Defusing the family feud: Steps to repairing strained or broken relationships
As a young adult, Tony Marren left the faith he immersed himself in as a boy. His choice hurt his family and surprised others, with a fallout so intense he moved 2,255 miles away.
Maggie Noud left her marriage after three years, sure she loved someone else. The damage from that action included strained relationships with her parents and sister, who also felt betrayed.
Family rifts can form over hurt feelings, disagreements about lifestyle choices or finances, religious differences, sibling rivalries, upset over who inherited Aunt Ruby's china, jealousy and more. In-laws and stepfamilies can drive wedges, sometimes deliberately. Siblings have been torn apart by battles over care for Mom or Dad. Parents have been angered by an adult child's "bad" career or education choices.
The reasons for rifts make a long and colorful list. The path to reconciliation, however, is in many ways more formulaic, said experts consulted for this story.
It took work, but Noud, of Washington, Missouri, and Marren, of Provo, Utah, are both back in close and loving contact with their families. Experts say reconciliation is usually possible if people face their issues, listen thoughtfully and give each other a break. They recommend some steps to guide that journey.
The birth of anger
Troy Dunn, TV's "The Locator" and author of "Family: The Good F Word," loves family — and not just his own. "When the world outside is horrible, evil and destructive, if the home inside is peaceful, it can be a great, great life. The opposite is not true: If your career is great but inside the four walls, life is crumbling, there is nothing one can do to find happiness. The center of the universe is falling apart," he said.
Dunn believes the most common reason families unravel is neglect, "things we do for perfect strangers that slowly we begin to not do for the people closest to us. You tolerate annoying strangers but snap at family and say things you would not say to a stranger in the mall."
People tend to forgive the hurtful words of friends when asked, but if the hurt comes from a relative, grudges may linger, he said.
"I believe time heals almost no wounds," said Dunn. "What heals a wound is good treatment. That doesn't come from sitting there, waiting. ... People 15 years later can recite with incredible accuracy the words that wounded them. The only way is to replace them with new words."
It takes one person willing to slip a note in a crack of the barrier between two people — and the other must be willing to consider it. Both acts are brave, he said.
Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in the San Francisco area, regularly sees parents cut off by adult children, parents separated by divorce from children of all ages, and families strained by remarriage, sibling rivalries or bickering over inheritance. A daughter-in-law is often in the thick of things, said Coleman, co-chairman of The Council on Contemporary Families.
People tend to think families are ripped apart only by dramatic events such as abuse or neglect, but Coleman said rifts more often begin with a push for independence. For example, "helicopter" parents, hovering over their kids, may find themselves deserted later by children who want less interference.
Parents unwilling to allow their children to develop fully as individuals risk broken relationships, said Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, a marriage and family therapist in Westchester County, New York, and author of "A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage." For example, "Daddy's an engineer and would love everyone to be an engineer. You need to allow kids to evolve or a lot of miscommunication happens."
An adult child is more likely to walk away from a parent-child relationship than is the parent, who can do little to compel that child back. "If the love and attention of the parent is not something the adult child wants, a parent has relatively little influence beyond the ability to appeal to the relationship," said Coleman, who helps parents learn to communicate with adult children in ways that heal and soothe.
Two people, two views
No two people view any event exactly the same, even within a family. Coleman called this a "separate-reality phenomenon." Differences in perspective depend on things like position in the family, age and relationships with parents or siblings. A parent might view an interaction as "conscientious," while the child sees intrusion and control. "It helps to recognize we see our own lives typically from our own narrow perspectives," he said.
Roles hold steady despite age, warned Dunn, so if a parent and child are strained, most believe the parent should admit errors and break the ice. "I can't tell you how often someone says, 'If he wants to be my father, I assume he'll come forward,'" Dunn said.
Repairing relationships starts with listening. "Take your adult child's complaint seriously and listen for what's true. You don't have to agree with all of it. But be empathic; try not to be defensive or offensive or blame and criticize," said Coleman.
Those desiring reconciliation may have to try more than once, Coleman said.
Sometimes it's not clear why family members don't get along or are overlooked, which may make a situation harder to address. Julie Connor, an Overland Park, Kansas, educator-turned-speaker and author of Dreams to Action Trailblazer's Guide, said at her family's gatherings, certain individuals were sometimes left out of conversations and activities. She once asked why an uncle was ignored. Her mother said she didn't know. When it happened to her fiance, Connor told him he was no longer obligated to attend her family activities.
Connor said she's chosen to love her family within certain boundaries. She can't say whether she or they are responsible for their conflicts. "I simply don't have enough information to make an informed decision about the behaviors of others. I focus on my own behavior and the relationships I can nurture in my life."
