Are You Ready to Reconcile?
Four signs you may be ready to end an estrangement.
Posted Oct 26, 2020
In my studies with hundreds of people who experienced family estrangements (described in a new book), I learned that uncertainty and ambivalence permeate their experience. For many individuals in family rifts, questions nag at them daily (and nightly): “Is it right to live with estrangement?” “What do I risk by trying to reconcile?” “Should I give my relative another chance before it’s too late?”
Although the cut-off sometimes brought immediate relief from conflict and negativity, many of my interviewees longed for a return to the relationship and felt that the rift stood in the way of a life well-lived. People were caught up in the dilemma so well described by The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go now?” Do I stay in this estrangement that is at least stable and a known quantity or do I go forward with a reconciliation attempt that may bring uncertainty but also great rewards?
People, therefore, need to ask themselves directly: Am I ready to reconcile? I spoke to the voices of those who have truly “been there,” individuals who reconciled after years or decades of estrangement. I learned that their family histories were no better and sometimes worse than individuals who chose to remain estranged. However, they are now back in contact with the relative from whom they were cut off. What happened?
Four Signs that You May Be Ready to Reconcile
Psychologists and sociologists have studied extensively the topic of behavior change. Decades of research on this show that when we move toward a major life decision, most of us enter a stage called “contemplation.” In that stage, we recognize the existence of a problem and we start to weigh the pros and cons of making a change. When contemplation leads to a decision to move ahead, we prepare and eventually act.
People who bridged a family rift told me about four “nudges” they experienced when they were considering an approach an estranged relative. If you are in the contemplation stage, be sure to pay attention to these four signs that you may be ready to reconcile:
1. You are experiencing “anticipated regret”
One powerful motivation, I learned, comes from a sense of anticipated regret. Psychologists have established how useful anticipated regret can be. Examining our own regrets and observing those of others helps us to assess what we might regret at a later date and act accordingly. Anticipating possible regret thus can help us make better decisions.
It was with many individuals who decided to reconcile with family members after an estrangement. The inexorable march of aging makes people realize that unless action is taken, it will forever be too late to apologize, ask forgiveness, or even click the “Add Friend” button on Facebook. The first tentative step can be a small, recurring voice murmuring: “Will I be consumed with regret it if I wait until it’s too late to reconcile?”
As one of my respondents put it:
At the end of the day, you know that everyone has a lifespan, and how are you going to feel if you don’t have the chance to have a conversation? I felt it’s a matter of imagining yourself in that situation. If you don’t have the conversation and your estrangement ends with the death of that person, how will you feel? Would you rather have shaken hands? Would you rather have cleared the air? I realized that, yes, I would.
2. The circumstances have changed
Estranged family relationships become frozen in time, due to the end of contact. Because people are cut off, they are aware of how circumstances have changed. In some cases, however, the change is clear, as when a problematic in-law moves out of the picture. One interviewee successfully reconciled with her sister, who had married an angry and controlling man. As long as her sister was tied to him and “under his thumb,” there was no chance for bridging the rift. She told me: “I wanted to do it for a really long time, but when her husband was alive, I didn’t even consider trying. Well, then her husband died. I emailed her, and I told her I was coming up to see her. And without the husband, our relationship just started again, as good as it had been before.” New circumstances can make you ready to reconcile; it is important to become aware of them.
3. You start developing a plan
One sign of being ready to reconcile is finding yourself working out concrete plans. You may imagine alternative ways to reconnect, sometimes in detail. One of my interviewees went through this process before she decided to take action on reconciling with her son. Perhaps you recognize thoughts like these:
Leading up to offering to reconcile, I tried to picture myself in the situation. I asked myself, “Okay, how am I going to feel twenty-four hours after I make the attempt?” Am I going to be ashamed of myself for, say, blubbering into the phone? Am I going to be able to keep myself in check enough that I’m going to be able to make a request to meet me for a coffee? If he’s not receptive, how am I going to feel? What if he says yes—what will my next move be? I had started asking, “What are the pros and cons?” I didn’t want to go in unprepared.
When your vague inclination to reconcile makes way to pondering concrete strategies, you may be ready to reconcile.
4. You get a sign
People who reconciled offer one more piece of advice for knowing when you are ready to reconcile: Look for a sign. No, I’m not being spiritual or mystical here. But when we are feeling ambivalent about making a change, we can become aware of the topic all around us. You may hear a sermon, read a book, find an old letter, attend a retreat where forgiveness is discussed. A surprising number of individuals pointed to a particular moment when they knew it was time to reconcile, and they paid attention to it.
What does a “sign” look like? One respondent was estranged from his brother for 30 years. Then came an unexpected turning point:
We’re not very religious, but we do go to church on Christmas. We went to the morning service, and the preacher gave a sermon. It was all about forgiveness and letting go of things that drive you crazy. It sunk in. Suddenly, I thought, “That’s it. I’m going to call my brother and say, ‘I apologize for being so angry.’” I called him up and I apologized and we had a nice chat. And he admitted to some things and that’s been it. It’s history. We now we get together a few times a year and talk on the phone. The argument that caused all this seems trivial now. It’s kind of a Christmas miracle, isn’t it?
In over five years of intensive research on estrangement, I learned that reconciliation is possible, even after bitter conflicts and many years of separation. My interviewees told me, however, that one needs to be ready to initiate a change. Take the time to consider these four signs of “reconciliation-readiness” as you consider mending a fracture in your own family.
Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.. New York: Avery/Penguin Random House. 2020.