Henry and Marie, both in their late 50’s, are devastated. They had just come back from visiting their 33 year-old daughter, Sara, and her family. They had done the good grandparent thing – attended their grandson’s birthday party, brought gifts – had, they thought, a great time. Now, only a couple of weeks later, and seemingly out of the blue, they have received this caustic email from Sara. She had been thinking about an off-handed comment that Henry had made, and that apparently led to her mulling over a lot of things about her childhood and past relationship with her parents. Finally, at the end she says in bold type, “And never talk to me again!”
Ellen and Teresa would both admit that they had never been extremely close as sisters and have had their ups and downs over the years. Both have been busy with their own careers, relationships and the most they have been able to muster is a catch-up email every couple of weeks. But then their grandmother died and in her will she left more money to Ellen than Teresa. Understandably this stirred some hurt feelings but also inadvertently opened old long-standing wounds of jealousy, favoritism, unfairness between the sisters.They haven’t talked in months and there is no sign of a thaw.
Cut-offs, estrangement. It’s not just the stuff of Godfather movies (“You’re dead to me”) but unfortunately the stuff of millions of relationships. What is going here? A couple of things:
For Henry, Marie, and Sara the issue is probably one of individuation. I’ve seen a lot of older parents who come in flapping emails like Sara’s, and have also talked to clients like Sara who are just too angry with parents to want to continue to deal with them. Old wounds from the past seem to suddenly come to the fore along with the strong need to be their own person, i.e., not be anything like their parents. A fragile independence takes shape that is only propped up by literally and emotionally staying as far away from parents as possible.
Other times it is the older generation that struggles. Remember Freud and Jung? Here is the same pattern played out between mentor and protege. At some point Jung begins to create his own ideas about therapy, begins to think outside the Freudian box. And it is Freud who can't deal. He feels betrayed, unappreciated. And what happens? Freud cuts him off at the knees, and they are left with a rift that never heals.
But why is this coming up for Sara and her parents now, rather than, say, 5 years ago? Likely due to where Sara is in her life right now. In our 20’s most of us are scrambling too much with careers, relationships, to look anywhere but nose-down and straight ahead. It’s when the dust begins to settle in our lives that we are able to slow down, lift our heads and take stock of where we are. Sometimes in one’s early to mid 30’s this leads to the past. You look back with this new perspective, try and make sense of the twists and turns and could-have-beens, and uncover old wounds. Or you look ahead to your own parenting and look back on the parenting you received, and suddenly feel angry, clear, and critical because you are finally strong enough to entertain such thoughts.
For Ellen and Teresa the issue is less likely individuation, but more likely family culture. If you track family histories back a few generations you'll find some peppered with potholes of cutoffs the way some families are peppered with divorce or alcoholism. In my own extended family, for example, there were uncles I had never met because of 20-year feuds between them and my father, started undoubtedly by some unintentional but apparently devastating slight. Then suddenly, they would see each other, often at a funeral, and within hours they had somehow made up, but just as quickly someone else made a wrong move and was cast out of the fold. This is families being run like a game of musical chairs where this way of coping becomes copied in successive generations.
So what do Henry and Marie, Ellen and Teresa do? What can you do if you’re at the receiving end of a cut-off? Some suggestions:
Realize it is not about you. Well, of course, it is about you in the eyes of the other, but the main issue isn’t who is or who isn’t most screwed up or at fault. The problem in the room is the emotion, the fact that you are both feeling angry and upset. That is what you are trying to fix most.
Apologize. Apologizing is not about taking the hit, doing a mea culpa, swallowing your pride and saying the other guy's reality is right. Think of your apology as an acknowledgment that hurt was unintentionally caused. Although Henry and Marie may be tempted to defend their raising of Sara with 3 pages of documentation about sacrifices and good intentions, they'd do better simply saying they are sad that she feels this way and that they are sorry for the off-handed comment and any mistakes they may have made in the past. Similarly, Ellen can simply acknowledge, rather than analyze, the old wounds, and say that she wishes that they can move beyond this in some way. This is not a time for playing courtroom, but sensitivity and sincerity.
Write. Sorry, but texting is not writing – it's too short, too get-it-done, too subject to overanalyzing and misinterpretation, often too impulsive. Try an email or better yet a handwritten letter. Phone conversations, unless scheduled and with a clear agenda, often put the other person on the spot and at a bad time -- when they are already in a lousy mood, when the kids are screaming in the background. The written word allows you, and them, to think carefully about what you want to say. You also have room to cover any possible misinterpretation – “I’m not saying that you are wrong, I am saying that…” Talk about you, your feelings, and most of all your intentions -- what motivated you to do what you did. End with restating the apology and the hope that this helps. Avoid making any requests or demands on them.
Then give them space. If you haven't heard anything back in a few weeks, send another one-line email or 2 sentence voicemail message saying that you hope they received your last note and would be happy to hear from them if they have any questions or want to talk about it.
Keep communication open. These estrangements often carry some ambivalence. Don’t ever talk to me again probably means exactly that, right then, maybe right now, but often in the back of the other person's mind is that you don't make any effort to reach out, this is just further proof that you really never did give a damn.
Yes, this is delicate balance, but long silences can harden and become more entrenched over time; the sheer awkwardness of breaking the silence creates its own obstacle. So if you hear nothing back from your apology, do something small and steady to serve as an emotional placeholder. Henry and Marie can continue to send the grandkids cards for their birthdays, Ellen can shoot a one-line email to her sister every few weeks saying that she hopes she is well. Keep it short but keep it open. Sara can always throw the cards out until she doesn’t want to; Teresa may at some point answer the email with a one-liner of her own.
Realize what you can control. Don’t be the victim here. If you do any of the above, you're doing pretty much the most you can do. You can’t control the other guy, you can control you. You can explain and apologize and attempt to keep communication open, but you can’t create forgiveness, remove anger or hurt, make the other reach back. Often these rifts run their course – the funeral does allow an unexpected space to see and talk. The childhood wounds are worked through, put into a new perspective, or life itself shifts the focus, and suddenly babysteps are taken towards reconciliation.
Ruptured relationships like these are painful because in many ways they have the feel and undertow of a death, a loss, and as such need their own time. Do what you can do, do your best to avoid the Hatfield and McCoy mentality, resist getting caught up in the endless licking of your wounds.
Be the adult that you are. Reach out. And be ready to cut yourself, and the other guy, some slack.