Charles Randall Paul, president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, believes techniques that bring warring nations and religious rivals together can help families with seemingly unresolvable conflicts — including religious, philosophical or lifestyle differences where people "believe they cannot with integrity compromise.
"You can have a respectful and even friendly relationship with someone who is your opponent, your rival. So many think incorrectly that disagreement means it would be impossible or wasteful to engage that person," he said.
Paul admires noted family therapist John Gottman's ability to watch muted videos of couples and predict by looking at certain facial muscle movements whether couples were treating each other with contempt or respect. "Contempt is the death knell for any human relationship," Paul said. "If they feel you disagree with them, that's a different matter — especially if they feel you love and respect them."
Couples who criticize should consider this equation: Every negative remark requires five to 20 positive ones to balance it, said Paul.
In long-term, happy marriages, two-thirds of conflicts are never resolved, but the couple learn to engage about the conflict periodically in ways that convey love and respect while letting the integrity of the disagreement live. Conflicts are not ignored. As with international conflict resolution, Paul said, "We do not try to bring two parties to agree with each other or to avoid the hardest of questions. We get them to engage those questions in a way that relationships of trust are built up."
The tough family conflicts Paul has contemplated include religious differences, the breaking of a moral code — like someone going to jail — and disagreements about lifestyle, such as gay marriage or interfaith marriage.
To forge rapport, someone must make an overture. He recommends meeting in public for a meal. It provides social and physical safety and a psychological boost from eating together.
Paul's formula for the conversation: Take turns talking not about the problem, but about "how I got to where I am" with respect to each other or the issue. A boy who left his mother's church should not talk about his religious beliefs, but how he reached them. The honesty and emotion of sharing usually crumble part of the wall separating people. The potential for healing is in sharing and feeling listened to, confided in, trusted.
It's also important to share how the disputed issue enhances one's life. If one married outside the family's faith, for instance: "She makes me feel loved." If one changed faiths: "This is why I love being Catholic...."
Next, said Paul, talk about difficult things that arise, the other side of what one holds so dear. Then, define the problem one has with the other, against the background of having spent time together "deep in feelings and honesty."
"The desire is not to debate, but to witness, share experiences and be open to letting others do the same," Paul said. "You cannot influence somebody else unless they feel you are open to their influence."
Marren had been an altar boy growing up on Long Island and was active in his Catholic parish in college, too. When at 22 he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "the fallout was painful. There were snide jokes hurled in my direction." He and his mother argued. She endured, too, the reaction of neighbors and friends.
In 1981 he moved to Provo, Utah. Soon after, he left on a mission to London, England.
The mission deepened his faith but also gave everyone a chance to cool down. Midway through it, his sister told him there was a Tony-shaped hole in the family's Christmas celebration. He hadn't seen her for two years. When his mission ended, his mom was at the airport. Today, his distance from family is geographical, not emotional. Marren, who has colon cancer, talks to one brother by phone every few days.
Rebuilding relationships takes honesty and patience, said O'Neill, who also said she wishes more people knew how to really listen to others.
Each person in a conflict must look at their part in it, said Anastasia Pollock, mental health counselor and clinical director of Life Stone Counseling Centers in Midvale, Utah. She encourages people to own their part in a rift, even if it's small. "Perception's a really important piece of conflict resolution," she said. "Validating (the other person's feelings) doesn't mean 'you're right and I'm wrong.'"
It helps to assume both parties have good intentions, despite the disagreement, she said.
Professional help may be desirable. Pollock and other experts say one advantage of addressing conflict with a therapist's help is a neutral setting. "It's new to both," she said, adding the brain is easily triggered by senses and a familiar environment might heighten memories of conflict.
While it's possible to work through things without professional help, O'Neill said to be very clear about what you want to have happen and perhaps talk through your plan with a professional.
One day when it appeared his marriage was doomed, Maggie Noud's husband, Jeff, was stuck in rush-hour traffic, "looking at everyone around me and hating every individual in every car" for not seeing his pain. He pulled off the road and prayed. It was his turning point.
"Read, listen and associate" became his healing mantra. He read books that gave him good information, he learned to listen actively and he associated with people doing things he wanted in his life. He wanted to be a better person, to have a better marriage. Eleven years later, he and Maggie are solidly together and have three kids, 12, 9 and 3.
It was a long process, Maggie Noud said, but "it is possible to heal completely if you go all in."
"We are closer than ever. I would not change the past if it meant changing who we have become now," Jeff Noud agreed.
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