This month, our advice columnist answers a question about reconnecting after estrangement.
Q: How to know if/when you're ready to reconnect or if you just have cognitive distortions still affecting you; telling you to prioritize others and ignore your sense of safety?
A: Hello, anonymous friend!
Thank you so much for your wonderful question. This is a topic I — and so many of us in our estranged community — think about often, and in great depth.
I would consider it one of the two most fundamental questions of estrangement: Do I leave? Do I return?
Particularly in the early days of my own estrangement, I remember fixating on the idea of return. Will I ever want to go back? Will I ever be ready? If I am ready, how will I know?
It didn’t help that I felt bombarded by people telling me ‘you should go back, right now — in fact, you must.’
And the more I pushed back on that — must I, really? Even if I’d suffer? Even if I wouldn’t feel safe? Even if I’d lose this precious, fragile start to a new life I’d only barely begun to build? — the more I wondered if I was standing up for myself and my boundaries, or just being stubborn and digging my heels in.
Under those circumstances, I decided to take a scientific approach: I would form a theory, come up with a way to test it, and base my actions on my conclusions.
My theory was that, at that point in time, I was better off remaining estranged and not reconnecting with my family of origin.
To test it, I came up with this thought experiment, that I’d like to share with you now:
Imagine, one day, the person/people you’re estranged from just forgot about you. Your memories of your own past are complete and intact but, from their perspective, your lives simply never intersected.
Every role you once played in their lives has been erased or replaced. Anything they were depending on you to do, or might have depended on you doing in the future, is being taken care of by somebody else, who is perfectly able and happy to take on that responsibility.
None of your other relationships are affected by this change — no one else has forgotten you. People who once knew you in the context of your estranged person/people simply don’t think of you in that context anymore.
If you met your estranged person/people on the street, you’d be a stranger to them.
Holding that image in your mind, start with these questions:
What’s your first reaction to this scenario? How does it feel to consider that world for a little while longer? What thoughts, concerns or questions come up for you? How do you think you would feel, knowing you could walk past them on the street unnoticed and unrecognized?
Then, consider these questions:
In this scenario, do you feel like anything is missing from your life? Was there any sort of closure you might have wanted, that you can’t get if they don’t remember you? Was there any type of relationship you might have wanted to build, that is now out of reach because it depended on your shared past? Is there any way you would want to recognize or mark your past relationship to them, for your sake alone now that you’re the only one who remembers it?
There are no right or wrong answers. Your answers might even change over time — some of mine certainly did! — and that’s all right, too. This is all about finding some clarity about what you truly want (and what you want to do) right now.
The important thing is, by taking the other people involved out of the equation for the moment, you can create some space around that part of your mind that’s telling you to prioritize others, even (potentially) at your own expense, while you decide whether or how you want to reconnect (and, if so, to what extent).
Once you’ve taken some time to think about your own answers to this thought experiment, I want to offer you a couple points of comparison — my own thoughts and reactions, as I considered these questions under two different circumstances.
The first time I did this thought experiment, I had my family of origin in mind. And what I felt, more than anything else, was an overwhelming sense of relief. The notion of living in a world where they didn’t remember me, and no one else remembered my association to them, felt profoundly freeing. I felt grief, too, and loss, but those were so much smaller than the rest of what I felt — and in this thought-experiment world, I could allow myself to explore the full depth of those emotions without guilt, shame or obligation. I could remember — even honor — the positive parts of the relationship, while knowing I could never (in this experiment) go back, and feeling deeply at peace with that. There was nothing left unsaid that I regretted not saying. There was nothing I wanted from my family of origin that I felt this experiment had cheated me of. The idea that my estranged relatives could be safe, cared for and content, and would never think about me again, felt like a gift.
A few years later, I revisited these questions with my new, chosen family in mind. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave them — very much not! — but I wanted to see how my answers and reactions had changed when I considered a loving, treasured relationship. Not a perfect relationship, of course; we all have moments where we drive each other crazy, step on each other’s toes, misspeak and misinterpret, or fail to be our best selves to one another. But this is a relationship full of so much more good than I had ever before known was possible.
And when I thought about being forgotten by my chosen family, I didn’t feel relief at all — I felt grief. There was comfort in the idea that I knew they’d be okay, and that they wouldn’t miss me … but I would miss them terribly. I would wish they could remember me again, even for just one more moment — one more hug; one more chance to ask for advice; one more walk around the neighborhood pond; one more evening listening to music while doing the dishes together. And then I’d keep wishing for more moments, because one wouldn’t be enough. I would regret that other people didn’t know me in the context of my loved ones — that the world wouldn’t see me as a sibling- and daughter-by-choice anymore. I’d be grateful, forever, for the years I got to have with my chosen family and who I’ve become because of them. But I would also spend forever wishing that we could have had more time.
Your answers to these questions will probably be different from mine — in both cases — because estrangements are as varied and diverse as the people living them. But I wanted to show the difference between how I felt about a relationship from which I’m happily estranged and have no current intention of returning to, and a relationship that enriches my life every day, in case these points of reference can help you explore your own reactions.
No matter when or whether you choose to reconnect, I wish you all the best in making that decision from a place of strength, clarity and safety.
Hila (any pronouns) is the Advice Columnist for the Together Estranged Newsletter. They have been happily estranged for a number of years, and now live with their chosen family and beloved, silly dog in rural Canada. They have a background in mental health, peer support, writing and journalism. Outside of work, Hila can be found recreating desserts from The Great British Bake Off, running on the beautiful trails near their home, singing show tunes, and learning to knit.
Please Note: The peer to peer Advice Columnist is not a licensed mental health professional; this is not medical advice. If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, please go to your local urgent care center to talk to a professional counselor.
In addition, the views and opinions expressed by Advice Columnists are those of the Advice Columnists and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Together Estranged.