Becoming estranged from a relative is a sad and difficult decision, one that is usually made with grave consideration and based on the belief that the emotional cost of continuing contact is simply too great to bear. Most of us wish we there was another choice we could make, especially when the family members are our own parents.
Yet, there are probably far more of us in this situation than people realize. We tend not to talk about our estrangements much. Naturally, we hope to avoid the general awkwardness and potential judgment of others. Perhaps there is a dark side to our families that we would prefer to keep private.
This painful state of affairs is often made worse when, out of the blue, an estranged family member sends a messenger to try and change our minds. These messengers may be truly well-intentioned. They might feel the need to defend the relative after hearing their side of the story. Sadly, they are sometimes nosy and judgmental. Their attitude and approach matters, of course, but reaching out on another’s behalf this way is generally a risky move.
If you are one of these messengers, if you feel the desire to try and help mend a family estrangement, there are factors I would ask you to please consider on behalf of the “estrangers”.
I realize you probably have good intentions and don’t like to see people feeling lonely or rejected. You might think it’s a good idea to share your unsolicited thoughts because you believe your point of view is valuable. You figure there’s a good chance that once we hear your reasons and the stories of your own relationship losses, we will see things differently, realize that we are hurting our relatives, and see things from their point-of-view. We might finally decide to forgive, forget, and work things out with this person. Then everyone will be better off and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you helped make the family whole again. I am going to assume, for now, that your motives are pure and not self-serving. In which case, I appreciate that you care.
However, messenger, there are several key factors I ask you to consider.
Please be careful before offering opinions about how others choose to deal with the most tender, painful and traumatic aspects of their lives. Be assured that, like their relatives, the estrangers also feel the depth of this loss and all its effects.
Please consider that you cannot possibly know the full story. When telling their side, it is highly likely there are important elements the relative might have left out, failed to realize, or “forgotten”. This creates a significant gap in your knowledge and ability to understand the situation.
Let me try to help you understand.
For years, I tried every possible way I could to make things work, even just well enough to be bearable, and keep the estranged relative in my life. I explained, argued, beseeched and listened. I cried and pleaded for understanding. I reevaluated our relationship and made an honest effort to accept aspects that would clearly never change. I appreciated the good in my relative and tried to overlook the bad. I settled for barely tolerable.
Eventually, I grasped that this relative would never stop acting in ways that hurt me on the deepest level. Even though I stipulate that people are complicated and this person is not unworthy of love or forgiveness, there is only so much devastating behavior a person can and should endure. At some point, it was clear that in order to be loved by this person, I would have to sacrifice my own emotional well-being. And you need to know this, messenger: I will never make that trade.
In the aftermath of this turmoil and while I was still grieving the loss of my relative, several of their confidants reached out to me and offered their opinions. They told me how sad my relative felt, how they had lost family members through death and missed them dearly, how important it is to forgive and release myself from holding onto a grudge. Because they had no idea what I had been through or how long and hard I had tried, their words only made me feel more misunderstood and alone.
Please consider the danger in believing that the estranger can be enlightened somehow by your point of view or the life experiences you wish to share. In fact, you would be wise to consider the possibility that we are not un-enlightened after all, that we have addressed this situation far more thoroughly than you realize, that our hearts are also sore and grieving, and that we alone understand what we have been through, what we are up against, and what is best for us. Do not assume that the choice of estrangement is without empathy or forgiveness.
While I appreciate that you care enough to consider taking action to ease our suffering, there is a good chance that your interference will do more harm than good. We make our choices with conscious intention and we deserve respect and benefit of the doubt. For we have come to realize that it is far better to lose a destructive relationship than to stay in it and lose ourselves.