In Preparing to Meet an Estranged Family Member we learned how to approach a disowned or divorced relative. But how do you heal a broken family relationship when you’re caught off guard? Many of life’s biggest events — especially pivotal moments that can change everything — aren’t things we’re prepared for.
Sometimes we’re surprised by a phone call, text message, or even a visit from an estranged family member. We want to heal the rift, but we don’t know where to start. We don’t know how to talk to a disowned or divorced relative — much less forgive or ask for forgiveness.
Healing broken family relationships takes time, effort, and dedication. Even more importantly, it takes healthy doses of love, grace, and compassion to welcome an estranged family member back into the fold. I don’t have a miracle cure, but I can share three tips on how to heal a broken family relationship.
Two important things to remember:
- Reconciling with an estranged family member takes time. All wounds need time to heal…and the deep, devastating wounds take more time than superficial scratches.
- Your relationship with your family member will never be the same. But this isn’t necessarily bad news! Estrangement in families can create deeper, richer, more loving relationships than ever before.
I know the pain of family estrangement. My sister stopped talking to me 12 years ago; it was the most painful “breakup” I ever experienced. In Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back I describe how I healed and blossomed after dealing with the shame, guilt and pain.
Broken family relationships are devastating, and I’m sorry you’re dealing with an estrangement. Know that everything will be okay. You will move through the grief and pain, and you will heal. Your family relationship may always be broken — like mine is — but you don’t have to carry the weight of pain, grief, or guilt.
3 Tips for Healing Broken Family Relationships
This article is part of my She Blossoms Through the Bible project, and it’s inspired by Genesis 33. In this chapter Jacob and Esau — estranged brothers reunited for the first time in about 20 years — meet again. Jacob lied, cheated, and stole from his big brother Esau. God doesn’t always restore broken relationships but He was part of this family estrangement.
Maybe you believe in God, but don’t trust Him. Maybe you’ve heard of Jesus, but don’t know Him personally. Open your mind and heart to the possibility that God is here. The Holy Spirit brought you here to She Blossoms for a reason, and He will bring you through this family estrangement.
1. Accept your family member with love and grace
Esau’s response to his lying, cheating, estranged little brother Jacob wasn’t just surprising to me as a reader, it was a shock to Jacob! He’d prepared to meet his estranged big brother in a variety of ways (see Genesis 32 for details). Jacob even prayed before meeting Esau, asking God to please protect him, his wives, and his children from Esau’s righteous wrath. How did Esau respond when he saw Jacob? “But Esau ran to meet him, hugged him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. Then they wept.” – Genesis 33:4 (CSB).
How do you feel about embracing your relative? Before you think about how to heal a broken family relationship, you need to pinpoint how you feel. If you’re Esau’s position (your relative lied, cheated, stole from or wounded you) then you may feel hurt, angry, bitter, sad, confused, shocked, betrayed, or indifferent. If you’re in Jacob’s position (you lied, cheated, stole from or wounded your relative) then you may feel ashamed, guilty, embarrassed, sad, depressed, or defensive. Writing about how you feel will help you identify and work through your emotions. This is a crucial first step to accepting your family member and healing your broken relationship.
2. Expect nothing from your family member
In Genesis 33:8 Esau asked why Jacob brought a whole procession to their reconciliation. Esau didn’t expect anything from Jacob, much less gifts of oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves, and other possessions. Esau didn’t expect or want his little brother to pile on the presents! All Esau wanted was for their broken family relationship to be healed. He just wanted his little brother Jacob back.
What do you expect from your disowned or divorced relative? You’ll never get it back, you know. Even if your brother repaid the $10,000 he stole or your sister finally admitted that she was wrong for sleeping with your husband, you’ll never get back what you lost. You’ll never have the naive joy of your childhood, the innocent expectations of unbroken family relationships. Look at your expectations from your estranged family member — both before the estrangement and now. What do you want to happen?
3. Link arms and start moving forward
What a guy Esau was! That’s the kind of brother I want: trusting, accepting, forgiving, generous, loving, unassuming, direct, simple, and kind. Esau was a “what you see is what you get” guy. Jacob, on the other hand, was conniving, shrewd, and manipulative. After Esau and Jacob hugged, wept, and introduced their wives and children, Esau said, “Let’s move on” (verse 12). Isn’t that amazing? That was the last thing Jacob expected because it wasn’t the way he would’ve responded if he were Esau. Esau’s tip for healing a broken family relationship is simple and clear: you’re here now, so let’s forget the past and move on.
Who can help you heal your broken family relationship? I wish reconciliation after an estrangement could be as easy as Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33, but it’s not. In fact, it’s not even that easy for them! Esau’s kiss in verse four wasn’t straightforward, according to Hebrew scribes. Jacob refused to link arms with Esau and travel together (verses 13-16). We can pretend that Esau and Jacob lived happily ever after after healing their broken family relationship…but we’d be lying.
The truth is that most family relationships need help healing. We can’t just link arms and walk into the sunset! We need to work towards reconciliation, perhaps by seeking family counseling, reading books about estrangement, being painfully honest and open about our feelings.
Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation is a great starting point. Their story offers three solid tips for healing broken family relationships: acceptance, no expectations, and moving forward. However, this is just a blueprint. How you move forward depends on you, your relative, and your family.
What do you think? Feel free to share your story below. All big and little comments are welcome!
With His love,
P.S. Are you struggling to make a decision or find the right path in your life? Read an Easy Way to Stop Overthinking God’s Will for Your Life.