Family Reconciliation: The Estranged Relationship Repair Process
Updated: Oct 4
Many people I see in my family estrangement coaching practice are longing for their family relationships to be different. The intention of this blog is to understand how to work on healing family rifts and family reconciliation in a way that’s empowering to you, and kind to others who are involved. This is a small extract from my new video course on family estrangement. The course covers many areas of the experience of being estranged from a family member. It's not all about reconciliation. Yet, we start out this course with the relationship repair process, as I recognise just how little support there is out there when it comes to making improvements in family relationships. It doesn't mean the repair process is right for everyone, or that you should do it alone and unsupported.
Family relationships are important relationships in our lives. Even if we are estranged from a family member, we may spend a considerable amount of time thinking about them and wondering if they could be different. Many people don't know how to approach working on a relationship or improving the family dynamic.
We may hold huge amount of fear over expressing our feelings and having a voice. There isn't a culture of working on family relationships in the same way as marital relationships, partners, colleagues or friends. There is a cultural pressure to accept whatever comes with family, even if this is violent behaviour.
Yet we can respectfully tell people what we need to be close or closer, and give them the opportunity to hear us with the aspiration that they will meet us in a different and healthier way. Many (not all) family relationships can improve with openness, hearing each other, and knowing more clearly what needs could be met and what behaviour is hurtful.
What I’ll say below is not a replacement for longer or more sustained work on the deeper relationship issues that might happen if you both went to therapy. This blog is simply intended as a road map to the start of the process, and how to feel personally resourced to approach the work of repairing a family relationship you feel is broken or breaking. It's also about realistic expectations.
Before we get into things too deeply, I want to raise an important point. Always think about your safety. If you feel there is abuse and gas lighting in a family relationship, please consider using a third party professional as they can ensure the space is safely held. If you have been labelled with any kind of mental health issue or as abusive, it's also wise to involve a professional. You don't have to do it alone, and you don't have to do it at all. You are always in choice, and nobody can force you to repair a relationship or force you to own labels that they stick on you. It is important you are personally resourced and supported.
What do I want?
We need to have the wisdom in any repair process to discern what we can and can’t change in our lives. Holding out for a family member to transform their own behaviour can be a thankless journey, especially if you want them change principally for you. The most successful growth and healing journeys in other people are instigated by the self-awareness that something needs to change for themselves. Other people have to reach their rock bottom, dark night of the soul or moment of realisation. It's only then that their own growth can begin.
Yet, giving people the chance to hear you, hear your needs and to respond to how you feel can be an important growth edge. I say this as it is important for you and your sense of self, as in doing this we are telling ourselves that we do matter and deserve a voice. It does also give clarity as to why you are struggling with the dynamic to the other person, so they have a clear idea of how you feel. Timing is everything. Working up to a conversation, and taking the time to build the skills and resilience to be part of it fully and confidently is no bad thing. You can tell the other person that you will reach out when it feels right to talk.
What do I need?
Before we go into a conversation, it’s good to get clear about what you want from trying to talk. What do I need from this? Can I express what I need from this conversation to the other person so we know where we need to get to.
recognition from them of the impact they are having
understanding how they feel, and why they feel they behave as they do.
expressing some feelings, healthy boundaries and requests that would change some of the issues.
requesting the possibility of doing more work in therapy and create more lasting change.
With this knowledge we can go into the conversation with realistic expectations. I feel keeping expectations low is wise for the first chat, as it really is a task of listening to each other and hearing each other. I cover having a follow-up second conversation below.
Talking and asking to talk
Any healthy relationship will include space for you to speak your feelings and indicate what your needs are, even if they can’t all be met by the other. The space to speak and be heard is a healthy quality.
For many of us, we may have been taught subliminally or culturally (or sometimes explicitly) that our needs and feelings don’t matter, or that it isn’t safe to have needs, or there may be an explosive response if we speak our needs and feelings. Yet, it’s not selfish to think and say that you and your feelings and needs matter. The space to talk is healthy. If we look at the research on family relationships where greater happiness and closeness is reported between members, they are aware of the needs and feelings of others and are accustomed to listening. It is worth persisting with even if people are uncomfortable with the idea.
"Can we check in and listen to each other more?"
The action of asking for space to speak your feelings and your needs is empowering, and it shows self-love and self-respect. It’s nobody’s role in a healthy human relationship to take whatever someone else brings to the picture without the possibility of voicing needs too.
