How to Deal With Estrangement
It's more common than you may think. Not-close siblings slowly drift apart. Or a huge family feud turns into a frost. Here’s how to close the gap before it’s too late—and initiate contact when it’s time.
Big or small, near or far, dinner-every-Sunday or holidays-only, your family is something you can count on. But sometimes those family ties start to unravel—or suddenly snap. When does that qualify as estrangement, exactly? Therapists define it as such: contact cut off in a way that’s upsetting to the one left behind, rather than a mutual parting. It’s not always dramatic (gifts returned unopened!). Many people experience a lesser—but still painful—distancing. (She doesn’t really visit anymore.) And those who have dealt with estrangement are often too ashamed to talk about it. “It’s a silent epidemic,” says Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a psychologist in San Francisco and the author of When Parents Hurt. So, just in time for the holidays, experts offer advice on reaching out or, even better, preventing the break in the first place.
Feeling like you'd rather just put up a wall? Try these tactics first.
- Talk before it’s too late. “Have the hard conversation when you still have a feeling that things can be fixed,” says Coleman. Present your concerns in positive terms. Tell the person what you value about him or her, then say, “I would love to have a better relationship. So I have to let you know you do some things that are making it hard for me to be with you.” Then tell the other person specifically what you need if the relationship is to survive—a heartfelt apology for not coming to your wedding or an end to criticism about your spouse. If you’re on the other end of this conversation, keep in mind: “Perspectives on the same event can be radically different,” says Coleman. This isn’t the time to engage in a debate: Don’t counter with “You are not remembering all the times I supported you!” Instead, listen for what Coleman calls “the kernel of truth” (I understand how that made you feel criticized) and take responsibility.
- Resort to e-mail if necessary. If you simply can’t be in the same room with the person without losing it, keep one line of communication open. Even a thin thread of contact (text or e-mail) makes it easier to pick back up in the future if you have a change of heart. You won’t have years of silence to overcome.
- Take a sabbatical. “I often encourage my clients to do something called temporary disengagement,” says Avidan Milevsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. “Don’t say, ‘I never want to see you again.’ Say instead, ‘I’m taking time off.’” This can be a good move after an emotionally charged event, like the death of a parent, when tempers are flaring. Give yourself, say, three months to cool off, then see if the situation looks different.
Too late? Here's how to mend fences.
If you’ve been estranged for a short time (less than a year)…
- Act as if nothing has happened. You missed your niece’s graduation, and your sister hasn’t spoken to you since. If you know she has always been the kind to retreat to the kitchen rather than hash out a disagreement, the best tactic might be to just forget about it. “For some people, the last thing they want to talk about is the conflict that started the feud. That’s why they’re avoiding you in the first place,” says Sheila Heen, who teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School and is the coauthor of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Instead, try calling her and asking if she wants to do something you’ve both enjoyed in the past. (Antiquing, anyone?) Adds Mark Sichel, a psychotherapist in New York City and the author of Healing From Family Rifts: “Agree to an amnesty. ‘Let’s start over and not talk about past issues that can’t be resolved.’ ”
- Skip the long letter. It’s tempting to pen a lengthy letter, laying out your side to persuade the other person exactly why they’re wrong to be mad at you. Don’t. There’s a risk your interpretation is different, “and even if you are factually correct, what the person is upset about isn’t facts,” says Heen. “Also, now that they’ve heard all you have to say, there’s no incentive to reach out.” A better tack here is to send a short note with as “yes-able” a request as possible, she says. For example: “I’ve really missed you and feel so sad to not have you in my life. Would you have coffee with me at our favorite bakery next week?” Then follow up and discuss next steps when you meet. Often we end a big moment with no idea what to do next, says Heen. Suggest a game plan for moving forward. “I’d like to call you next week and check in.”
If you’ve been estranged for a long time (multiple years)…
- Keep reaching out. “A lot of people don’t stay in the game long enough,” says Coleman, who recommends that his clients continue contacting the person who has shut them out for a few years before throwing in the towel. Try to guess what method your loved one might find least intrusive—texts, letters, e-mails—then send a lighthearted message on a regular basis, every few months. “She might be feeling guilty after keeping her distance for such a long time. This sends the signal that you’re still alive and happy and open,” says Coleman.
- Don’t stalk on social media. Do you really want to discover that you have a new grandchild via Facebook? Even if you look, don’t “like.” The person might feel as if she’s being spied on, says Sichel, and that might push her away for good.
- Leave the door open a crack. Even after years, take heart that your loved one might naturally come back at big milestones in life. “These things can have their own timetable,” says Sichel. A brother who had no use for you while busy with his own family may find himself divorced and suddenly yearning for a familiar connection. A grown son may want his baby to have grandparents. One low-pressure way is regularly sending those classics: birthday and holiday cards. (If you fear they will put them in the recycling bin unopened, leave off a return address, to pique their curiosity.)
- Make fun of yourself. If you do achieve a tearful reunion, it can still be a little awkward. Some gentle humor can act as a relief valve if you find the old tension building, says Heen. So you fall into bad habits and make fun of your sister’s weight again? Say, “Whoops! I blew it! I guess I won’t be invited to the reunion now!” Don’t be afraid to state directly, “I’m nervous about this, but I’m so happy we’re back together,” says Tina Gilbertson, a counselor in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Constructive Wallowing.
What if there's no happy ending?
Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible, and you’re left to make peace with the loss. “You’re talking about a real grief and not just about the person who’s gone,” says Paul Coleman, a psychotherapist and the author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces. “You may also be grieving what you never got from the relationship—love, approval, attention.” Often those who have been cut off by a loved one react with anger, telling themselves, “I’m better off without her!” But, says Coleman, “underneath the anger, there’s usually sadness. You need to acknowledge, ‘I’m sad because this is a genuine loss.’ Otherwise your feelings will remain stuck.” (Websites like estrangedstories.com offer a supportive forum.) Permanent estrangements can be cloaked in shame and stigma. What do you say when a new friend asks how many children you have or how you are spending the holidays? Consider carefully whether you need to retreat, says Agllias: You might find that “when people decide to talk to others about this, they’re often shocked and relieved to discover they’re not alone.”