Around this time of year, we’re naturally predisposed to seek resolution within even long-soured family relationships largely due to the media narrative around “holiday magic,” says Marian Cooper, LCSW-R, therapist on the mental-health platform Alma. “Messages about family togetherness and joyous holiday festivities can remind us of what we are missing out on in our own families and trigger a desire to reconcile negative relationships.” Not to mention, the act of returning to a childhood home or that of a close family member can quickly “throw you back into memories of your younger self,” due to the parts of the brain that activate our sense of place, says therapist Julia Samuel, UKCP, BACP, author of Every Family Has a Story.
“Messages about family togetherness and joyous holiday festivities can remind us of what we are missing out on in our own families.” —Marian Cooper, LCSW-R, therapist at Alma
Add in the fact that you may be physically around family members that you haven’t seen in a long time, and the holidays just tend to open the door for more tough interactions, says therapist Naiylah Warren, LMFT, clinical content manager at virtual therapy platform Real. Some of those conversations might be with folks whom you might not otherwise choose to see or whose presence, in and of itself, is triggering—in which case it’s important to set boundaries to get through your time together, says Warren. But in other cases, reuniting with a distanced or even estranged family member could present the opportunity to restore your severed connection.
“The best sign that a family relationship can be repaired is the willingness from both parties to acknowledge how their actions impacted the other and how much effort they are willing to put into nurturing the relationship,” says Warren.
If a relationship is strained because of any type of abuse and there’s any concern for a person’s safety or well-being, though, it’s not advised to try to restore the relationship, says Cooper. That’s also the case “if both people in the relationship feel an unwavering need to be right, where there’s no sense of compromise or willingness to acknowledge the hurt on both sides,” says Samuel.
That said, family relationships—like any relationships—are nuanced. “People are unpredictable,” says Samuel, so if you’re suffering from the pain of family estrangement but suspect the person on the other side is inflexible to compromise, it still might be worth a shot at reconciliation, she says.
How to initiate the conversation to repair soured family relationships
To effectively repair family relationships, it’s essential that both parties first agree to do so. If you’re the one initiating the reconciliation, voice your desire to reconnect with a call, text, or email. It's best to lead with vulnerability and accountability, suggests Warren. “You might say something like, ‘I know we haven’t had the closest relationship in the past few years, but I really want to change that if you’re willing to meet me halfway,’” she says. If they agree, suggest meeting in person (if possible) in a neutral space, like a coffee shop or restaurant, says Cooper.
If you’ll be physically in the same place, you could also suggest going for a walk to talk outside, “which is often less intense and overwhelming than an eye-to-eye meeting,” says Samuel. Or, if it feels aligned, consider doing an activity together that you both enjoy (like, say, golfing or cooking) “rather than just tackling a huge conversation, digging up the past and that laundry list of old wounds,” says Samuel. Creating this opportunity to connect over a shared interest can help remind both of you how nice it can feel to just do things together, she adds, which can soften your natural defenses for the reconciliation talk to follow.
Before arriving at this meet-up, whatever form it takes, it might also be wise to do some rehearsing. “Practice the various scenarios that might happen while engaging with the family member ahead of time with a neutral person such as a therapist or a friend,” says Cooper, “and create an action plan for how you would handle each one, should it happen.” For example, one scenario might involve the family member talking over you, so you might prepare for that by planning to calmly count to 10 before clarifying your boundary of not interrupting you when you’re speaking, says Cooper.
7 tips for successfully rebuilding a diminished or lost family relationship
1. Take time to self-reflect in advance
Once you’ve reached out and received your family member’s consent to reconnect, set aside some time for personal introspection. “It’s important to explore how you’ll own your part by considering how you may have contributed to the situation at hand,” says Warren. “Then, think about what elements of this relationship you want back in your life and why.” This way, you’ll be able to clearly articulate your goal in reconciliation once you’re speaking with the family member.
2. Identify off-limits topics
Just as important as knowing what you want to cover in your conversation with this family member is knowing what you don’t. “You should pinpoint in advance subjects to avoid—like politics, vaccines, religion, or the like—and stick to a script if they come up,” says Cooper. “For example, 'When you bring up X, in situation Y, I feel upset, frustrated, or insert other negative emotion here. I will not be talking about it for that reason.'”
3. Manage your expectations
You can’t know with 100-percent clarity how any reconciliation conversation will go until it happens. “Maybe the outcome will be a clearing up of a misunderstanding or just being able to be around each other without yelling or crying,” says Cooper. Or perhaps you’ll launch back into a full-blown relationship that’s either similar or different in nature from the one you used to have. Or maybe the result will fall somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum.
The important thing to understand is that all of the above outcomes are possible, as is a completely negative one (at which point it’s best to resort to distance and cordial boundaries when necessary). Being mentally prepared for any outcome is your healthiest course of action.
4. Say you’re sorry
Even if you feel like the other person is at the root of whatever distanced or estranged you in the first place, conflict always involves two parties. And apologizing off the bat allows you to acknowledge the other person’s pain and your potential role in it, says Cooper.
5. Use “I” statement to speak your side and respond
One of the golden rules of any argument is to speak from your own perspective, rather than calling out the other person, which just tends to spark defensiveness. “When sharing concerns with your family member, lead with ‘I,’ as in, ‘I felt hurt when I was not invited to X event,’ or ‘I miss talking to you,’ and so on.” This invites them to consider how their behavior might have led to you feeling a certain way without them feeling as if they’re being attacked or criticized.
“In family dynamics, everyone is so keen on getting their message transmitted that the importance of listening is often forgotten.” —Julia Samuel, therapist
In the same realm, it’s helpful to reflect, from an “I” perspective, on what they’ve said after they express their own concerns, says Samuel. “For example, you might start your response with, ‘What I understand you are saying is…’ to ensure that your family member feels heard, which will lower their likelihood of losing their temper,” she says. “In family dynamics, everyone is so keen on getting their message transmitted that the importance of listening is often forgotten.”
6. Don’t be afraid to take breaks
Any conversation involving a person with whom you haven’t had a great relationship (or much of any relationship at all) has the potential to get heated, as it brings up conflict from the past. “You can be thrown into a heightened state of fury and fight very quickly, so it’s important to speak slowly, breathe deeply, and if you feel strong feelings shooting through you, take some time out,” says Samuel. Stepping away to grab a glass of water, take deep breaths alone, or practice any other grounding exercise can help you avoid saying hurtful things—prompted by an agitated state of mind—that you don’t really mean, she adds.
7. Be patient
Working to repair family relationships isn’t just like flipping back on a switch that’s been off; it’s a process that often requires time and space. “Sometimes when we’re repairing relationships, just like with renovating a home, things can get worse or awkward before they get better,” says Warren.
“Just because it feels difficult or hard to do in the beginning doesn’t mean it isn’t working or that it isn’t worth it,” she says. So long as you’re investing effort toward resolution and giving the other person the opportunity to do the same, it’s helpful to practice patience as the relationship shape-shifts.
The only time when you may be better off calling it quits is when you find that you’re putting in 100 percent of the effort with no reciprocation from the family member. “That may be a sign that the relationship isn’t yet ready for the type of transformation you’re seeking,” says Warren, “and that’s okay.”
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