How to Heal a Family Feud
By: Amy Labvoda
There’s no easy way to end these painful rifts – but, it can be done successfully.
B EFORE Jean Haley’s* (Names of family members have been changed to protect privacy) father passed away in 1990, he divided his estate unevenly among his grandchildren, with his favorite, Lisa, getting the lion’s share. Jean urged Lisa to redistribute the money equally among her four siblings, but her daughter balked. Lisa, a 34-year-old student nurse with an unemployed husband and two young children, told her mother she really needed the money.
Jean reacted harshly. She was so angry that she stopped initiating any contact with her daughter. Since Lisa lived only a few miles away from her mother’s home in Florida, she dropped by to try to make amends. Jean didn’t want anything to do with her. Over the next several weeks the daughter’s phone calls were met with stony silence. The separation was painful for Lisa. She and her mother had always been close; they shared a love of gardening, and her children loved their “gammy.”
After months of minimal contact, Jean surprised Lisa by calling one day to talk about gardening. Lisa’s pleasure at hearing her mother’s voice quickly smothered any anger she had been feeling because of the separation. “I had missed her so badly,” Lisa recalls. Instead of discussing their feud, the two worked constructively with their emotions to begin mending their relationship. That step was essential to resolving the disagreement, according to Neil Katz, director of the Program in Nonviolent Conflict and Change at Syracuse University. “Several pieces need to come together for healing to start,” he says. “The first two are a dissatisfaction with
the status quo and a willingness to change.”
Resolving a painful family feud demands a thick skin and dogged determination. The effort and the healing can take years. Yet while the causes of rifts can vary—a forgotten loan, a thoughtless remark, a broken promise—Katz and other experts agree that the means for resolving these intimate conflicts tend to fall within just a few courses of action. “Undertaking any or all of these steps can require lots of self-control, courage and effort,” Katz says. “But they do work.” So, if you want to reconnect with a family member, be guided by these basic principles:
1 Look inside. Family rifts rarely involve the transgressions of just one person, according to Renana Brooks, director of the Blame Busting Program at the Sommet Institute in Washington, D.C. “In most disputes all the participants share some degree of blame.” So to end the hostilities, you need to see the other person’s point of view as well as clearly acknowledge your own faults.
When Max Johnson was a teenager in Cincinnati, his mother became a zealous church member. He did not share her religious fervor and bristled when she dragged him to services. Eventually he moved out of the house and for years avoided contact
with her. Only when he married and had a child did he appreciate the reponsibil-ities and self-doubts that come with parenthood. He wanted to be the perfect father but was unsure how to proceed. It was his own tentativeness that gave him a new appreciation for his mother. He recognized that she had to navigate through the same self-doubts and worries as he in trying to raise a child. Only then did he fully appreciate his mother’s hopes that religious faith would help him develop into a well-balanced adult. “Now I understand how much love and energy she put into raising me,” he says. Today he calls and visits his mother regularly.
2 Force a connection. Jean’s phone call to her daughter, which appeared to be spur of the moment, was actually prompted by Lisa’s continuing involvement with the rest of the family. When one of her brothers developed legal problems, Lisa found him an attorney. Next, she helped with child care when a sister was going through marital problems. Word of her selflessness got back to Jean. That’s usually the case, says Mary Pipher, a Lincoln, Neb., psychologist and author of The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families. “Even if two or more family members are not speaking to each other, people still communicate through others. Families can go a long time using this roundabout method before two people are actually talking to each other again.
Of course, communication can be more straightforward. Timothy Stevens’s decision several years ago to change his name led to a rift with his father, Infuriated by his son’s decision, the elder Stevens would call his son long distance and rant about his displeasure Timothy was tempted to sever all ties with his father, hut he knew deep down that wasn’t the best response. He also realized that the telephone was the wrong means to maintain contact by then neither wanted to speak with the other
And so the Iowa environmental consultant began writing notes to his father regularly. Even though the father never acknowledged these letters, the young man kept sending them anyway. “1 wanted to reconnect’ Timothy says. “I felt as if a part of my life had been severed” During that angry period of silence, the son and his wife had a child. As the elderly man read a letter from Timothy about the baby, his fury began to melt. The new grandfather came to visit, determined to mend the gulf with his son and hold his grandson in his arms I’m glad I didn’t give up,’ Timothy says today.
Writing to the other person, be it in the form of a postcard, letter or e-mail is a smart first move in reestablishing severed ties, according to experts. The process is free of the thought--clouding emotion that can come with a telephone conversation or face to-face meeting. “Writing a letter gives the author a chance to refine what he or she
feels and wants to say,” notes Pipher. “And a letter gives the receiver time to mull it over.”
3 Let others help heal The pain of family discord radiates outward, bringing unhappiness to siblings, parents, other relatives and close friends. Typically these people want amity restored and are often eager to help achieve that. Ralph Miller of Philadelphia was a domineering father who expected his children to obey his dictates. When son Ed fell in love with a girl whose family Ralph distrusted, he was wary and concerned. Eventually Ed and Nancy married. And in the coming month, Ed’s siblings came to agree with their father’s opinion of their sister-in-law’s family. Harsh words erupted between Nancy and one of Ed’s sisters-in-law. After that ugly episode, the couple stopped attending family affairs, and years of silence followed.
Then, without warning, Ralph passed away. On hearing the news, Ed telephoned his mother with condolences, but then—still resentful—chose not to attend the funeral. His siblings were furious A year later the family planned to gather at the cemetery to unveil a gravestone, with no intention of inviting Ed. His aunt Betty decided to step in to restore family harmony. She called the couple and reminded
them the grave-side ceremony would be the last opportunity Ed would have to pay respects publicly to his father. At the ceremony, the family was shocked when Ed and Nancy appeared. Ed’s mother stepped forward to welcome them, eager to have her family whole again. Today, Ed and his siblings are starting to rebuild their relationships.
‘There are at least three roles that a friend or family member can play when helping to heal a feud,” says Syracuse University’s Neil Katz. “They can play an active role as a facilitator or sit as a mediator between the two who are fighting. They can also simply encourage the healing.”
4 Don’t expect miracles. In ending a family feud, the aim is not to resolve old disagreements—a goal that may be impossible—but rather to attain some level of reconciliation. Small achievements—gathering together in peace to celebrate Thanksgiving or a parent’s birthday—can provide a foundation for rebuilding and reconnecting.
In settling family feuds, “re-establishing a positive foundation is important, advises Susan Heitler, a Denver psychologist and author of The Power of Two, “not figuring out who is to blame.” A family feud changes things, often forever. Accept that. And learn from it so you can prevent it from happening again. While closing a rift with a parent or sibling can be wrenching, it is well worth the effort. Jean Haley and her daughter, Lisa, resolved their bitter dispute with restraint. They continued to disagree about the disbursement of the inheritance, but they agreed not to discuss it. It’s a compromise that has enabled them to reunite. Just back from a family get-to-gather, Lisa proudly displays a snapshot taken at the gathering. In it she’s standing beside her mother. The two women are smiling, their arms wrapped around each other. “You have to know that you want your family back in your heart,” she says. “That’s how we made it work.”
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Copyright @ 1999, Volume 155, No. 932,
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