Crucial Conversations QA

How to Mend a Relationship That’s Been Broken for Years

Dear Joseph,

My husband and I have not talked to my brother-in-law and his wife for five years. The reasons are insignificant. They live on the first floor, and we live on the ground floor of the same house. I once took a step forward to mend the relationship, but they declined my request. How can I now move on and get them out of my mind?

Signed,
Distant Relatives

Dear Distant,

Please indulge me for a moment. You’re asking about moving on. I want to offer a final possibility for moving in. Apparently, at some point in the past five years, you made a gesture for reconciliation. Once. I wonder what your motives were for doing so. Was it simply that you hated the status quo of mutually assured misery? Could it have been a principled motivation? A desire to be a more forgiving, graceful person? Might it also have been motivated by periodic recollections of happier times? The virtues of your alienated kin and past joys of having them in your life? I admire you for having made that gesture. Once. And I want to take a shot at stoking whatever it was that animated that attempt.

I have come to believe that my capacity for joy in life is a function of my capacity to love imperfect people. And the most aggressive calisthenics of that capacity is practicing vulnerability at times of the most acute emotional risk. For example:

  • Saying “I love you” with no expectation of reciprocity.
  • Offering assistance at a time of crisis to those who have wronged me from a motive of guileless compassion.
  • Expressing a desire to reconnect toward one who might see it as an opportunity to wound me.
  • Fully admitting my errors in willing acceptance of others’ right to forever delay admitting theirs.

A couple of years ago, you did the noble equivalent of joining a gym on January 2. You committed yourself to a profoundly difficult emotional exercise. But feeling sore from the arresting first workout, you stopped going. And you are atrophying as a result. I can’t imagine you can live in such close disconnection to family for so long without a regular rehearsal of the initial injustices. I can’t imagine you could perpetuate this cold agony without regularly shopping for additional evidence to nurse those injustices. I don’t say this to judge—because I’m guessing there is merit to your hurt. There almost always is. I say this to draw attention to what this regimen of resentment is doing to you. To your capacity for joy, connection and vulnerability. Get back on the treadmill!

Before you take the next step away from your in-laws, I would encourage you, for your own sake, to make a few more attempts toward. For example:

  • Small kindnesses. Commit yourself to doing an extra chore, leaving some flowers, leaving a note about a past happy memory, smiling, or making some unexpected accommodation. But if you do, you must do so with no immediate expectation. Do so as an act of intentional vulnerability. If your kin have been rehearsing injustices as long as you have, they will need enormous cumulative evidence of safety before they might be willing to exercise their own vulnerability.
  • Expressions of patient openness. In a tone of tenderness, let them know, “I hate how things are. I am sad at the wasted years. I want you back in my life. And I’m willing to wait until you feel the same.” Then wait. Patiently.
  • Unilateral apology. Write a note of searching self-accountability. Think deeply and empathically about how they experienced the initial offenses, and the subsequent cold war. Take responsibility for everything you did intentionally, and express remorse for all unintended hurts as well. And conclude with, “I have hurts as well, but none of those justify me being a person I don’t respect.” Then surrender any expectation of reciprocity. You need not restore your trust in them if they have not given evidence that you are safe as well. But you can still see them as human beings worthy of civility and kindness while holding boundaries you need.

I recently had lunch with a man whose friendship I lost 20 years ago. In an attempt to figure out what had happened between us, we poked through the cold embers of the complementary injustices we had crafted. As I look back on the conversation, I can see there was merit to both of our stories. But all of those ghostly facts had no hold on me anymore. What mattered were the tears and the embrace. I now have love with that man again. I feel joy even now as I write this to you.

I have a suspicion that if you practice your own vulnerability in the coming months, things will change. And if they don’t, I urge you to move out. Of course, I don’t understand all of the complexities and consequences of you taking that step. But I can’t imagine your peace is worth less than those consequences.

Best Wishes,
Joseph

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