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Fractured Families: Forgiveness and Healing

September 21, 2020 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Family rifts are extremely painful. Reconciling is a real possibility.

“Five years ago, my husband and I were completely cut off from our daughter, and nothing we do has made any difference in getting back together with her. When we meet people it’s devastating to tell the truth. The big thing that I would recommend is that estranged people should not feel they are isolated in corners, because it’s not just happening to them. It’s letting the news out that you are not alone. This is happening in many families, and when someone hears our story, they may then say, 'We have it too.'”- Skye Ferraro.” (Dr. Karl Pillemer, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, p. 19)

In his recent book, “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” family sociologist Karl Pillemer interviewed hundreds of families like the one above and conducted a national survey asking participants: “Is there a relative with whom you have no contact?” Twenty-seven percent of the participants answered that they were estranged from at least one family member, and half of them had been estranged for four years or more. This led Dr. Pillemer to conduct an extensive study of hundreds of estranged children, parents, siblings and other relatives as well as those who had found a way to reconcile with their families. He estimates, based on the results of his study, that at least 55 million Americans have at least one estrangement in their families.

Dr. Pillemer discovered that there were several common pathways that led to these estrangements. The first was a challenging childhood situation: feeling unloved, misunderstood or feeling as if another sibling was favored.

Secondly, divorce distanced parents and children regardless of what point in the life cycle it occurred, and though children often became more distant from fathers, divorce disrupted the connections to both parents.

One of the most common reasons for estrangement was also the difficult in-law; in many cases, relatives became estranged when they disliked or didn’t approve of someone’s choice of spouse. There was also the all too common arguments over money and resentment over how inheritances were divided.

Another cause of rifts in the family were unmet expectations of one’s siblings, such as when one sibling ends up taking on all or most of the caregiving responsibilities for aging parents. And lastly, there were political and religious differences that split families apart, such as when a child made certain life choices that differed significantly from his parents’ values.

Regardless of the reason for the estrangement, these family rifts had many crucial similarities. One is that people often viewed the past through very different lenses and therefore almost always had a hard time agreeing on what happened or why. Dr. Pillemer emphasizes that this is why it is unrealistic to expect a sibling or a parent to share your story of past events. And all estrangements were, in all cases, extremely painful; most people who suffered from a family rift experienced it as isolating, shameful and guilt-inducing.

After collecting data on estrangements, Dr. Pillemer went on to study “the reconcilers.” “Unwilling to dwell in the limbo of estrangement, they pushed ahead with restoring the relationship. The reconcilers were not in situations that were easy to resolve. Instead their estrangements were as intractable and hopeless as those of others who never reconcile. They struggled with the same issues: harsh parenting, histories of conflicts, poor communication, legacies of mental illness or addiction, and bitter fights over inheritance, the care of parents, or the choice of a partner.” (Dr. Pillemer,, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, p.100)

None of the reconcilers regretted reconciling, whether they were the ones who created the rift or were on the receiving end. And they were all still successfully back in touch with their estranged family members. Many of them regarded the healing of their family rift as the most important life experience they had ever had. And when Dr. Pillemer asked the reconcilers why they decided to reconcile with their families and why they are glad that they made the attempt, almost all of them said: I did it for myself. The best answer that they had for "Why reconcile?" was: Do it for yourself.

“Don’t do what I did and wait ten years to heal your relationship… you just don’t know when someone’s time is up on this earth.”

These reconcilers also chose to accept that their family would never see the past in the same way that they did. They didn’t forget what had happened, but they chose to let go of past resentments. In almost every case of reconciliation that Dr. Pillemer studied, people were also willing to radically change their expectations for the relationships. Even when they couldn’t become as close as they wanted to be with their families, they felt that having back any connection at all was worth their efforts. The reconcilers felt like their lives could begin again.

“Don’t do what I did and wait ten years to heal your relationship. I say that because you just don’t know when someone’s time is up on this earth. You could wait too long and it would be too late. You don’t want to have that weight and guilt on you for the rest of your life. But you do need to be able to have yourself at a place where you’re ready to hold this conversation. So my advice is to get some help, go through whatever steps you need. Then go ahead and hold that conversation to start your life again, because the rift needs to be stopped before life can start again… When you are successful at reconciling, it’s almost like a rebirth. It’s an awakening, and you become this new person, this energized, strong person, and you can take on the world. If you could take this on, and you reconcile, you can take on the world- Martina Moore.” (Dr. Pillemer, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, p.99)

Soon it will be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and we will have an opportunity to ask for forgiveness from God and from each other. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the ten days of repentance, are also a unique time in the year not only for us to ask for forgiveness but also for us to let go of past resentments and forgive those who have hurt us in any way. As Yom Kippur approaches it is a special time to repair estranged relationships and start anew.

Before we ask forgiveness from our Creator, we have the chance to forgive and be forgiven. It is often harder to forgive those we are closest to. But we have now the gift of Yom Kippur; it is both a sacred and an opportune time to heal ourselves and our families.


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