How To Repair a Broken Relationship Before It’s Too Late

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S1: I got to tell you, this was one of the hardest things I ever did, and I almost just threw in the towel. It was brutal.

S2: Welcome to How To I’m science writer David Epstein. On last week’s show, we met Barbara, a woman in her late 70s, who’s desperate to repair her relationship with her grown son. This comes decades after Barbara’s husband had an affair which led to a really messy divorce that fractured the family. Barbara had to pick up the pieces of her life, and she often wasn’t there for her son Ethan like she wanted to be. If you haven’t already, you might want to go back and listen to last week’s episode to understand more of Barbara’s back story.

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S1: My feeling is that may be too late. Too much time has gone by. I hope I’m wrong, but that nags at me that this should have been done years and years ago.

S2: But our expert, developmental psychologist Amy Baker, thinks that there might be hope for Barbara and her son Ethan, who now has two kids of his own. And it starts with writing a really specific type of apology letter. Last time we talked, Amy gave Barbara some reflexion promise to help her generate material for the letter.

S1: I was so scrambled and stirred up I couldn’t even think about it for a few days. I just I just had to put it away and I was a wreck. Painful to go back there and to and to recall his baby memories and all that was absolute torture.

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S2: And so now here comes the hard part on today’s show. Amy and Barbara will write the apology letter together, delving into the past in a way the Barbara’s really avoided for so many years.

S3: You know, the letter could say, you know, to my dearest son or to my darling Ethan, it has to sound like you. So if you’re not like super lovey dovey, then that might be kind of weird. But you wanted to have a warm and loving opening.

S2: When we come back, Amy will walk Barbara through step by step how to translate her complicated feelings onto the page. Amy done this with hundreds of families. Sometimes a letter actually convinces a child to give their parent another chance. So can Barbara revisit her past to rewrite the present? Stay with us. It’s not often we get to peek into such a personal plea for a second chance at having a relationship. So now let’s turn things over to our expert Amy Baker

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S3: you could start the latter with. It has been such a long time since we’ve been close. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the distance and our relationship. So a couple of sentences like that. The intention is to acknowledge the the breach in the relationship. OK, you want to finish this paragraph by telling him what it felt like for you when you held him for the first time. So I’m going to give you an example, but you’re going to make it real for you. So you could say, I remember the first time I held you in my arms. I looked down at your little button nose and sprouts of hair and couldn’t believe what an amazing little boy you were. I felt so blessed to be your mom and in awe of, you know, this amazing creature that you were, you know, something pretty dramatically loving. OK, all right. So you want to end this paragraph with these exact words. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined then that we would be where we are today.

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S2: Amy says the next paragraph should express a desire for improvement.

S3: You can say, I so want to have a better relationship with you. I want to heal the breach between us. So it’s a couple of sentences and you can add your own, but it can’t be anything maudlin or self-serving. Like I weep for my lost child or I haven’t smiled since the last time we talked. The third paragraph, the intention is to offer a vision for a better future, so you’re going to say something like sometimes parents and their adult children become estranged and have distance and conflict in their relationship. Often they can find a way to work things out that feels right for everyone. The point here is to signal to him that you’re searching for a path forward that does not involve humiliating him or shaming him or having him grovel. You’re looking for a mutually satisfying way forward. You’re going to finish this paragraph by telling a story, true story of two people. Maybe he knows them. That’s ideal. Who had a falling out and worked things out. And they’re both so glad that they did.

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S1: That may be a tough one.

S3: The point is, and I want to be clear, when you’re telling the story, you’re not making it seem like one person was right and one person was wrong.

S2: But after this hopeful start, the letters got to get into the gut wrenching stuff. The next paragraph needs to acknowledge that your child’s feeling hurt and angry with you.

S3: So first of all, do you agree, Barbara, that your son is hurt and angry with you? Oh, God, yes. OK, so you can say I believe or I understand whatever you’re going to put in the verb that makes sense for you that you were feeling hurt and angry with me. Now, if you were comfortable, you could say, I am so sorry for the pain that I have caused.

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S1: You know, I can say that.

S3: All right. And I want to be clear that you can’t say I’m so sorry for any pain that I have caused you. There’s a big difference between the pain and agony. Sure. You could also say for any way in which, you know, you feel that I, you know, haven’t been there for you in the way that you need me to so you can put that in your own words.

S1: That’s important. All right.

S3: That resonates for you. Yeah. All right. Then you’re going to end this paragraph by saying, I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship from your point of view. I’m trying to understand what needs of yours have not been met, what ways in which you feel I didn’t see you or understand you or appreciate you.

