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Family Dynamics

Agreeing to Terms of Engagement to Repair a Broken Relationship

To reconcile, sisters avoid old hurts; they identify safe topics to connect.

Key points

  • Creating an agreement — no triangulation, no judgements, no political discussions — can reduce conflict.
  • To restore a relationship, ask what's necessary: Admitting wrongdoing? An apology? Forgiveness?
  • This method won't work when one person feels chronically hurt; some relationships are too toxic to reconcile.

Two sisters approached me recently, asking if I could help them as they attempted once again to reconcile their estranged relationship. For most of their adult lives, Beth and Sarah (not their real names) had been close, calling each other every day, and even vacationing together over the years.

In their late thirties, however, they had a bitter falling out when an adolescent child decided to move out of her parents’ home and live with her aunt and uncle. The two families couldn’t agree on how to handle this rancorous situation; deep anger and resentment festered and ultimately shattered the relationship of the two sisters. Beth and Sarah had no contact for over 15 years.

Quincy Anderson/Pexels
Source: Quincy Anderson/Pexels

Last December, the two agreed to have several sessions with a family counselor in an attempt to end their bitter estrangement. They aired old hurts, hurled accusations, and revisited painful memories. The result was disastrous.

“We stormed off after screaming at each other,” says Beth, “leaving the therapist stunned and a bit scared.”

“At the end of the session," Sarah reports, "I wished my sister well and told her I couldn’t give her what she was asking of me. I thought that was the end.”

But last month, Beth contacted me for help. When she explained their previous attempt to reconcile, I wondered if the two could find a way forward by circumventing the painful issues of the past. Could we create an agreement that would outline acceptable behaviors and identify topics that are off-limits?

First, I talked to each sister individually and asked:

  • What do you need to restore your relationship with your sister?
  • Was an admission of wrongdoing or past transgressions necessary?
  • Was an apology or forgiveness required?

“Your questions illuminated for me the ultimate goal — reconciliation,” Beth says. “Recriminations were left by the wayside. With our goal in focus, we became aware of the counterproductivity and futility of seeking retribution or contrition.”

How did we do it?

In our conversations, we avoided the topics that had driven the divide; instead, we set the terms of engagement for a new kind of relationship among estranged family members. We hammered out a written agreement to re-establish Sarah and Beth’s sisterly relationship, for the well-being of the two of them and the larger family as well. Both felt deep regret that their children were deprived of aunts, uncles, and cousins as a result of their cutoff.

To ensure success, we agreed to the following conditions.

General rules

  • No triangulation.
  • No judgments.
  • No scapegoating.
  • No texting of emotional issues.
  • No assumptions; instead ask questions.
  • No political discussions.
  • Present day issues will be raised and discussed directly and immediately.

In addition, we listed specific topics that are off-limits. The sisters agreed that they would not talk about the child who sparked the estrangement. They also agreed to place limits on discussion about their mother, who can be divisive: Beth and Sarah will discuss only the mother’s health issues.

Finally, if one sister should violate these guidelines, the other will use the word “contract” as a reminder of their agreement.

With these guidelines in place, we tackled how their families would re-integrate into each other’s lives. We identified upcoming events and holidays when the family will gather. We explored whether the sisters would like to get together for coffees, lunches, or other activities, so that both were clear about the parameters of the relationship.

After we worked out the details, the sisters decided that they would like to bring their families together to meet within the week. “We, our husbands, and her son and daughter-in-law spent several very nice hours together this last Saturday,” Beth excitedly wrote to me after they saw each other socially.

“I felt free to just enjoy my sister’s company,” Sarah emailed me. After the get-together, she said she felt like the sisters have a clean slate already. “I instantly felt the connection that I thought had been lost forever. And the contract, where certain topics are off-limits, was like having guardrails to keep us from going down dead-end roads.”

What it takes

Research shows that the key to any reconciliation is two willing parties who will sit down together and listen to each other’s needs. Clearly, this method will not work for deeply entrenched cutoffs in which one person feels that he or she has been chronically hurt or injured. Some relationships are simply too toxic to reconcile.

Mediation can be particularly helpful in addressing end-of-life disputes, which can become extremely acrimonious. Indeed, a new professional field of “elder mediators” has emerged to help families resolve issues such as caregiving, inheritance, living arrangements, and estate planning. A good mediator also can refer families to other professionals, such as an attorney skilled in estate planning, or a geriatric care manager who can offer guidance on how to care for an elder parent.

Many reconciliations fail because the same patterns of communication that originally caused the estrangement reemerge during reconciliation. Change is difficult; few people have any awareness that what they did contributed to sibling tensions, and even fewer want to admit they were wrong — to apologize sincerely and to take responsibility for all the hurts and lost years.

That’s where this method can offer hope. Terms of Engagement do not address confrontations; they are not intended to change each other’s minds. The terms simply facilitate a conversational discussion that examines possibilities for the future.

“I love that the contract we created prevents us from talking about trigger topics,” Beth said. “It is the most welcome form of amnesia, just letting go of old grudges, what a gift!

"I suffered long and hard from the estrangement. It is an incredible relief to be free of the hurt and anger, but most especially it is wonderful to have my sister back!”


Hicks, Donna, Dignity (New York: Yale University Press, 2011)

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