How to Reconcile With an Estranged Relative

12 minute read

Even as a child, Becky Ellis knew her father was not a safe guy to be around. He took her and her siblings to nude beaches when Ellis was 7. On a boating holiday, he let her 5-year-old sister drink as much champagne as she wanted and then didn’t monitor her. “My brother and I made sure she didn't jump out into the lake in the middle of night and drown,” says Ellis. After her mother left him, he’d come over and bang on the door and drunkenly demand to see the kids, until the cops turned up.

For many years, she wanted nothing to do with him. “He made our lives very dangerous,” she says. “We all just want to love our parents and be loved by them, but he wasn't safe to love.” She was his fifth child, the first daughter of his second wife. He had abandoned his first wife and their three children, and as a child she feared she’d suffer the same fate. But as she grew up and he cycled through more wives, she began to realize that she wanted less and less to do with him. When Ellis had children, she moved to another state to keep them away from him.

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In December 2022, a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that 26% of young adults report an estrangement from their fathers and 6% from their mothers. And Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, who has conducted large nationally representative and in-depth studies on family estrangement, says just under 10% of people say they are either estranged from a parent or a child and slightly more than that say they’re estranged from a sibling.

In his book, Fault Lines, Pillemer identifies three main ways that families become estranged. One is the way Ellis lost touch with her father, because of early childhood adversity: abuse or extreme parenting. The second occurs when one family member diverges sharply from the values of the rest of the family. And the third is when a cascading series of negative interactions results in a schism, often sparked by conflicts over a person who has married into the family, or over a will or an inheritance. “It’s hard to say which of those is most important,” says Pillemer, “but I will say that childhood problems—people with very difficult, troubled childhoods—seem to be less likely to reconcile over time.”

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When he was 89, Ellis’s dad, Louis Boswell, came to her and asked if there were any issues the two of them needed to clear up. “I laughed,” she says. “‘Oh, do we have issues? We have a lot of issues.’” But Ellis, whose forthcoming memoir Little Avalanches recounts her experiences, began to talk to her father about an issue he’d never discussed: his military service. She discovered that he’d been a rifleman on the front lines in Europe for 172 days in World War II and had seen so much death and destruction that he’d been traumatized. “He explained to me that he put himself in danger to continue to prove that he would survive,” says Ellis. “And he did that to his family too.” And when that didn’t work, he drank to forget. 

Like Ellis, many people are not sure if their parent is a safe person to be around. And like Ellis and her dad, who died two years ago at 97, many people would love to find a way to restore contact. Here’s what therapists and experts think you should know.  

Most Parents Want Their Children Back

Most estrangements between parents and children are initiated by the children—parents are both biologically hardwired to care about their offspring and also heavily invested in the relationship in terms of time and sunk costs. “Because of the structure of parent-child relationships, it's easier for adult children to exit from them, either temporarily or permanently,” says Pillemer. “Not that they don't regret it. Not that it doesn't cause them anxiety and guilt. But they are less tied to the relationship than parents are.” So parents can’t expect their children to feel the same way about the loss of contact as they do.

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In fact, says Joshua Coleman, clinical psychologist and author of Rules of Estrangement, parents and their offspring often see the world—and the family—in very different ways. “An adult child might say, ‘Well, you emotionally abused me,’ and the parent could say, equally reasonably from their psychology and their generation, ‘Emotional abuse? I gave you everything!’” He often counsels parents and children together and tries to help clarify each party’s perspective. “What I feel like I do a lot of is helping the generations learn to talk to each other from their particular subjectivities.”

Don’t Make a Big Deal About an Apology

Hoping for a relative to say sorry for their past misdeeds is natural, but most therapists counsel against holding off on reconciling until an apology is offered. Pillemer found in his research they mostly did not provide much satisfaction. “People typically don't want an apology for one thing,” he says. “They want an apology for their entire childhood, or an apology for the totality of who the other person is.” Being able to let the past go in favor of a new relationship was a key characteristic of the people he interviewed who had reconciled with family. “What I found was that apologies tend to occur post reconciliation rather than as a condition for it.”

Many people also misunderstand what forgiveness is. “I don't want to equate forgiveness with you now have an all-access pass back into my heart,” says John Delony, author most recently of Building a Non-Anxious Life. “That's not the way forgiveness works. That’s not a healthy version of forgiveness.”

Out of Sight Is Not Out of Mind

Ellis is incredibly grateful she reconciled with her father, because his absence played on her mind. “Lots of times when people do become estranged, they still carry that relationship inside them,” says Lindsay Gibson, a clinical psychologist and author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. “And so they find themselves thinking about that parent a lot, reviewing things, obsessing about things, so they really many times have not freed themselves truly from the relationship.” 