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S2: The next section of the letter dives into the homework that Barbara has been reflecting on for the past week that started with making a list from her son’s perspective, not her own of the reasons why they don’t have a good relationship anymore.

S1: OK. The first I find my life is complete now without her influence to I don’t want to revisit an unhappy childhood. Three, I have my own family now. I don’t want to complicate things by digging up dirt for I don’t trust her. Five, I was abandoned and didn’t seem to exist for her when it suited her. Six, I had to take care of myself. So I learned early that if I didn’t, nobody else would. When I spend time with her, even when it’s good, it makes me sad. I tried and tried for years. She never appreciated anything I did that should do it.

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S3: So what I want to do is focus on the relationship ones that are really grievances. There’s the issue of trust. There’s the issue of abandonment. And he feels unappreciated.

S1: I think in the back of his mind, there’s the fear from his childhood that somehow his kids may be caught in some kind of conflict of loyalty as well, even though it’s unreasonable. I think he fears it.

S3: So his experience when he was growing up was that he was caught in a loyalty conflict.

S1: Oh, my. Yes, this was the war of the Roses. He wasn’t allowed to mention my name. Yes, it was awful. And he once said he felt split down the middle.

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S3: I think there’s an insight there, which is he experienced inter parental conflict. And his way to maybe resolve that is to keep his kids away from Barbara. It’s like instead of saying it’s the inter parental conflict that’s bad, he’s sort of putting it on on you in a way. So that’s one possible thing that we’re going to go back and write about. Let’s talk about the abandonment and that he had to take care of himself. What does what does that refer to?

S1: Well, uh, when he went to his father’s and stayed

S3: and he was about ten when that happened, right? Yeah.

S1: I told myself his father had lots of money and could give him what I never could and I had to get through school. So he may have felt I didn’t try hard enough.

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S3: What were you going through?

S1: Oh, it’s hard. What wasn’t I going to. I was terrified that I was going to be on the street, really, I didn’t know how I was going to support myself, so that was my first biggest fear

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S3: from his point of view. How did he experience you during that time?

S1: Preoccupied with school, with getting my own needs, met with men. It wasn’t all about him anymore.

S3: And can you think of a specific time, like going back to that five to 10 period where maybe he needed you to help him figure out something like he was being bullied at school and he tried to talk to you, but you were preoccupied.

S1: He became very defiant and aggressive, and he didn’t show his grief, his sadness, which is what it was all about. And one time he did never forget it. I was cramming for an exam. It was really important, a nursing exam. And I heard him in his bedroom crying. And I went in there and he was crying. I patted his back and I just. Just felt his sadness and I realized, you know. How sad he was, I comforted him the best I could and then and I had to get back to my studying or I would have flunked. So that incident really stands out. You know, it was terrible, huh?

S3: OK, thank you for sharing that. I think this is going to be a really beautiful ladder.

S1: Painful to remember. I can’t tell you how I don’t want to think about that anymore.

S3: You know, my my belief is that all parents have these empathic lapses with their children. It’s really hard to be there 100 percent for your kids and for a variety of reasons. Some kids accept it and move move forward. And for some kids, it’s too painful. And again, in my experience, this is the only way out of this is to go into the pain.

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S1: Well, I’m a psychotherapist, so I do know that you get it. And I always say you have to go to a place before you can leave it.

S3: I love that. That’s a great way to put it.

S2: We’ll be right back with Amy and Barbara after this quick break. We’re back with our listener, Barbara, and our expert Amy Baker in Barbara’s letter of apology. She should start by acknowledging what Ethan might be upset about, then ask him questions and end with a wish.

S3: I’m going to jump into it. One of the things that I believe you are upset with me about is your experience that I was not as emotionally available to you as you needed me to be, especially during the years when you were going back and forth between the two homes. You were just a little boy around five years of age having to figure out what it meant to have your family split up. And I I know that there were times when I was preoccupied with my own demands on my time and that I. Was not there for you in the way that you needed me to be totally accurate. OK, I recall. One time in particular, when I was studying in my room and I heard you crying quietly, although I did come in, I can imagine that in that moment you needed me to be more focused on you and your needs and what you were feeling and what you were going through then than I was.

S1: Mm hmm.

S3: Were there times when you needed something from me and you didn’t even bother to ask because you. You know, felt sure that I wouldn’t be able to meet your needs.

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S1: That’s that’s relevant.

S3: We’re going to end paragraph five with a wish. How about if I could go back in time, I would work harder to be. More attuned to you and more focused on who you were and what you needed from me.

S1: Absolutely. OK.

S3: How about what you needed and deserve to have for me?

S1: Yes, that’s excellent.

