deeply into the healing process of an estrangement in your life? Why? Why not?

2. What would healing this estrangement ask of you?

3. What would your family think or how would they act if you were to move forward to heal a family estrangement?

4. How would that affect you?

5. Have you ever had an experience of making amends or healing from an estrangement? What was it like? How did it change you?

6. How is the Holy involved in your reconciliation effort? What difference does it make for you?

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