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How to heal a heartbreaking family rift 

Every family has disagreements, many harbour (and hide) long-held grudges. But in some cases things will reach a crisis point when something clicks, someone reaches the end of the line, says ‘I’m done here’ and decides to walk away.

You might think this is rare, but family estrangement is seldom discussed. As a sociologist and professor of geontology, I’ve spoken to hundreds of individuals who had no contact with one or more family members, and compiled the most extensive study of family reconciliation ever conducted.

My research indicates estrangement affects more than a quarter of all families and touches millions of people, causing distress so profound that it can last a lifetime.

The stories are invariably heart-breaking: mothers shunned by their own children, grandchildren written out of wills, parents disinvited to weddings, fathers rejected, cousins never met, letters unopened.

Dr Karl Pillemer who is a sociologist and professor of geontology, claims the ripple effects of estrangement can extend through generations (file image)

The ripple effects of estrangement can extend through generations, washing shockwaves over children and grandchildren.

Cutting someone off might bring immediate relief from conflict and negativity, but most people I talked to longed for a return to the relationship and felt the rift stood in the way of achieving a life well-lived.

One positive glimmer during the coronavirus pandemic has been the rise in reconciliation. For many the crisis has brought about renewed contact with a relative after years, even decades, of estrangement.

Clearly, the best way to deal with a rift is not to enter into it in the first place. But once it’s happened, the sooner you act, the better. As time goes by the disconnect can seem like the easiest and least painful option, and inertia can swiftly set in.

Whatever your circumstances, I urge you to try to find a way to reconnect if you possibly can, and I’m going to show you how.

If you have a relative asking to reconnect, offer them one last chance; if you are offered one last chance, take it. If it is successful, the payoff is the rewards of reconciliation. If not, you gain peace of mind from having tried.

Time really does help heal

If it’s been some time since the split, explore the possibility you and your relative may have now changed in ways that make restoring your relationship possible. Studies from Stanford University show that as people move into their later years, they learn to better regulate their emotions and place greater importance on family relationships.

Dr Karl said if you're contemplating the possibility of resolution, be on the look-out for signs that the time might be right (file image)

Dr Karl said if you’re contemplating the possibility of resolution, be on the look-out for signs that the time might be right (file image)

Perhaps you are no longer the same people who had the rift — your poisonous mother-in-law may have mellowed with age, your philandering uncle may have settled down — and maybe wider negative conditions affecting the relationship have eased.

The estrangement itself might have brought about important changes, which now allow for reconciliation to take place.

Look out for nudges

If you are contemplating the possibility of resolution, be on the look-out for ‘nudges’ or signs that the time might be right.

This might be a change in circumstances (the death of a key protagonist, the birth of a baby, a deathbed wish) which make reconciliation seem more likely.

When this happens, grab the chance with both hands.

Consider their side

If you want to reconcile, you have to quit the blame game.

One phrase I heard repeatedly from estranged family members was ‘it’s not my fault’ — and sticking with this belief is the biggest barrier to reconciliation.

Dr Karl believes it's extremely useful to step back and examine the rift as objectively as possible (file image)

Dr Karl believes it’s extremely useful to step back and examine the rift as objectively as possible (file image)

We have a human propensity for defensiveness when hurt, and this can encourage us to selectively edit the information we receive.

Any explanation which doesn’t fit our narrative will be dismissed as irrelevant, biased or just plain wrong, and you can end up with ‘no idea’ why you’re in a rift.

FAMILY FLASHPOINTS TO WATCH FOR 

No two families are alike, but these are the six most common routes to estrangement:

1. A difficult childhood

Parental favouritism, sibling conflict, harsh parenting or neglect can be inflammatory.

2. The legacy of divorce

Parent-child bonds can be weakened when marriages fail, especially father to child.

3. Tricky in-laws

In-laws can unsettle the habits we are used to.

4. Money

Wills, loans, deception, or not giving financial support when requested can all cause rifts.

5. Unmet expectations

Parents see their grown-up children as their legacy; the offspring strive for independence. Resentments can easily ensue.

6. Value and lifestyle differences

Sexuality, religious differences, or alternative lifestyles can seriously strain our relationships.

This makes it incredibly difficult to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, but I urge you to try.

Write the history of the rift or problem from the other person’s perspective or from the perspective of a neutral third party.

Ultimately you don’t have to accept that the rift is your fault, but it is extremely useful to step back and examine as objectively as possible whether you may have contributed to the problem.

This requires setting time aside for some serious thought, but it is well worth the effort.

Do you share blame?

Talk things through with people who are concerned about you but who are not already on your side. Repeatedly discussing your dispute with people who agree with you, puts you in an ‘echo chamber’ of sympathetic ears.

Seeking out unsupportive views can be enlightening, enabling you to gain perspective.

Apologies can wait

The pathway to reconciliation is often blocked by demands for an apology. But no apology, even swift and sincere, will heal the wounds on its own.

Often saying sorry is just too much to ask. When an estrangement has been going on for years, the issue is less likely to be ‘apologise for this thing you did to me’, than ‘apologise for how the entire relationship was conducted,’ or ‘apologise for the person you are’.

Apologies of that nature are simply not likely to be forthcoming.

Focus on changes in behaviour. That said, when the relationship is re-established, an apology often does follow.

Let go of the past

Bridging a family rift requires abandoning the urge to align two very different views of the past.

It is highly unlikely that someone is going to simply accept your narrative of what caused the rift. The other person doesn’t have to subscribe to your view. Make the decision to move on. Don’t discuss whatever happened between you. Let it go away, just forget about it, start anew.

Dr Karl said you have to acknowledge the possibility that your values might not be absolute to find resolution (file image)

Dr Karl said you have to acknowledge the possibility that your values might not be absolute to find resolution (file image)

Lower expectations

Most of us carry very high expectations of family life which can, at times, be hard to fulfil.

Strongly held family values such as ‘siblings have your back’, ‘children must respect their parents’ or ‘blood is thicker than water’ can lead to conflict if they are not shared. Strong values are clearly important, but do you have more to lose by holding on to these inflexible expectations?

To find resolution you have to acknowledge the possibility that your values might not be absolute and universally shared.

Decide up front what is the least you can accept in a restored relationship, and make that shift from seeking an ideal relationship to realistically attempting the best connection possible.

Adapted by Louise Atkinson from Fault Lines by Dr Karl Pillemer (£16.99, Yellow Kite) © Dr Karl Pillemer 2021. To order a copy for £14.95 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until 08/02/2021.


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