If you’re not estranged from a family member, the odds are decent that you know someone who is. Robust data is hard to come by, but according to one estimate, as many as 12 percent of mothers are estranged from at least one of their children, with the number even higher for fathers. A 2015 study published in The Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science called familial estrangements “widespread,” noting that it’s “perhaps nearly as common as divorce in some segments of society.”

While the numbers may still be fuzzy, these kinds of familial disruptions can be devastating for anyone who experiences them. Estrangements can come with intense feelings of loss, distressing perceptions of stigma, and overall lower levels of psychological well-being, whether you’re the one who initiated a step back or the one who’s reeling from a relative’s decision to sever your relationship. While there’s no way to totally erase the hurt you may feel, you can make the situation a little easier on yourself and hopefully achieve the outcome you’re looking for.


If You’re Looking to Keep Communication Open…

You can allow the other person space while still making it clear that things can change down the road.

Give each other space

Becca Bland, chief executive of Stand Alone, a UK-based charity that supports adults who are estranged from their families, knows that people can feel tremendous pressure to reconcile, often before they’re ready to do so. Until everyone involved is able to take healthy steps toward resolution, it’s best to gently assert your need for distance. Don’t feel guilty for taking the time you need to work through your pain.

And when someone else is setting those boundaries, it’s crucial to the future of your relationship that you respect them. Someone who has been cut off “may continue to send messages, cards and presents, or criticism when they know they are unwanted,” Bland says, but “research suggests this is more harmful than helpful if the other person has asked for time and space.”

Let them know you’re open to reconciliation in the future

You can allow the other person space while still making it clear that things can change down the road. Tina Gilbertson, a psychotherapist who specializes in estrangements, suggests letting the estranged person know you’re available to them at any time. She also says to tell them you’re sorry things are in the state they’re in right now but you still love them, you will continue to love them, and you’re available to resume a relationship when they’re ready. Once you’ve made all those things clear, your next step is just to give them time, pressure-free, to get there.


If You’re Looking to Heal the Rift…

“The minute you say, ‘No, I never said that,’ or ‘That’s not how I was,’ the communication starts to shut down.”

Meet in person, if possible

It may feel less uncomfortable to dash off an email or a text expressing a desire to mend things, but Gilbertson says that would be a mistake. According to her, face to face is the best way to communicate, with phone coming in at second best. Written communication should be a last resort.

“Writing is a terrible way to try to repair relationships,” she says, given that misunderstandings are so common. “It’s just so easy for someone to read your thoughtful words quickly, and with a tone that they attribute to them,” which may be different than the one you intended. If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, she recommends leaving a voice mail so your estranged loved one can hear your tone and sincerity.

Be precise

Let them know what they can expect when you get together. “If you just reach out and say, ‘I think we need to talk. Can we FaceTime?’ and leave it at that, it’s usually not effective,” Gilbertson said. “But if you say, ‘I need to apologize to you. I hate what’s going on between us and I feel like it’s my fault. Can we FaceTime on Saturday at 4:00 p.m.?’” that clarity makes your proposal seem less daunting, and tends to yield better results.

Apologize

Even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, asking for forgiveness can go a long way in mending things. Gilbertson recommends thinking about an apology as an important tool for relationship repair rather than an admission of guilt.

It’s also crucial not to get defensive during your conversations. “The minute you say, ‘No, I never said that,’ or ‘That’s not how I was,’ or ‘I would never do do that,’ the communication starts to shut down,” Gilbertson says. The only thing bickering accomplishes is creating more ill will.

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and the author of several books on familial conflict, says it can be helpful to remember that family members can experience separate realities. He suggests calmly stating that you’re entitled to your own perception about the events that transpired. “It may pacify the situation to reiterate that there is no objective right and wrong about what happened,” he says, “but we are all entitled to our own feelings.”

Think about what moving forward looks like

“If you do feel reconciliation is what you want, taking a good amount of time to process what you need from a reformed relationship can be necessary,” Bland says. Think about the role each of you played in the situation that caused the estrangement, and consider not only how you intend to change your behavior moving forward, but also what you’d need from your loved one.


If You’re Looking to Maintain Distance Permanently…

Remember that not being close with your family doesn’t reflect on your capacity to love.

Maintain silence

In the long run, sending mixed messages is worse than cutting off contact entirely. “If you sometimes respond or sometimes reach out, you’re not maintaining distance,” Gilbertson says. “Silence is the ultimate distance.” Block on social media, delete their phone numbers — do what you have to do to maintain that boundary.

Be honest

Prepare concise answers about your family situation so that if people ask, you aren’t caught off guard: “I have a sister, but we don’t speak much.” Or, “I’m not close with my mother. I’m celebrating the holidays with my in-laws.” You don’t need to get into details if you don’t want to; in fact, having your response ready saves you from feeling like you need to get into a full explanation. Talking about the situation is unavoidable, but Gilbertson likens the scenario to dealing with chronic pain: Eventually, you learn to live with the constant throb.

Seek support

It’s important to pay attention to your mental health, and Bland suggests seeking the support of a non-judgmental professional, like a licensed therapist or counselor, who can help you navigate the pain and grief. There are therapists who specialize in the unique issues that arise in an estrangement; if one-on-one sessions aren’t logistically or financially feasible, there are also online support groups. Beyond that, therapy, meditation, journaling, and exercising are all healthy ways to reduce stress and work through any turbulent emotions.

And finally, allow yourself to lean on your friends and other loved ones as you grieve, and remember that not being close with your family doesn’t reflect on your capacity to love. Creating your own family may not replace a relationship with a key family member, but it can go a long way toward giving you the support, comfort, and safety you need.