The right conditions
Whether a family member can or will hear you when you raise an issue is never guaranteed. But you can control as best you can the chances of being heard by setting up a conversation in a healthy way.
It’s healthy to tell people, at the right time for you both, how their behaviour is impacting you and how you feel about the relationship as a consequence. I underline this, as most of the repair conversations that I see going wrong, do so as they are sprung on people. They happen when people are not expecting it or when they aren't in a good frame of mind.
The right time to talk for you both is crucial. You don’t want to have a conversation that is often emotionally challenging when someone doesn’t have the presence or energy to hold the difficulty and potential feelings involved.
These conversations require energy. Allowing people to show up when they don’t feel stressed with work, distracted by children, or are having an awful day for other reasons, will ultimately impact the outcome more positively.
"When would be a good time to talk about something between us that is impacting me?"
Environment can play an important part in the success of these conversations. The idea of going for a coffee and talking about these things might sound nice, but it could feel very uncomfortable to have other strangers in earshot and limit you in your ability to really share. At home may be good, but in a setting that isn’t overheard by other family members, or that will be interrupted by others as they get home, or a room that’s historically triggering.
You could ask another relative or friend to borrow their front room for a couple of hours if you would feel more comfortable to have a neutral place. Or you could do it online if you feel people respond well that way. Many places in nature are private and you could go for a walk as a way of moving the body too. This can decrease stress. Think about your safety and comfort and check in what feels good for the other person too.
You want to be heard in all that you say. There are a few useful ground rules that can help these conversations stay conversations, and not become arguments. These principles maximise the chances of feeling heard in what you say. You could show the other person these suggestions and discuss what feels right for you both.
Setting up a conversation - principles and behaviours.
1. Can we agree to not interrupt each other when we speak? We can both say that we feel complete when we have finished talking. I’m done. Over to you. Have you finished? Or any other word/movement that signals the other has finished before someone else starts to respond.
This both increases the likelihood of the other listening to everything you have said. It also allows the person speaking enough time to speak compassionately and broadly, rather than getting into an instant back and forth dialogue about one thing that someone finds hurtful or untrue to them.
2. Can we agree from the start that we are sharing our unique experiences of our relationship. Everyone is entitled to their own experience of life and their feelings, and they are all true. A winning outcome is both of us listen seeing and understanding each other and us agreeing next steps for how we move forward.
By agreeing to this principle, we are taking away the power-struggle that so often underlies these kinds of conversations. Nobody is right and there is no winner. The truth is that everything is true to the person who says it. Even if it hurts, it is still their truth. The win is if everyone feels heard and understood.
3. Don’t talk for too long and plan for two conversations. Agree to talk for 60 minutes initially, and agree a time that the conversation should start to wrap up. You can then arrange to talk again in a few days.
In a healthy relating, people can and do take responsibility when they’ve hurt people, intentionally or unintentionally. But this might take some time to drop in and contemplate and can be hard when there is perfectionism in the space. The space to process what you have said (or what others have said to you) is often helpful to the eventual outcome of you both showing you have heard each other.
4. Don’t expect to too much. It’s wise not to expect to hear apologies, ownership and everything you want to hear straight away, in the moment. Focus on sharing what you feel and being heard as the outcome of the conversation.
Everyone is different and people need different lengths of time to truly understand others. It doesn’t mean they are wrong or bad. Some people may feel activated emotionally and physically and won’t find the skills or composure to respond perfectly, or as you had fantasised about.
5. Don’t give up straight away. It’s important not to walk out and give up if you don’t feel it’s gone well immediately. It might be incredibly frustrating to not hear what you needed to hear but it can take time. People more often edge towards change than transform completely overnight.
These types of conversations, where we offer other people feedback about their actions, particularly family members, will activate the nervous system. That’s why we can end up with a pulsating heart, our voices waver and we have sweaty palms when we talk about important things. This may not be something that the older generation are used to doing, and they may have very little vocabulary or articulation around their feelings.
It is more common to see a frozen or fight response than someone coming back with a calm and evolved ability to contain their activation and see, hear and recognise you. That’s why talking again later in the week can be incredibly useful when there has been time for things to marinade, the nervous system to regulate and for people to think about what they might want to say.
Most people are looking for a sincere and loving response, not a reaction. This may take time. Patience and compassion oil the wheels of the repair process.