S2: The next heard Barbara wants to address is that she wonders if her son felt abandoned by her, especially when it came to missing out on childhood activities like his hockey games.

S1: For instance, while he wanted me to go to his hockey games and things like that, he couldn’t stand the anxiety about his father and I being in the same place. So I stopped going to really and I did because I saw what he went through. I suspect he holds it against me for not being at his hockey games and things like that where I thought I was doing the right thing, you know, a rock and a hard place. But he really couldn’t stand being caught in the middle of his father and I anywhere, even in the most benign situations.

S2: This painful memory, Amy says it’s a perfect example of what can be worked into the top of the ladder, and once it’s out there, you can pivot to the questions.

S3: Were there specific times when you wanted me to show up, for example, to your hockey games and I didn’t? Do you feel that if I really loved you, I wouldn’t have let you go? Now we’re getting to the wish. And so, Barbara, you could of course, you can wish for anything you want. Right. But if you had a time machine and you could go back, what would you get a lawyer? Would you fight? Would you show up and say, get in my car? No.

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S1: OK, I did the right. It was horrible, but it was the best choice I could have made at that time.

S3: So then let’s make this the wish. Tell me what you think of this. More than anything, I wish that I had been able to convey to you how important you were to me and how much I loved you, even though I accepted that you were going to live with your father.

S1: Yes, that’s much better. OK.

S2: It’s really important when you’re making an apology like this not to wish for something you don’t mean if you’re being insincere, that’s going to be easy to spot. So rework your wish so that it’s true for you.

S3: All right. Now we’re going to get to paragraph seven. This is the third grievance paragraph. It gets easier after these paragraphs. I have to show you, I really feel the sadness.

S1: I’m in knots and just, oh, I wish I knew how to cry. You know, if you have an answer for that, you must let me know.

S3: Well, people show their sadness in different ways. I feel I feel a heaviness in my heart. So I’m taking a lot of deep breaths. OK, so the third one, this is going to be about his experience that he can’t trust you around the kids. Now, has he told you directly, I don’t trust you with the kids?

S1: Well, we were once in a shrink’s office when he gave me the death blow and the shrink said, well, Ethan, just what do you like? How you just your mother worry you about what she did she ever hurt the kids or anything? Are you worried about how she is with them? And he said, no, absolutely not. I know she loves them. And then he wouldn’t elaborate.

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S3: So I think we’re going to use the word wonder then, not I know that or I believe that. Right. So it’s going to say I wonder if another troubling aspect of our relationship for you is your fear that you can’t and maybe not fear your concern that you can’t trust me around your children.

S1: That’s very good. That’s for sure. True.

S3: OK, I sense that you have a concern that I will do something or say something to them that would be uncomfortable for you and perhaps very different than what you would want me to do or say x one.

S1: True.

S3: I know that you love your boys so much and want to protect them from any unnecessary pain and struggle, certainly from the kind of pain and struggle that you had. When you were their age.

S1: Mm hmm.

S3: And I can see from your point of view. That my presence in their life can be worrisome. Yeah, that was exactly the word I was thinking. Beautiful can be worrisome and unsettling for you.

S1: Mm hmm.

S2: And now the letter should ask a question, but Amy says the question shouldn’t put Ethan on the spot.

S3: So how about this for a question? Is there something specific that you are worried about that I would do or say to them, do you feel that I would create an emotional burden for your children?

S1: Mm hmm.

S3: Because this is something that’s ongoing. It seems like a wish, which is in the past. Doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s a hope. Not as simple as I hope that I can one day be the kind of grandmother that you want for your children, but maybe something more like I hope that I can show you that I will be responsive to your guidance of what kind of grandmother you want for your children.

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S1: Mm hmm. OK.

S3: OK. Paragraph eight, you’re going to say direct it to him. I hope that you can see that I’m trying to understand what our relationship has felt like for you. I would love to hear back from you. Any thoughts and feelings that you would like to share about any of the issues I’ve written about in this letter or anything else about our relationship?

S2: After addressing these grievances, Amy says the end of the letter should focus on a memory of your child that’s associated with a particular smell for Barbara. She remembers a Martin Ethan cooking demonstration that she went to with Ethan when he was about five years old. Jan is a famous Chinese American chef who had a cooking show on PBS for many years. And Barbara said Ethan was totally enthralled.

S3: All right. But I’m trying to think of this, the specific sensory smell, words that would go with that. So it might be spicy, peppery, tangy, salty.

S1: Yeah, all of the above.

S3: OK, so you’re going to say I was thinking the other day about when we went to the Martin Yan cooking demonstration when you were about whatever, five years old, I can still recall how enthralled you were. Your eyes were as big as saucers as you watched him slice and dice, you know, like a speed demon. The whole room was filled with the, you know, aromas, the spicy, peppery, tangy, salty smell of the Asian dishes that he was whipping up.

