When any relationship becomes difficult, we might catch ourselves asking questions like: Why bother? Is this relationship really worth it? Would I be better off without this person in my life? Is there anything I can do to improve things between us, or should I just give up? There is nothing wrong with having questions like these. The truth is every relationship has its challenges, and all close relationships require effort. In some cases, a person might indeed reach the conclusion that yes, a particular relationship does more harm than good, and it is best to end it. But it is important not to reach that conclusion too quickly, or in a moment of anger.
Problems with Family Alienation
When it comes to family, it is especially important to not to cut out a person except in rare and extreme cases. There are several reasons for this. First, unlike finding a new friend or romantic partner, we only get the family we come with and the one we build over a long period of time. Family bonds have a different depth than other relationships in our lives. Second, family relationships are a crucial source of support in a child’s development and in times of difficulty. Going through life without family support makes it much more challenging. Third, emotional cutoff and estrangement sends shockwaves through a family. While a person might desire to cut off just one family member, taking an action like this inevitably creates sub-systems among family members, with allies and rivals pitted against one another. Carving a family up deepens alienation. Finally, emotional cutoff in a family is difficult to undo. Children grow up quickly, and the more time passes, the harder it is to heal.
Lifetime Rewards of Conflict Resolution
To function well in the world, all of us must sometimes interact with people we do not always like. For a child, this may be a difficult sibling, classmate, team member, teacher, coach – or parent. If a child learns the best response to interpersonal conflict is to avoid it, then they will be more likely to use this strategy in adulthood. In turn, they may find it difficult to deal with problems in friendships and romantic relationships, at work, and in their communities. In contrast, children who learn to set appropriate boundaries and work through relationship problems are well-equipped for the interpersonal complexities of adulthood. Reunification/ Family therapy helps children manage their feelings, identify their needs, and communicate assertively. These skills carry over into all life relationships.
Understanding Fallibility and Forgiveness
Many children’s stories sort characters into dichotomous categories like “good guys” and “bad guys” or the “evil witch” and “good king.” As children grow, their stories evolve, and single characters show both positive and negative traits. In the same way, young children often idealize their parents and think of them as perfect. But as any parent of a teenager knows, this view does not last! Reunification therapy helps children take a less dichotomous and more accurate view of parents. All humans make mistakes, and none of us want to be defined by our poor decisions or lapses in judgement. At the same time, it is unhelpful to ignore or deny our shortcomings, especially when they have hurt others. When this happens, genuine apology and forgiveness can move a relationship forward. True apology does not ask us to forget about a wrongdoing or try to explain it away. Rather, it means the person in the wrong acknowledges his or her actions have – even unintentionally – harmed another person, and he or she feels truly sorry. Importantly, it also implies an effort to correct the mistake and behave differently in the future. Real forgiveness means accepting this apology – even if the wound still hurts – and agreeing not to make it a source of animosity or resentment going forward. A parent who sincerely apologizes to a child sets a powerful example for healing a relationship.
Setting and Maintaining Boundaries
Reunification/family therapy often occurs during or after a marital separation when the family is changed forever. There is no going back after this to how things were before. However, there is a chance to create a “new normal,” with the potential to be healthier. There is nothing inherently wrong with children not spending equal time with both parents or preferring one parent. Again, the key is to break out of all-or-nothing thinking, with parents labeled variations of “good” or “bad.” Children do not have to have the same relationship with both parents to have positive relationships with both. This process involves engaging children in conversations about different levels of emotional closeness. Kids can think about how much they choose to share with their classmates, close friends, teachers, parents, and extended family. If they feel pressure to act or respond in a particular way, they can develop skills for how to respond effectively. And they can identify things that make them feel safe to share more of themselves.
Benefits of Parent Relationships
Research shows children do best when they have a relationship with both parents, even if the parents are separated. In contrast, a parent’s absence negatively affects social-emotional development, and can have an adverse impact through adolescence and into adulthood. Specifically, absence negatively impacts education outcomes, childhood social-emotional adjustment, and mental health in adulthood [See McLanahan, Tach, and Schneider, D. (2013). The causal effects of father absence. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 399–427]. Reunification/ Family therapy can help prevent these outcomes by restoring relationships and helping children learn lifetime skills about conflict resolution, forgiveness, and boundary setting.