What to Consider When Reconnecting with Estranged Family

Family members lose contact for a variety of reasons: Neglect or abuse can cause a child to cut off a parent. Divorce may pit not only parents against each other but also siblings. And some children simply grow up without one or both parents.

“It’s okay to cut ties, and it doesn’t make you a bad person,” said Susan Finley, faculty member at OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the online Master of Arts in Psychology at Pepperdine University. “It may be temporary. It’s not [always] a permanent decision.”

In the digital age, being able to reconnect with an estranged or lost family member may be easier than ever. Still, there is a substantial amount of emotional baggage that can come with the act of reaching out and beginning to rebuild a relationship.

What can people do to prepare for a meaningful reconnection? And how do they cope if that reconnection doesn’t turn into reconciliation?

Consider Why the Estrangement Exists

The New York Times reports that family estrangement is more common than most people might think, though estrangement isn’t widely discussed in social groups.

When making the choice to mend ties, it’s important to consider the seriousness of the matter and the reasons for the conflict, says Leah Samler, who also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine University’s online clinical psychology master’s program. 

Samler said the nuances of the conflicts can be understood through the Bowenian family systems theory: According to the theory, every family is an emotional unit, because the members are “intensely connected emotionally.”

The complexity of family dynamics can be so stressful that it leads to one person cutting off emotionally or physically from the rest of the family. This can happen suddenly or over a long period of time, and the decision typically comes from one person’s desire to protect their mental, emotional, or physical well-being, said Finley.

The Bowen Center notes that estrangement can “reduce the tensions of family interactions.” While this can be a healthy solution for some, it does “risk making their new relationships too important.” Additionally, when contact ends abruptly or is the result of only one party’s desire to cut ties, the results can be disruptive to a family dynamic for years to come.

Serious conflicts that can lead to estrangement include the following:

  • Recovery from behavioral addiction
  • Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Substance use disorder
  • Domestic violence
  • Infliction of trauma
  • Differing political or social values
  • Financial disputes
  • Personal arguments

“Figure out exactly what’s going on, and go from there to come up with a treatment plan and potential conversations and [if] there are ways to reunify the family,” Samler said.

Reflect on the Motivation for Reconnecting

Some family members may decide to reconcile with those they’ve cut off, or vice versa, after the height of emotional stress has passed.

Finley says it’s critical to consider the source of motivation for reconnecting. Where is the pressure for connection coming from?  

“If it’s not solely the individual’s decision to reconnect, then I would say table that decision,” Finley said.

Some sources of motivation include shame, guilt, obligation, family persuasion, or even law enforcement, as some parents and children may be required by law to have mandatory visits.

Aside from legal obligations, Finley said reconnections are best when there’s a genuine motivation to heal and reconcile.

“Wait until they feel that they’re physically safe, and emotionally and psychologically ready to handle any type of disappointment, which happens along the way,” she said.

Though these interactions are unpredictable, there are ways to emotionally prepare, address safety concerns, and plan for productive outcomes from a confrontation.

Think About How to Approach Confrontation

How does one know that reconciliation is a good idea? When has enough time passed?

“If that other family member indicates that they want to make a change, and that they want to connect, and that they have done some work on themselves,” Finley said. “Only then would a counselor recommend the client takes steps forward to reconnect.”

How to Prepare to Reconnect with an Estranged Family Member

Finley and Samler highlight these key considerations for approaching a confrontation, which may need to be discussed with a professional first: 

Prioritize safety.
If any party’s physical safety is at risk, confrontation isn’t a healthy option.

Consider a mediator.
A nonbiased, third party can help facilitate a healthy discussion in a therapeutic setting.

Prepare mentally and emotionally for rejection.
Confrontations are unpredictable, so it’s important to remember that not every person involved will be ready to reconcile.

Work through your own issues.
Before expecting another party to make amends, consider where you need to heal from the events that occurred.

Reflect on the source of conflict.
Recount the events that led to the estrangement—it’s rarely only one party’s fault.

Ask for help.
Look for a support group or seek counsel from a professional or group of people whom you trust.

Make use of the tools available to you.
Use social media or other means of private communication to reach out. However, lurking on social media is unhealthy and can quickly become unproductive and dangerous.

Avoid showing up unannounced.
Because surprises and unwanted presence can be stressful for all parties involved, consider sending a letter, email or voicemail first.

In the face of rejection, Samler encourages learning more before trying again.

“Do you need more time? Was this just a complete and total deal breaker and you want to be left alone?” she said. “There has to be respect for the other person’s feelings.”

Finley also emphasized the importance of moving at one’s own pace, without the pressure of having to heal from wounds before one is ready. “It’s not like exposure therapy, where you’re exposing someone to something they fear,” she said. “That’s not how it works.”

Once the conversation starts to move productively, members of a family can begin to consider forgiveness as the next step.

Determine What Forgiveness Look Like

Forgiveness can take many forms, some of which may come at the expense of the forgiver’s mental and emotional peace.

“Forgiveness is often misconstrued,” Samler said. “People think that it’s about the other person.”

The pressure to move on from a transgression that still hurts can warp the dynamics of a relationship moving forward and manifest as a sense of guilt in any of the parties involved.

“Shame is a big part of it, and guilt, and remorse,” Finley said. “Those things have to be addressed in the individual before they can even forgive anybody else.”

She emphasized the importance of a sound mind and body—“and that requires a lot of self-reflection,” she said.

That self-reflection is a key part of understanding forgiveness and how it fits into reconciliation, which Finley explains below:

How to Understand Forgiveness 

Forgiveness is:

Forgiving yourself first.

Acknowledging an apology if one has been made.

Accepting that the other person has made their own choices.

Setting boundaries for how you’d like to interact in the future.

Forgiveness isn’t:

Spending all your time around a person who has hurt you.

Obligating yourself to help them heal from their mistakes.

Acting as if the conflict never happened.

Keeping score of each other’s faults.

These boundaries aren’t completely binary, as every relationship has complex dynamics, Finley said. There is no perfect way to forgive someone, which also means there may be no perfect way to move forward.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is going to show remorse, or going to change overnight,” she said.

Plan for the Aftermath of a Confrontation

Attempts to reconnect with an estranged family member don’t always end in reconciliation. Though conversations may not go as planned, people can create a healthy lifestyle in the aftermath.

“There’s a reason that you disconnected,” Finley said. “If you really just strip it all away, it’s survival.” They key to that survival is taking care of oneself when possible and asking for help when it isn’t.

How to Move Forward Without Reconciliation

When reconciliation isn’t possible, professors Samler and Finley say individuals can still take steps to move on in a healthy way.

Exercise compassion. When examining attitudes and behaviors, show empathy and compassion toward yourself and others.

Find support. Make use of self-help and support groups, including formal or informal therapy.

Reassess goals for moving forward. Consider motivations for a second confrontation or delaying future interaction.

Ask for help. Being estranged from family doesn’t mean you can’t create your own tribe or community.

Reconnection might not always turn into reconciliation. It’s okay “if the other person doesn’t live up to our expectations,” Finley said. The important thing is “not having resentment surrounding it, and not keeping score.

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Citation for this content: OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the Online Master of Psychology program from Pepperdine University.