Pillemer’s research described people who have reconciled as feeling they had a weight lifted off them, of not having to wake up to another day when they weren’t talking to their brother or sister, or their children didn’t know their grandparents. “I wanted to understand what happened to our family, why our family was so fractured,” says Ellis. “I wanted to understand the roots of that.” 

But people also described coming to know themselves better, as they understood where they came from. “When you go into estrangement, you no longer have a place to practice being clear about your boundaries, saying what you feel and what you think,” says Gibson. “So you lose that opportunity to individuate from the family structure.”  Sometimes a small break is what people need to establish themselves as an individual. 

Making the First Contact 

Even though apologies don’t always work, Coleman recommends what he calls a “letter of amends” for people, particularly parents, whose loved ones no longer want them in their lives. “The goal is to try to get psychologically on the same page as the adult child,” he says. He counsels parents to start the letter by saying something like “I know you wouldn't have cut off contact with me unless you felt like it was the healthiest thing for you to do.” If there is no response to that email or text, he advises waiting a few months before trying again. 

If the child is a minor and access is being denied by an ex-spouse, Delony thinks it’s great to send letters anyway. “When that kid turns 18, turns 25, I want there to be several shoeboxes full of letters that you, their parent, wrote every Sunday for nine years,” he says. “And I want there to be a yellow brick road back to your heart that says, ‘I never gave up on you.’” 

The Internet Is Not the Answer

One of the most effective routes to reconnecting with estranged loved ones is, obviously, to figure out why they have become estranged and to fix it and perhaps make amends. This often involves individual therapy. “Our culture provides all sorts of roadmaps other than going to the mirror and saying, ‘At the end of the day, the only person I can control is me,’” says Delony. He counsels people to take an attitude of “I'm going to work to become the kind of person that will be the grandparent of the century if and when this person reaches out.” Joint therapy—with the relative on the other end of the estrangement—is also very helpful.

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While a supportive network is important, most experts are tepid on the usefulness of social media sites, such as Reddit or Facebook groups, as a place to find help. “Online support is a real mixed bag in this area,” says Pillemer. “Estranged parents and estranged children have created their own groups that dehumanize the other group in the strongest possible terms.” The advice tends to enhance grievances rather than bringing a shared perspective. “I think there's a great social contagion that's happening around estrangement,” says Coleman. It’s very easy for people who have no investment in a family to tell other people to leave it. “They don't know these parents, or the person being estranged,” he says. “They don't have to suffer the consequences.”

Boundaries Work Better Than Ultimatums

One successful method for reconciliation that Pillemer observed was when one relative gave the other a very clear provisional way back to the relationship. For example, the person who is aggrieved might say, “I'm willing to let you see your grandchildren and join us every two months, but you may never criticize my husband and you can't criticize my child-rearing.” Pillemer found people often successfully offer a "last chance" if a relationship looks ready to rupture. “The person on the receiving end of the estrangement is shocked by that and is willing to overcome bad behavior,” Pillemer says. This tends to work better in the type of estrangement that has been caused by multiple recent infractions rather than abusive behavior from childhood.

On the other hand, when relatives offer ultimatums, saying a person has to choose between one family member or another, there are very few good options. This often happens when a new person marries into the family and another relative does not get along with them. Coleman did a survey of 1,600 estranged parents that found that 70% of them were not estranged until their child got married. “We know that marriage and childbirth on the part of the adult child can be a flashpoint because it's bringing together two new families and sometimes cultures,” he says. Therapists advise against cutting off one relative at the demand of another. If someone does want you to do this, you can "do a deep dive of empathy around it," Coleman says, acknowledging the ways adapting to a new family member can be difficult. But he urges people not to give in and end a relationship, even if it's causing some hurt feelings or tension with another relative. He gives the example of an adult child who says it's either him or his parent's new spouse. “I just don't think that the parent can really give their child that kind of power,” he says.

Be Prepared to Grieve

The study that found that 26% of fathers are estranged from their children at some point also found that the vast majority of these estrangements did not last. Sometimes, however, the situation can’t, or shouldn’t, be fixed. Abuse, addiction, and mental illness are real and loved ones can be dangerous, or unable to be in a relationship. While some experts say there's almost always a path back, especially if all parties go to therapy together, others say there comes a point where the relationship cannot be salvaged. “If it does finally get to that place, and someone says, ‘I don't want you in my life,’ and they've put up a boundary, then your attempt to jump over that boundary and track them down and say, ‘What did I do? What can I do?’ is a violation of their boundary,” says Delony. “They've told you what they want out of this relationship, and it's not you right now.” The border between that and stalking starts to get very narrow. “At the end of the day, the choice left is to grieve that deep loss,” he says. “And continue to work on yourself.” 

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