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Defusing the family feud: Steps to repairing strained or broken relationships

Family rifts can form over hurt feelings, disagreements about lifestyle choices, religious differences, sibling rivalries, upset over who inherited Aunt Ruby's china, jealousy and more. But how do you fix them?
Lois M. Collins, Deseret News Modified: June 30, 2014 at 1:54 pm •  Published: July 3, 2014

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.

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