Nothing’s worse than the loss of love and connection with our family. The silent heartache that robs us of one of life’s joys.
– Jinny Ditzler
I opened my email this morning to a message from a reader who sent me Jinny Ditzler’s post, 7 Steps to a Loving Family. In the words of my reader, “Why does everyone assume that being in contact with my family will solve problems, rather than make new ones?” It’s a valid question. It seems that many well-intentioned people assume that family breakdowns occur, as Ditzler suggests, as a result of “squabbles or holding tight to grudges”. The logical solution to this then is that people should just let those things go, love one another and get along.
Sometimes estrangement is about squabbling and grudges in which case, a willingness to make amends and move on might well work. However, for many estranged people, this sort of advice not only misses the mark, but also comes across as patronizing and leaves people who can’t or don’t want to reconcile feeling further alienated and misunderstood.
The reality is some people have some very good reasons for electing not to maintain relationships with their families.
Some people who are estranged may have tried for a very long time to make things right or heal the problems that eventually lead to estrangement. Other people desperately want reconciliation but cannot make it happen without the involvement and agreement of the person they are estranged from. It takes two people to have a relationship or heal one.
Estrangement not only occurs because people bicker and don’t communicate well together, it also occurs for reasons such as physical / psychological / sexual abuse; addiction issues; mental or physical health issues; domestic violence; divorce; significant intolerance for family member’s choices; lack of ability or desire to communicate; unresolved (and often inter-generational) trauma and attachment issues and any combination of these. In other words, family estrangement is complex, the reasons it happens are varied and sometimes reconciliation is neither possible or desirable.
It’s not just lay people who struggle to grasp this complexity. Frank Dattilio (dept of psychiatry, Harvard medical school) Michael Nichols (dept psychology, College of William and Mary) in their journal article, “Reuniting Estranged Family Members” note:
“Very little appears in the professional literature about the problem of estrangement due to voluntary separation among family members. As a result of the limited resources to guide them, clinicians may fall into the same wishful thinking common to family members hoping for reconciliation – the assumption that healing a family feud just means getting estranged family members in the same room together and having them open up to each other.”
Trust me, if resolving estrangement was as easy as sitting in a therapist’s office and opening up to each other, many of us would not be estranged.
It’s important to know that our inability or lack of desire to heal estrangement does not reflect badly on us as people. The inability to create reconciliation with our families does not necessarily happen because we are mean-spirited, or unwilling to confront a problem. It doesn’t necessarily happen because we are unwilling to communicate, or unwilling to forgive. It doesn’t necessarily happen because we wouldn’t like the estrangement to end. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we haven’t attempted mediation or counseling, or a dozen other things.
Sometimes we have thrown everything we have at the problem of estrangement and reconciliation just isn’t going to happen.
Other people have not had to walk your path. They may not know what you have experienced, or understand it, even if they do know. They may not know the things you have already tried. They may not know why you decided to stop trying. People may not understand that while you desperately want reconciliation, the person you are estranged from doesn’t share your feelings. Our task as human beings is to know ourselves and know our limitations as well as our strengths. We have a responsibility to ourselves, to love, care for, nurture and protect ourselves, as much as we ever do someone else. Not only are we tasked to do no harm to others, we are also tasked with the responsibility to do no harm to ourselves.
We need to make room for people who choose not to reconcile, we need to make space for reconciliation not to happen. Some things are worse than the loss of love and connection with our family. There is no one easy answer or solution and no simple 7 step formula to make a loving family out of a deeply dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous for us, one.
We need to make room for complexity and we need to quit pushing ourselves and every other estranged person into the one fit solution we call reconciliation.