When Reconciliation Is Impossible

Making peace with what is.

Posted Nov 20, 2017

Source: Alliance/Shutterstock

There is an inclination among those of us who work with families in crisis, especially family members who are estranged, to see reconnection and reconciliation as the most desirable outcome.

But this isn’t always possible. There are a number of valid and meaningful reasons an estranged family member may have for not reconciling now — or maybe ever:

  • A parent or an adult child may be toxic and unrepentant, unwilling to compromise, or unmotivated to make changes you feel are necessary in order to continue the relationship.
  • A family member may have been abusive, from your distant past to the present, and to be in close proximity is to feel unsafe and, perhaps, traumatized all over again.
  • A loved one has died during your period of estrangement, and along with the pain that fueled your rift is the grief of losing this person irrevocably and forever.
  • A love relationship of any type — familial, friendship, or romantic — has ended, and one or both of you have moved on, but the pain and sense of loss linger.

What can you do when there’s nothing to be done to heal, repair, and make positive changes to an important relationship in your life?

1. Grieve for what happened and what might have been.

When you realize that reconciliation is not possible — that this important person in your life may well be gone forever — you may be overwhelmed by the loss. Allowing yourself to grieve can be healing. Grief, which can include stages of bargaining, denial, anger, and/or depression, is a process that moves you forward. Denial can give you a rest, for a time. Anger can clarify your situation and give you the energy to move past feeling like a victim and more like the master of your own life. In time, you will be able to make some kind of peace with what is — never forgetting the pain, but beginning to see past it to new possibilities.

2. Forgive yourself and the other person, letting go of resentment and blame.

This can be a tall order. But if you hold onto the anger, it will be like scratching a wound that never heals and it will erode your sense of well-being for years to come. In forgiving yourself, you might say, “I did the best I could at the time. But it simply wasn’t possible to reconcile, and that’s okay.” You might, in time, be able to say the same of the other person, seeing that, given who they are and what they have experienced in their own lives, they did the best they could, too. Maybe it was not good at all. Maybe what they said or did will never be okay. But letting go of the blame is for your benefit, not theirs.

You might choose to find peace and forgiveness in the process of psychotherapy. You may deal with your emotional stressors with regular exercise and meditation. It might help, too, to reflect on the good things that came from the relationship. Maybe you have a love of music or a particular kind of literature as a result of this person’s influence on your life. Maybe you inherited a special talent or skill from him or her. Or, if the relationship was abusive, threatening, or always felt unsafe for you, perhaps it motivated you to take positive risks, to strive for independence sooner and more resolutely than friends who came from safer, more stable environments.

3. Accept that some days and times will be especially hard. 

The holiday season may be the most painful time for you. Or you may miss this person on a more personal special day; on birthdays or anniversaries; or when you hear a particular song. There will be times when it feels like you’re taking a step back instead of moving ahead. Healing never takes a straight and orderly line to the finish. It’s a process that has detours and dead ends, as well as times of happiness anew.

4. Surround yourself with love.  

This can include seeing yourself as lovable, despite the fact that this person could never love you in the ways you so desperately needed. It may mean making a new family circle that includes special friends and extended family members, who may be closer and more supportive than your next of kin. Those closest to us by blood are, in a sense, there by circumstance. Sometimes that is wonderful. Sometimes it isn’t. But the loved ones we choose for ourselves may be a special blessing in our lives.

5. Know that your pain does not define you.  

Your pain can be an element of the person you’ve grown to be, perhaps helping you to be more understanding and compassionate with others. But it isn't the major or most important thing about you, even if it feels that way now. This isn’t to minimize what you’ve been through. But give yourself a break. Just for now, focus on the love you have in your life, on what makes you smile, or on what you enjoy doing and seeing and learning. There’s so much more to you and your life than the pain of estrangement.