HOW TO COPE WITH FAMILY ESTRANGEMENT
By Dr. David B. Hawkins
You know how it goes: you can choose your friends and you can choose your neighbors, but you can’t choose your family. We are born into the family that will remain our family, at least biologically, until we die.
This, of course, has both positive and negative implications. If we’re fortunate enough to be born into a loving and generously connecting family, so much the better. If we happen to appreciate that family and those connections, better yet.
But, what if the connections in our family of origin are fragile, even broken? What do we do when we become estranged from a family member for any number of reasons? How do we go about healing wounds, if even possible? How do we go on with life if estrangement and brokenness is to forever be part of the picture?
Read Susan’s painful story:
Dear Dr. David,
We raised our son in a Christian home and we had a close, peaceful relationship with him and his siblings. He got on a Christian dating website and met a young woman. They attended church with us and we liked her. The day they became officially engaged she changed her attitude toward us. On their wedding rehearsal day she and her family bullied me and made it known that they did not like me. He chose them and quickly started avoiding us after his wedding. It has been three years now and he refuses to see or talk to us. We have tried many approaches to reconcile but he has totally cut us out of his life. What would you advise us to do at this time? We already invited him to counseling and it did not work.
We see in Susan’s note an all-too-familiar story. What began with a “close, peaceful relationship” between parents and their son ended at a critical point in his development, when he met a woman. Something occurred to disrupt the family bond, an estrangement took place and efforts to resolve matters faltered.
This scenario is played out far more often than many think and is often a traumatic experience for all concerned. Something happens that creates hurt feelings, sides are taken and lines are drawn amidst horrendous confusion. Whatever problem occurred to create the rift is often unclear and solutions are just as murky. One thing is sure, however, and that is the ongoing emotional pain of estrangement.
We are not designed for this kind of brokenness. Scripture tells us: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
The Apostle Paul continues on the importance of reconciliation: “Bear with each other and forgive one another. If any of you has a grievance against someone, forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)
While this may seem painfully obvious, we all develop a “story” about what we think is going on. It’s our story and tainted with our emotions, history and reaction to the current situation. We are often wrong in how we size up a situation. Filtered through our biases, the truth is harder to find than you might imagine. So, step back, reflect and seek truth. Spend time diligently considering what needs may have been met by the initial hurtful actions and what needs are being met even now in the distance created by your family member. An understanding of these needs may lead to positive actions.
Let’s consider what Susan (and others) might do in this most difficult situation:
First, seek truth.
Second, consider alternative explanations to your story.
We all become invested in our story, the way we see things. Unfortunately, if the way we see an event, such as a broken family relationship, is filled with distortion, our solutions will be distorted as well. We won’t see the real problem and subsequently cannot derive a healthy outcome. It’s like following a faulty compass—if we start out heading in the wrong direction, we can’t possibly find a healing path.
Third, evaluate and own your part in the conflict.
Solutions start and end with humility and empathy. We must clear away preconceptions, hurt feelings, and biases so that we can see how we contribute to an ongoing problem. We must look in the mirror and own our part in the problem, being prepared to change faulty thinking, hurtful behavior, and wrong attitudes. We must walk in the shoes of others to see how they might view the world. Seeing the situation with compassionate eyes may help us own our part. In the end, we can only change ourselves, but as we do that all of our relationships change as well.
Fourth, ensure that you have made amends for your part in the problem.
As we take responsibility for the harm we have caused contributing to a broken relationship, we are prepared to offer restitution and restoration for that harm. We are humble, open, and willing to do whatever might be sought for healing, assuming such restitution is within our sense of integrity. We diligently seek understanding and gently offer apologies and restoration.
Fifth, seek conversation, without judgment.
As much as possible, seek conversation. Seek information. Be gently curious, being open to anything that might be said, being free from presumptions, judgment, or blame. Rifts are often healed with compassionate understanding. Listening with a fully open heart to another’s wounds often brings healing and necessary changes.
Finally, be patient.
Healing may not happen in the time we would wish. Prayerful consideration is often needed. Allowing others the space and time to reflect is often an invaluable gift. Often in time the wounded party will share what is wrong and what they need to bring restoration to the relationship. Ultimately, acceptance of their choice to restore, or not to restore, is a critical piece in the equation and grieving may be part of your healing journey.