Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to a Relative You’re Estranged From

Each interaction is part of a bigger process of acceptance

Illustration: Heeje Min Heo

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

MyMy relationship with my mother was traumatic and dysfunctional and, I’m convinced, nearly killed me. When I finally cut her off, three years before she died, my life improved dramatically.

But any estrangement has its collateral damage — and in my case, going no-contact with my mother meant giving up the rest of my family, too. My father and I had been close when I was growing up, but as things with my mother deteriorated, he made it clear he would always take her side. My sister also distanced herself: I wanted her to see that I wasn’t the villain of the story, that our mother had done some terrible things, that I had legitimate grievances and feelings. She, understandably, just didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire.

When my mother died, it was a new chapter for the three of us — my father, my sister, and me. Together, we had to figure out how to move forward, a process that turned out to be a lot rockier than I’d anticipated. Eventually, though, it did happen. We rebuilt our relationships, this time on our own terms. And along the way, I learned four crucial lessons.

Be prepared to start slowly

Once my mother died, I wanted to jump right back into a relationship with my dad. Sure, there were things we needed to work through, but once upon a time, we’d been simpatico, and I missed him. I reached out with an email. I was ready to start over, I said.

He wasn’t.

Returning my email, he said he was in therapy, and working on figuring out if he even wanted me in his life. “You can’t just wave your hand and forget 25 years of things that happened,” he wrote.

I was crushed. And angry. And shocked that he thought I was the one who’d wronged him, rather than the one who’d been wronged.

But I held all of that in. I told him I understood his feelings, though that was more aspirational than true — I wanted to understand. And I wanted a chance to finally tell my father my side of the story.

For months, we emailed every week — short, superficial notes. He told me he’d joined a grief group; I described the class I was teaching. These emails were placeholders for the real conversations we weren’t having, but over time, they added up to build a sense of trust.

Then, seven months after my mother died, my dad invited me down to Florida. That weekend, thanks in large part to the groundwork we’d laid over so many emails, we reforged a bond that continued until his death seven years later.

If I’d let my impatience and hurt drive my decisions, we never would have gotten there. I had to let the process unfold over time, and remember that I wasn’t in charge.

Listen

Once we did start having more meaningful conversations, a lot of what my father had to say upset me. He said I’d made his life harder, and he still felt resentful. That I had let my problems with my mother get in the way of all of us feeling like a family. Yes, she could be bossy and domineering, but was she really that impossible to deal with?

I felt the angry words rush into my mouth. If you knew what she was like, I wanted to snap, why didn’t you protect me? Why did you abandon me?

Eventually, I did say those things. But first, I took a breath and listened to my father with as much empathy as I could. I told him, again, that I understood his feelings, in the hope that saying it enough would make it true. Then and only then did I say my piece.

Fred Luskin, who directs the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, calls this listening with an open heart. “You can practice responding out of kindness rather than anger,” he told me. It’s an exercise in patience: In the moment, you might want nothing more than to unleash all the hurt you’ve been holding onto, but over the long term, the emotional payoff is much greater if you try to filter it all through a sense of empathy first.

My father and I didn’t resolve anything, of course. The point was to reconnect, not relitigate our history. We were never going to see the past in the same way. But to reconnect, we had to be able to hear each other, literally and figuratively. I think we did okay.

Respect boundaries

Estrangement is all about setting boundaries. They keep you safe in a situation that feels threatening. After an estrangement ends, those boundaries shift, but they don’t disappear.

While our mother was alive, my sister and I avoided discussing her. As we were reestablishing our relationship after her death, we had a few heated arguments about our family history before I learned to say, “We’ll never agree on that, and that’s okay.”

And it really is. We don’t need to talk about our mother. I work through my mother issues with other people, like my therapist.

With my father, the boundaries evolved differently. He and my mother were married for 57 years, and I tried to figure out a balance of honoring that without erasing my own experiences, especially after he had a stroke and I became his caregiver. With him, I said things like, “Dad, today’s your anniversary. I bet you’re thinking about Mom and missing her.”

I realized acknowledging the bonds of my parents’ relationship didn’t hurt me, and it was a kindness for my father. I wouldn’t say things that I didn’t believe, like, “Mom was such a kind person!” But he loved her, and in caring for him and spending time with him, I sometimes had to address that part of his life.

Accept complexity

I’m grateful I was able to reconnect with my father, but it took me a while to fully understand what that meant. I had to accept that he was the father I had, and that I couldn’t change him or our history. In some ways, he was a terrible parent to me; he repeatedly threw me under the bus in conflicts with my mother, and he never defended or supported me. He consistently put his own comfort and needs first. I had to accept the fact that I didn’t respect a lot of his choices, yet I also loved him. He did the best he could, given who he was.

That cognitive dissonance was the most challenging part of our relationship. How could I love a father I didn’t really respect? I’ll be grappling with that one for the rest of my life. But that’s all part of being a grown-up.

Science writer and storyteller. I wrote Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, Body of Truth, and Brave Girl Eating. I teach Magazineland @NewhouseSU.

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