Ask Allison: ‘My husband and I fell out with his family after our wedding 20 years ago and I know he would like to reconnect. How can I help him?’

By | April 1, 2021

The Meghan and Harry interview brought back a lot of painful memories for us. My husband and I fell out with his family — they weren’t royals but they very much acted like it. His mother was very controlling and snobby. I was never good enough for her son and she was so rude to me. We stopped talking after our wedding 20 years ago.

Now I feel sad for my husband, he doesn’t talk to any of his brothers and sisters, or know his nieces and nephews. His father and mother are in their 70s and have never met our two children. I know he would like to get back in touch but he is afraid of rejection and it just all seems too big. How can I help him?

Rejection and regret are two tough feelings to have side by side, underpinned by a strong current of painful memories and potential pain in the future. All you have is this moment to reflect on the past and to see what can be put in motion to create a new future. The other point is to remember what you can control and what you can’t. Acceptance of this can also be immensely difficult.

When trying to repair and rebuild family relationships it is important to remember how complicated family systems are. Even when in the same room and everyone has witnessed the same conversations, the perspectives and personalisation of the experience is unique to everyone. This can lead to many feeling misunderstood and upset. Bearing this in mind, perhaps looking at your own experience and what it brought up for you might be a helpful starting point.

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You felt judged by his mother and it sounds like those comments were hurtful. The feeling of not being good enough is something many will resonate with, but the experience of having those fears said openly can be very destructive. It is impossible to ‘un-hear’, however it can be useful to process those emotions as the narrative held about situations and people can build a heavy burden that you have to carry. It is good to look at the emotional baggage and see if it’s possible to unpack them one at a time.

Have these feelings or emotional wounds been present in any other area or time in your life? Look at times when judgment, not feeling good enough, criticism and conflict have visited your life. How do you tolerate or experience that pain or distress? Writing out these experiences could be very therapeutic for you.

Who made the decision to cut family ties? How did it come to pass? What happened at the wedding? Was it a build up or was there one final straw? At this point, perhaps this is a conversation to be explored with your husband.

When you ask how you could help him, ask your husband about what he wants. Ask what are his fears and worries? Do the worst case scenario and work back from there. This is not catastrophising, it is to explore what the risks are, and then to make a decision based on what feels right. Life, situations and families are never perfect, so purposefully being aware of that is always useful. It’s never too late to make amends. It’s interesting that the Harry and Meghan interview triggered the desire to possibly reconnect.

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Perhaps the interview triggered it but the pandemic may also have pushed it to this point as well. Have you check in with what is coming up there? What are you going back to? I ask this in the most neutral way. I imagine making that decision to become estranged was not a small one. How do you feel about it now? Looking back, would you change anything in how you responded?

No contact for 20 years is quite a lot. Everyone will have changed, but whether they have grown is not a linear relationship we can draw upon here. Weddings can be incredibly emotive and disruptive experiences, especially within controlling families. Roles and people’s ability to let go while staying connected can be massively challenged.

What is the culture within the family? Is it open or rigid? What are the family belief systems about people, marriage, relationships and life? What healing needs to happen here and for whom? Start with the past and the specific issues or experiences that need processing, then go to the hopes for the future. What are they, what would be a hopeful outcome? Which relationships need to be repaired and why? It sounds like sides were taken as the sibling ties were cut. How do you feel about his family not seeing or being part of your life?

I’ve seen both sides where it was necessary to cut toxic family ties, and even though it was immensely painful, if a family has chronic dysfunction accepting that you will only continue to be hurt if you stay is the main reason families become estranged. On the other side, estranged families can also heal and repair when a few key psychological ingredients are brought to the table.

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They are: the ability to hear both sides; to work on the old narrative carried about a person or family to enable hearing empathically (this needs to be reciprocal); forgiveness and or acceptance of the person as they are if that works for you both; a willingness to move forward slowly and carefully; and creating healthy new boundaries based on respect and kindness. Figuring out your own boundaries together is the starting point. I wish you the best of luck with this.

Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query for this page email allisonk@independent.ie

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