Over the holidays, many people cherish the time spent with friends and family. For some families, however, the seasonal spirited get-togethers can be a stressful reminder about a rift if there’s a noticeably absent family member at the festivities. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Dr. Cara Barker. The holidays can be a great time to reconnect with estranged relatives — and to make amends. Here’s how.
Q: What are some of the most common reasons family members become estranged?
A: On the surface level, whenever two people decide it’s more important to be “right” than happy, expect heated conflict. Beneath this, however, lives fear. While it might not be verbalized, or even identified, as human beings we have learned to link love with fear and disappointment. Underneath all pain is this: Whenever we turn away from our heart, our most authentic self, we disconnect from all that unifies. Estrangement comes when we abandon the very truth of our spirit and our capacity to love without conditions or expectations.
Q: Are the holidays a particularly good time to reconnect with estranged family members?
A: It all depends on intention. When it becomes more important to build a bridge than burn one, it’s time to reconnect. If it’s more important to dwell on who’s right and who’s wrong, not so much. If both parties can agree to lay down the burden of estrangement, at least for the holidays, reconnection is possible. If the estranged are willing to be content with baby steps, it can work. But, if each party wishes to keep the war going, why would you want this in the middle of your holiday? Why? The holidays are a time of gratitude, summing up, celebration and of expressing love. If this cannot be done by a softening of the heart, reconnecting with the estranged can become too toxic.
Q: What are the signs that a reconciliation is possible (versus a relationship that should be left in the past)?
A: Signs of a possible reconciliation are subtle. Basically, has there been any form of outreach? Has there been a recent death in the family or a change in health condition, which brings home the message that “we haven’t got forever” to patch up the mess? Has there been a recent birth or wedding, any sign of a new beginning that can signal time for a stepping stone to come back home?
Have the estranged become brave enough to seek professional help and begun taking responsibility for the hurt they have caused and experienced? Is there agreement that it’s time to wake up, get over ourselves and grow forward through the conflict? Has anyone decided to wave the white flag and surrender the past in order to move forward? Without an intention for reconciliation, I’m afraid the immediate future looks bleak.
Q: What’s your advice for anyone who wants to reconnect with someone?
A: If you want reconciliation, begin with forgiving yourself for your part in the estrangement. Own your part, but stop beating yourself up for lost time. Likewise for the person from whom you are estranged. Know that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness is all about finding freedom to express your love, your truth, your spirit in ways that liberate you to be all that you can be.
Q: Can you offer some tips on how to go about reconnecting?
A: 1. Ask yourself what’s really important to your heart. At the end of the day, how do you wish to be known? Are you big enough to go first?
2. Write out, for your eyes only, the price you’ve paid for holding onto this unfinished business. Then, describe the price tag on your relationship. Note what you each have missed out on in the estrangement.
3. Describe the kind of future you’d like to create — beginning now. Include the details.
4. Lower the gold bar. Begin slowly, with baby steps. Let go of your own need to be right and see the bigger picture. The other might not be ready. Let them know (I would suggest in a handwritten note, not via email or social network) that you’d love to build a bridge, know the past has been difficult and painful and wish to begin anew. Let them know that you understand and accept they may be in another place and, if so, you honor this. Ask them to forgive any hurt you have caused. Describe the sort of peace and joy you’d like to create with them. Let them know the door is open. Let them know your intention is not to push, but to invite. There’s no clock on the offer.
5. Breathe in and out. Give yourself a high-five.
6. Know that reconciliation has nothing to do with anyone other than yourself. What paves the way is turning your heart over to something bigger than yourself, beginning with being kind to yourself.
7. Regardless of the outcome, know that family is much bigger than any one person. Expand your circle of chosen family. You will be glad you did.