S1: He was just mesmerized.

S3: Great. You were mesmerized and so attentive during the long demonstration. All right. You’re going to fix the details, Barbara, to make them true. And then you’re going to say, you know, every time I go into a Chinese restaurant and I smell that familiar combination of Asian spices, I think back to that time and what a charming, delightful, you know, little boy you were. All right. So you’re connecting a beautiful moment with the aromatic smells because in the brain, the early attachment memories are stored near where the smell memories are stored. That’s the point of that.

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S2: The next part of the letter, Amy says, is to bring up a photograph, one that Barbara found of Ethan when he was five years old.

S1: He was on the rug with his hands propped up, holding his face, looking very wistful.

S3: Great. OK, so you’re going to say I am attaching one of my favorite photographs of you. You were about five years old. Here you are, you know, sitting on the rug with your hands in your face, thinking deep thoughts.

S1: Mm hmm.

S3: I have a copy of this picture on my refrigerator. So you have to find a way to make that true. And every time I go into my kitchen, I see your your adorable face and I smile and my heart is filled with love for you. So the point is you’re creating a sticky, symbolic connection so that when he goes into his kitchen, he’ll think of you going into your kitchen thinking of him. Yeah, there’s only a couple of. Is left, you’re going to start a new paragraph and you’re going to say and this, I really do encourage you to use your own words, but I’ll give you an example. You want to end with a couple of sentences of your deepest, most heartfelt desire to have a better relationship with your son. And so you can say, I hope that this letter. Is the beginning of a new way for us to be mother and son. One thing you could say is, you know, my my door is open, my arms are open, my heart is open, I hope that we can find our way back to each other in a way that feels right for you. So you do want to be respectful and non manipulative, right, so that’s sort of you and then you you end it with love, comma, your mother, because there’s a subliminal message. Love your mother.

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S1: What about I love you? I couldn’t just say I love you, Mom.

S3: Yeah, you can absolutely say that

S1: that would feel better.

S2: But there’s one more thing. Amy wants Barbara to consider her two older daughters.

S3: If you feel that all three of your kids are sort of equally alienated from you, then it would make sense for you to do your own letters, individual letters for the girls as well, and send them all at the same time. It could be hurtful to the older girls if you are as equally alienated from them as you are from your son. They might think like, well, what, what?

S1: What about us? Well, it’s different with them. They’re all different. And the oldest one, I actually about a year ago I saw her and I, I didn’t do a letter of amends, but I did it verbally. I really did it. And I really apologized. And I it was really something.

S2: So whether you do one letter at a time or end up tackling all the letters at once when it comes time to send, well, and this part kind of surprised me because I thought it would be a traditional, you know, snail mail letter. But Amy says it should be e-mail because the subject line can be a great tease.

S3: Make the subject header. I’m thinking about our relationship from your point of view, dot, dot, dot, because that is intriguing and invitational. Or at least that’s the hope.

S2: We recently checked in with Barbara to hear how her revisions are going, she hopes to send the letter to Ethan very soon, but she’s still tinkering with it, in part because, as she mentioned, digging through those painful memories. It’s not easy. So if you’re thinking about revisiting a close relationship that’s now fractured, extend yourself some grace, take it slowly and rely on your support system.

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S1: The important thing is to not be defensive. This is about the child, not the parent. This is about their point of view. And if you are having difficulty with that, get help with it.

S2: We’re so glad Barbara reached out to us for help and really grateful to Amy Baker for sharing her methods with us and being so generous with her time, if you’re interested in her work, check out Amy Jay Baker dot com.

S1: Dear Ethan, I wrote Drear Ethan Oh, well, a few days ago, as I was cleaning out my files, I found some treasured letters from you when you were a boy. I was so moved to read them again and experience so sweetly. You expressed your love even in all the madness you wanted to me to know you still cared.

S2: Do you have something you’re not sure how to talk to your kids about or something else we can fix? We might be able to help send us a note at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachael Allen and Rosemary Belson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg is host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.

S1: Every time I go into a Chinese restaurant and I smell that familiar combination of Asian spices, I think back to that time and what a charming, delightful little boy you were. I’m catching one of my favorite photographs that I took of you. You were about three years old. You were sitting on the rug, your hands holding your face, thinking deep thoughts and looking quite contented. The photo sits on the buffet and it’s still mesmerizes me every time I walk by it. I do hope we can find a new path forward so I can be the mother you deserve. I would like nothing better than for us to find our way back in a way that feels right for you. I love you, Mom.