• Mending a broken relationship is not easy. (Getty Images/ JGI/Jamie Grill)
After not talking to your family for months, or even years, how do you even begin to reconnect with the people who hurt you so deeply?
By
Alana Schetzer

14 Aug 2017 - 4:15 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2017 - 12:58 PM

Blood is meant to be thicker than water, but for people who are estranged from their family, that’s rarely the case. No individual is perfect and neither is anyone’s family unit. Family estrangements occur frequently, across all cultures and religions for a multitude of complex reasons. 

A research project between the UK’s University of Cambridge and charity, Stand Alone, shows that estrangements from fathers are the most common and tend to last an average of almost eight years. This is longer than estrangements between brothers, which lasts 7.7 years, sisters averaging around 7.4 years and from mothers at 5.5 years. 

Social worker and University of Newcastle lecturer, Dr Kylie Agllias – an expert in family estrangements – explains that relatives could squabble over inheritances, a blood relation’s choice of partner, addiction, illness and divorce. And let’s not forget that family members may just have conflicting personalities and not get along.

But what happens years after the fight, after time has passed, tempers have calmed down and bonds are missed?

Although it is totally normal to consider reestablishing severed family ties after some time has passed, it’s important to consider: how can you be sure it is a good idea to reopen old wounds?

To reconnect or to stay estranged?

Stand Alone data shows that it is common for people to want reconnect after an estrangement to gain greater acceptance and respect from the person they fought with. They might also be seeking an acknowledgement that their relative caused hurtful behaviour. 

Although it is totally normal to consider reestablishing severed family ties after some time has passed, it’s important to consider: how can you be sure it is a good idea to reopen old wounds?

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Dr Agllias encourages people questioning whether or not they should reconnect to look past the happy family stereotype where everyone gets along, and actually consider their individual situation because the fact is some families never reconcile.

“Society seems to adhere to the idea that families must be reunited, and that this is an easy process,” she says. “There are situations where estrangement may be the best arrangement for health and wellbeing.”

Data from the Stand Alone project reveals that 80 per cent of people felt that they felt better after a family break-up and felt positive emotions like a greater sense of freedom and independence. Their research also showed that the majority of respondents felt that they could never have a functional relationship with the family they were estranged from again. 

“There are situations where estrangement may be the best arrangement for health and wellbeing."

Perth counsellor and psychotherapist, Adele Wilde, reminds us on her blog that the idea of trying to reconnect can be scary and “overwhelming”.

“Fear is a major hurdle for estranged people; fear presents as reluctance, anger, shame, avoidance, confused and uncertain boundaries, reactivity, defensiveness, running away,” she says.

“Often estranged people have an uneasy relationship with change, change is usually difficult, and therefore resolving estrangement feels out of their control.”

Wilde therefore recommends people thinking of re-establishing contact with separated family members should think carefully about the reasons why the estrangement occurred in the first place.

Fear is a major hurdle for estranged people; fear presents as reluctance, anger, shame, avoidance, confused and uncertain boundaries, reactivity, defensiveness, running away.

"Has anything changed that leads you to think that relations can be better in the future? Did you really 'just make a mistake'? Is forgiveness relevant if the one you separated from is likely to commit the same offences that drove you away in the first place?”

After everything that’s happen you still want to reconnect. So what do you do now?

The new documentary series airing on SBS in September, Look Me In The Eye, explores what happens when real families who are estranged try to reconnect with each other. The method of re-connection in this case is direct eye contact, based on neuroscience research findings that show direct eye contact can help people to communicate in difficult circumstances. 

Dr Agllias encourages those who want to reconnect with family do so if they have thought through the possible outcomes, have emotional support and need healing to ease the stress, tension and pain caused by the family separation. 

Often estranged people have an uneasy relationship with change, change is usually difficult, and therefore resolving estrangement feels out of their control.

“I believe that estrangement gives both parties an important space to re-evaluate and to start to re-examine the other person's perceptions of hurt and betrayal,” explains Dr Agllias. “Self-understanding and ownership of one's actions are core to reunification, but this is not always possible for both sides of the estrangement.” 

For those who do want to reach out, experts recommend the following approach:

  • Reach out to the person/family. Chances are multiple attempts will be necessary.
  • Communicate clearly. Acknowledge the issue that is unresolved and discuss if there has been any change in everyone’s position.
  • Consider family counselling, especially if thorny and unresolved issues remain.
  • Acknowledge that it will take time and effort to rebuild trust and respect.
  • Stand Alone has provided a guide for people seeking support after a family split.  

American physiologist Susanne Babbel also recommends seeking out a counsellor to sort through the issues that led to the estrangement, to “deal with the grief, heal and educate yourself”.

If you need help, or this story has raised issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or visit Relationships Australia


The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, continues on Wednesdays on SBS at 8.30pm. Each episode will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast. 

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