Dear Neil: Our 33 year-old son has no contact with us, but he also doesn’t have contact with his brothers, aunts or uncles, cousins and grandparents. This has been going on for four years now.
Why would he be this rejecting of his parents? Is there anything we can do to change this and bring our son back into the family?
Forlorn in California
Dear Forlorn: I would estimate that at least one in five families have some form of family estrangement occurring. It can and does include parents with (usually) grown children, but just as often it includes cousins, aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters as well. It typically stems from a grievance, a perceived injustice, a perceived violation or the desire for a different identity.
For instance, if I thought Mom and Dad favored you; if more was left for you in Dad’s will than was left for me; if my uncle molested me; if my family is highly religious and has made me feel inferior because I’m not religious; if I associate the people in my family as overly gossipy, too cliquish or with having otherwise undesirable traits; if I feel that my parents ruined my childhood, destroyed my self-esteem, gave me a terrible role-model or behaved outrageously toward me or others—I might decide to leave those relationships—or the identity I associate with that family—and forge a new identity with a new self-image, often with a new family.
In order to attempt to heal your family and hopefully heal your son’s relationship with everyone in the family—there has to be a clearing of the air. It is vital that a family wanting to reconcile listen without attempting to make the estranged family member “wrong.” There must be no anger and reactivity, and no defensiveness. Never accuse him of lying or misrepresenting the facts, regardless of what he says. Adopt the attitude that it is less important who is “right,” since your goal is to reconcile.
Listen compassionately to the angry grievances. Then steer the conversation to what needs to be done from here on out. What does your estranged (translated: wounded) son need in order let go of the past and co-create a new beginning? An apology? You paying for his therapy? Your approval? Expressions of love? An admission that you were too punitive, strict or rigid in your parenting?
Whatever it is, assume it is required over and over again rather than once. If an apology is asked for, you can bet the farm that you may need to apologize not once, but many times before your apology with be trusted and taken to heart. But if you goal is reconciliation with your son, be willing to go the extra mile or hundred miles—in order to heal the relationship.
Dear Neil: I have dated a girl for a year and a half. Coming out of nowhere, she broke up with me because she said she had no more feelings for me. I still love her and want her back. Is there anything I can do to give her back the feeling she once had for me?
Broken Up in Toronto
Dear Broken Up: No. But you could ask her what she would need in order to give the relationship with you one more chance.