Only you can decide when forgiving an estranged family member is a suitable option, and coming to that decision isn’t easy.
Naturally, there are some bridges that aren’t meant to be rebuilt.
But what can it look like when reconciliation could actually be on the cards?
Counselling Directory member Anthony Purnell tells Metro.co.uk that the original reason for a fallout can sometimes become less important when something seismic happens in the family.
He explains: ‘This can put into perspective the importance of family connections. If there is a mutuality in this, then the parties have good ground on which to build.
‘All parties may feel that they have processed their anger surrounding a disagreement and feel in a place where they can discuss it openly, whilst also keep sight of the ultimate goal (reconnection) and be able to genuinely put the disagreement behind them.
‘There is maybe a sense that it feels safe to engage in the process of reconnection in respect of what effect this may have on other family members.
‘Disagreements are not seldom contained to those that are directly embroiled in them and can position family members as “allies” or “foes” who may see the reconnection as either a welcome development or as some kind of betrayal.’
Rather than a disagreement, let’s say someone in the family has wronged us, and their transgression is the root cause of the estrangement – what then?
Anthony says: ‘My own philosophy lies with the old saying “actions speak louder than words”, and the difference between espousal (what I say…) and embodiment (what I actually do…).
‘It is not enough that someone says sorry or that they will change, there needs to be evidence through changing our behaviour.’
And what about the red flags that could mean building bridges isn’t a great idea?
Anthony says these include: ‘A refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing (within reason).
‘If any form of abusive behaviour is still present (physical, emotional, financial).
‘In instances where there is nothing to be gained from the relationship, or it is exploitative. In couples therapy counsellors talk about the give and take (emotional, financial, functional) – one-sided relationships can be draining.
‘And if your motivation to reconnect is based on the wishes of others. The reconciliation provides comfort for them but still has a detrimental effect on the family members in conflict.’
When asked about things that should never be forgiven, Anthony adds: ‘I would say that any behaviour that was so extreme (for example, sexual abuse, physical violence) that it caused an individual severe harm would mean that person would be in the right to not grant their abuser forgiveness.
‘Other than that, the decision to grant forgiveness lies with the one who has felt wronged.’
How to go about reconciling
So, if you’ve clocked green flags instead of red ones, here’s how you should proceed.
First off, respect for boundaries is key, with Anthony explaining: ‘In families, in order to reconcile, respect for another’s values and personal boundaries is important because this demonstrates that you respect the other as a person in their own right.
‘In a democracy, the right of self-determination is a cornerstone of the political ideology, and in families, it is useful that this is observed too.
‘For example, the parent-child relationship is not the same as sibling-sibling. In the parent-child relationship, this may involve a parent respecting a child’s need to forge their own destiny, or siblings understanding that parents shift their boundaries regarding dealing with sibling rivalries.
‘Respecting relationship definitions can help those in conflict come to an understanding of how their relationship needs to change in order to reconnect.’
Anthony’s top tips on family reconciliation:
- Meet on neutral territory, meeting in a place where one person feels comfortable and the other does not may not provide the best context for reconnection.
- Remember who the estrangement/conflict is between, try not to get other family members involved as this can feel being ganged up on and may escalate the conflict. If you need someone to mediate try and find a neutral party that can be fair and objective.
- Remember the end goal and take responsibility for your part in the falling out, apologising reciprocally can help both parties feel understood.
- Validate how the situation must have made the other person feel. You may not be able to change the reason why the disagreement occurred, but validation can at least make the other person feel heard.
You should also be careful with how you speak to each other, making sure to share your feelings in a way that doesn’t constantly place blame on others.
For example, Anthony explains: ‘Speak from the “I” position – “I felt angry,” “I feel frustrated”, “I felt sad”, etc. This helps to take responsibility for your own feelings and avoids accusatory language which causes the conversation to become unproductive and cumbersome for both sides.
‘Avoid using insults – they are just an attempt to make someone feel bad but do not actually add anything of value. This may also lead to an adversarial communication style where the aim is to dominate the other – this approach just leads to all involved feeling angry, hurt and unheard.
‘Take turns in speaking and actively listen to hear not simply respond, stick to the issue at hand if you bring in other issues then you have more to solve. If you have agreed to draw a line in the sand the conversation should be focus on how the relationship will move forward.
‘Treat each other with respect and remember we see the world through our own lens and making assumptions about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ can be problematic. Human experiences, as with ethics, are largely subjective.’
As well as how you speak to each other, there are certain things that Anthony says should be discussed.
‘How has the falling out maybe changed the nature of the relationship with the family member?’ he says. ‘Discuss how the conflict has affected all parties.
‘Discuss how you both have felt positioned by other members of the family i.e. if values, beliefs, levels of connection, have made it difficult to reach out.
‘Who may be the gatekeepers to the relationship? This is when a family member feels they cannot have a relationship with A because B holds sway over A.
‘Talk about how the relationship is not working and begin to find new ways to connect that all parties can be comfortable with. For example, family who can only connect through a shared interest run the risk of isolating themselves from members with whom they do not share a common interest.
‘Not all relationships work in the same way, so it can be helpful to discuss what for works for you both. Expectations surrounding what level of connection the parties want should be based on what is appropriate to the definition of the relationship.’
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