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Fighting with family members can add major stress to your life but, sometimes even if you want to mend the relationship, you don’t know where to start. It can be especially tough if you have not been in touch with that relative for some time.
The Real Housewives of Orange County's Kelly Dodd recently spoke with her brother J.R. about why she stopped speaking to their mom, and little brother Eric, for two years. (See for yourself in the clip above.)
On a similar note, Don't Be Tardy's Kim Zolciak-Biermann reconnected with her brother after being estranged for 17(!) years. If she can rekindle a relationship after almost two decades of no contact, there’s hope for the rest of us (and Caroline and Dina)!
Since we know they're not the only ones who've faced — or still face — this situation, Personal Space reached out for tips to consider before attempting to reconnect with estranged relatives.
Maya Dougherty, a Honolulu-based counselor (who regularly helps people strengthen their communication skills and improve confidence), explains that a strained relationship is almost never repaired overnight or with one apology. “Both parties will have to put in intentional, ongoing effort to restore the relationship to its prior state. ... It may take multiple attempts before you are successful in getting through to them.“
Dougherty suggests "a letter is a great way to initiate contact. It allows you to be intentional and clear about what you want to communicate.” In a letter you can relay exactly how you feel without sounding too rehearsed or flustered, which can happen if you try to interact over over the phone. It also prevents the other person from interrupting your train of thought or trying to start an argument.
Dougherty also advises to put the letter aside when you are finished, and revisit it a few days later to revise it. That gives you time to cool off if it got too heated or emotional, and gives you time to reconsider your words before they are sent. “You may also want to get a second opinion from someone you trust who can review what you have written to make sure there isn't an underlying hostile tone.”
This holds true whether you are the person who severed the relationship, or the one cut off. In either case, if you want to make the first move, you should not provoke a blame game, which may alienate them further. If you are the person who initiated the rift, whether intentionally or accidentally, an apology is key.
“If you want to reconnect, reflect on what led to the estrangement and on your motivations for reaching out,” Dougherty explains. Then, focus on what you want moving forward and use that to guide your actions and words. “Always try to focus on the positives and avoid accusatory statements that may make someone defensive … a good way to open up is by starting with what you miss about that person, when you think of them, and why you want them back in your life.” A letter thus “serves to open the conversation and invite the possibility of a face-to-face meeting.”
The meeting is the next step. If you live near the person, Dougherty suggests going to coffee or lunch. “A first meeting is best in a public place with just the two of you.” Of course, distance can complicate and delay a potential reconciliation meeting. Therefore, she encourages talking on the phone with that person several times before making a big trip to meet. “The prospect of a meeting is likely to cause anxiety and fear in the estranged individuals, so phone calls can help ease some of the stress.”
If travel is necessary for a meeting, “it may be beneficial to meet somewhere neutral, where both family members have to travel.” That way neither one of you is likely to feel like you were the one who had to go out of the way for the other. If you are both traveling to a neutral location, you both have an investment in making the trip a worthwhile experience.
Dougherty says many people are often harder on their family members than on their friends. “We don't choose our family like we do our friends, therefore we will likely not always see eye to eye with them.” The best way to maintain a friendly relationship is to be tactful and avoid trigger topics with family members you have difficulty getting along with. If certain conversations such as religious beliefs or political affiliations or old family dramas cause tension, sometimes it is best to just agree to disagree and not try to change the other person’s mind. That will help keep the relationship open and honest.
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