Anyone who has heard the devastating words, “I never want to see you again!” from a parent, sibling, or child, knows the torment of family exile.
Reconciliations can bring joy, excitement and a sense of awe like that of a miracle. At the same time, reunions can be frightening, stressful, fragile, and wrought with many pitfalls. Rebuilding relationships requires a great deal of emotional work and a willingness for each family member involved.
Often, re-establishing relationships with family members can appear to be an impossible task. Yet, sometimes people are surprised when the road to healing leads to new beginnings.
After a fourteen-year family estrangement, one of my brothers contacted me. I was shocked! My heart pounded with excitement and fear. I thought that we would never speak again.
Am I ready to reconcile? Will I be hurt again if I take this leap?
In the quiet of my home, I ran a list of points to consider:
1. Can I handle the possibility of being rejected all over again?
2. Have we both experienced significant emotional growth and change since we estranged? Or, are we the same as we were at the time of our estrangement?
3. Can I trust myself to set and maintain clear, respectful boundaries?
4. Do I feel the need to engage in old arguments and to “change” his perceptions, or can I respond differently to old family patterns?
5. Am I able to stand confidently in my own separate identity? Or am I emotionally enmeshed with my family members?
6. Do I feel the need to rehash the past?
7. Do I feel internal or external pressure to reconcile before I am emotionally capable?
8. Is the threat of physical and/or emotional violence still present in my family?
9. Am I still angry? Is he still angry?
10. Will reconciliation add to or detract from my life?
Most people I’m acquainted with who have successfully mended an estrangement, didn’t go back and re-hash specific events from the past. For this reason healing prior wounds on your own is very important.
If you believe the time may be right to reconcile – move slowly. Take baby steps while you begin to build trust – both in yourself and with your relatives. It is much easier to move forward slowly than it is to try to pull back if you have moved too fast.
Start out accentuating the positive. Find common ground. Reminisce about good memories, share mutual interests, and express positive feelings.
If you have been estranged from your entire family, rather than “jumping” right back in and seeing all of them at once, you may want to consider staggering separate visits.
At first, keep your time short and don’t discuss difficult issues that come up with your family until you have had time to work through intense emotions alone or with supportive friends. Spend time in between visits adjusting to and absorbing the many positive and negative conflicting emotions you will experience by sharing with trusted confidants: a therapist, a minister, friends, and/or support groups.
Expect to navigate some slippery slopes and develop ways to help you cope with new situations. You may want to limit the length of your visits at first and insulate yourself by not spending one-on-one time with a family member if you don’t feel safe.
After attempting reconciliation, you may be satisfied with the results and you may not. You can only control your half of the relationship.
Nancy Richards is the author of “Heal and Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse,” and “Heal and Forgive II: The Journey from Abuse and Estrangement to Reconciliation.” Richards is an adult survivor of childhood abuse. Visit www.healandforgive.net .