Just as Laura Davis describes in her book I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation, I have seen positive outcomes when working with adult children of abusers who have been able to regain closeness with their previously abusive relatives. In these cases, they have been able to resolve their history with their abuser and heal. In the most successful cases, a new perception, a new level of expectation, and setting ground rules have all helped to re-establish healthy relationships.
However, most of the time when my clients have attempted to talk about their abuse with the abuser, the abuser has denied their actions and the reconciliation failed. Rarely has the abuser recognized or admitted what they did and apologized. Although an apology is not always the golden key to reunification, without one it is nearly impossible for two people to come back together.
As a person who has voluntarily estranged yourself from another, you might still feel a loss — sometimes as if the person has actually died. An abuser often has different faces that not everyone will see. Therefore, when one decides to estrange from their abuser, others might not understand or be supportive, which often causes further estrangement from relatives and community.
For the person who has been estranged from another, this dynamic can be just as challenging.
If you have been involuntarily estranged from another, your best coping mechanism is to try to understand that the person doing the distancing is making this decision in order to “let go of what they cannot change” or cope with. This might cause you, as the estranged person, to feel angry, hurt, or at the very least, confused — but it’s important for you to remember that you cannot change another person’s feelings or triggers.
If you are a person who has experienced estrangement at the hands of another, consider whether you need to take a look at your own potential for abuse or addiction. But if you truly believe you are healthy, then your only recourse is to allow the other person to proceed in the way they feel is appropriate — even if you do not agree or understand. Can you love without being loved back or without having contact? You can try to make amends, but if that does not work you must simply live your own life, even if it seems hard, painful, and empty.
Whether the estranger or the estranged, forgiveness is the first step to freeing ourselves from the emotional prison of the past.
It can feel counterintuitive —especially to victims of abuse — and sometimes unsafe, to consider forgiving someone who has caused us great harm. We feel that holding on to our resentment and hatred keeps us protected from future abuse. We are afraid that if we let it go, and soften into forgiveness, that we’ll open ourselves up to becoming victims once again.
The first step to forgiveness happens inside your own heart, and does not require any re-connection with the person who hurt you. That reconnection may (but doesn’t have to) come later. Laura Davis draws a line between forgiveness and reconciliation and explains that it is possible to forgive a person without forgiving their previous actions. Fred Luskin, author of Forgive For Good, who launched the Stanford Forgiveness Project, adds that forgiving has medical as well as emotional benefits. Consider seeking therapy to deal with the grief and heal, educate yourself, and seek out support groups.
And if you decide to take the step of estranging yourself from someone, or if you have been estranged from someone else, consider whether you might need to take a look at your own underlying issues within the help of a psychotherapist.