Joshua Coleman, PhD, a psychologist based in San Francisco who specializes in families and relationships. He is author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (William Morrow). DrJoshuaColeman.com
Do you have a family member you no longer see or talk to? It could be a brother, sister, grown child, cousin, parent, in-law, aunt or uncle. Maybe it was something he/she said or something you did, but no matter the cause, there is a sense of loss.
Here is my proven five-step plan for bringing an estranged family member back into the fold…
Family members who cut off contact often do so because they believe that it’s the only way they can protect themselves and their sanity. From this person’s point of view, he is acting reasonably while you and/or other members of the family have treated him unreasonably. Try to understand what might have led this person to think and feel this way.
Example: The estranged family member always complained that no one in the family listened to his wife or respected her. At the last family gathering, the wife got so angry, she walked out. Perhaps he thinks cutting off contact is the only way to maintain his wife’s sense of self-worth.
You do not have to agree with this perception, but it’s important to try to understand it from that person’s point of view.
In addition, we often have an impact on others that we may not be aware of. It’s useful to ask yourself what you have said or done that might have impacted an alienated family member in ways that did not reflect your actual intentions.
If you have been out of touch for a long period, a handwritten letter can be a useful way to attempt to reconnect. Handwritten letters have become rare, so sending one signifies a special effort.
This letter should describe the impact on you of the current state of the relationship and express a desire to repair it. Acknowledge that this will be difficult, but write that you think it is worth trying and propose a first step.
Example: “I miss you. My life and our family life aren’t the same without you. Maybe we could see if there’s a way for us to start the process of trying to fix things. I’ll be in town on the 12th. Maybe we could get together for coffee.”
Resist the urge to defend your past actions (or the actions of other family members) in this letter. Do not apologize, either, even if you recognize that you played a role in the rift. Estranged family members are so predisposed to expect negative interactions with their families that it’s easy for them to see ulterior motives in apologies. This person might conclude, He’s trying to seem like “the good one” by apologizing, but he’s not.
If reconciliation efforts with this family member have failed multiple times in the past, you might suggest setting aside old issues rather than trying to solve them. Here you could write, “Let’s leave the past in the past and come up with a way where we can have some sort of relationship.”
When you meet with the estranged family member, encourage him to speak his mind first—and brace for the worst. There’s a good chance that this person’s words will be full of blame and righteousness. Resist the urge to contradict—that would only deepen the rift. Instead, let the person know you are working hard to understand him—”I can see how hurt you are by what I said. Were there other things I said or did that contributed to how you’ve been feeling?” After you’ve spent time seeking to understand, you can express remorse (if you genuinely feel remorse)—”I’m so sorry that things I said and did caused you this pain.” And you can take responsibility for your contribution to the problem—”I see now that I was contributing in important ways to the strain in our relationship.”
You may find yourself getting angry while your family member is talking, but resist the urge to lash out. Instead, prompt him to keep talking: “I see this so differently. We have such different perceptions. But I’m working really hard to understand your view.”
When the estranged person is done explaining his views, thank him for doing so and explicitly turn the conversation to the topic of how you’ve been feeling.
Example: “Thanks for explaining that. I know how hard it must have been to open up to me. But it really did help me to understand how you experienced what happened, and it helped me to see what I’ve been contributing to the problem. I want to share how I’ve been feeling as well.”
State your thoughts in a calm and blame-free way, even if the estranged family member was aggressive and abrasive when he spoke.
Avoid attributing motives to this estranged family member. Instead, describe the impact of his actions on you.
Example: Rather than, “You didn’t invite me to your Christmas party because you take every opportunity to exclude me,” say, “When you didn’t invite me to your party, I felt left out and upset.”
If the estranged family member agrees to reestablish contact, there are likely to be some bumps in the road. Make sure everyone is aware that stress and misunderstandings are normal. Ask each family member in advance what he thinks will help and whether he has any specific requests of others. Also, set up a time to check back in to discuss how people are feeling.
Example: “We’re bound to get on each other’s nerves every now and then, but let’s not let things fall apart when we do. Let’s agree that whenever either of us says something that the other considers out of bounds, we can just say ‘time out’ and agree to talk about it later.”
Source: Douglas Stone, a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School and founder and managing partner of Triad Consulting Group, a global corporate education and communications consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is coauthor with Sheila Heen of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it is off-base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) (Viking). StoneAndHeen.com
Sometimes estranged family members rebuff repeated attempts at reconciliation. If so….
Be sure you’ve made amends. It is important to take responsibility for whatever part you played in the estrangement, and try to repair any past hurts.
Don’t give up hope. The estranged family member might become more open to reconciliation down the road, though perhaps not until there is a significant change in the family dynamic.
Examples: The estranged relative becomes more confident due to an improvement in life circumstances. Or an estranged child becomes a parent and becomes more sensitive to the challenges of parenting.
Suggest that the two of you speak in the presence of a family therapist. Estranged family members sometimes feel more comfortable meeting this way.
Send friendly, chatty e-mails or letters every few months—even if you never receive a response. These serve as a reminder that you still want to have a relationship and make it less uncomfortable for the estranged family member to contact you later.
Warning: Do not rehash the past or try to solve the underlying problems in these notes.
If attempts to reach out inevitably enrage the estranged family member, stop making contact. Additional attempts will only increase the animosity.
Monitor your emotions. Being frozen out by a family member can trigger feelings of guilt, regret, anger or worry. Speak with a family therapist if these feelings become overwhelming.
Do not ask other family members to take sides. That would make it even harder for things to ever return to normal. It would also make it less likely that your children will ever form a relationship with the estranged family member’s children. Instead, be diplomatic when discussing the situation with your family. Express regret that the relationship has gone wrong and hope that it eventually can be mended.
Be cautious with social media. It’s sometimes possible to keep tabs on estranged relatives through social-media sites and Internet searches. But doing so could dredge up painful memories and feelings of loss, leaving you feeling worse.