Family feud

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published July 13, 2012

"Please write a column on family arguments," a good friend requested as we parted ways after a walk and a chat. Hmm, where does one go with that one, I thought? Besides having recently written a book on relationships, I see no shortage of people in my practice who are in a great deal of trouble with other significant individuals. As I thought back on my week both in and out of the office, I was reminded how blessed I am that in our extended family, even if we're not all that close, we are at least on speaking terms with one another - not something to be taken for granted! I see adolescent and grown children who don't talk to their parents or siblings or vice versa. Sadly, many siblings not only drift away from each other over the years as their parents age, become unwell and ultimately die, but many have become embroiled in vicious fights over really unimportant issues. While some people think they are happier not speaking, and are determined to go to their graves in anger, others are hurting very badly but just don't know how to, want to or are unable to let go of issues in order to begin to make repairs. They would rather hold onto their grievances in anger than forgive and move on. Life is short and there is much to be gained for everyone by establishing a better relationship.

Let's examine this case vignette between siblings:

Several years ago a sister sensed some distance between she and her brother. Sitting on it for a while thinking it was her imagination, she nonetheless felt something was left unsaid which tainted their relationship. Finally, upset and with trepidation, she approached her brother.

Sister: "I have a feeling that you are unhappy with something that I have said or done in the past and I would really like to know if I have offended you."

Brother: "It really isn't important. It happened a long time ago. Let's forget it. It doesn't matter."

Sister: "Well, to me it does. If I don't know what it is I can't change anything and something clearly upset you."

Brother: [Proceeds to tell sister how his spouse was upset about a quick decision she, the sister, made over 30 years ago.]

Sister: [In shock that this was ever an issue as this was the first time she heard about it.] "Please tell me more," she asked. (Not at all easy to do when you want to state your side and defend your actions.)

Brother: [Begins telling his take on the situation and relates this to another incident which took place about 10 years ago.]

Sister: At this point after fully listening and hearing what her brother had to say, she stated that she could really understand how hurt and excluded her sister-in-law must have felt given the sister-in-law's understanding of the situation. She then explained how terribly sorry she was for hurting both her brother and her sister-in-law in any way and stated it was completely unintentional. She then went on to explain how from her perspective, her decision was made only out of caring and concern for her sister-in-law.

Conclusion: Had this been brought up at the time it happened, the misunderstanding could have easily been cleared up years ago. For years, the sister-in law, and eventually the brother, was upset, and valuable opportunities were lost. But by openly being willing to step back, listen and really hear where the other person was coming from now, this conversation enabled past issues to be dealt with and finally be put to rest.

How you approach the person who you are annoyed with is key to resolving a situation. You can say anything to anyone. How you choose to say it though, will determine how it is heard. While you may feel angry, hurt, indignant or abused, when initiating a conversation with someone who is upset with you, an open approach which focuses on trying to gain a deeper understanding of where the other is at has the potential to open up the conversation and begin the process of resolving long- standing issues. Your job is to try and understand what is going on from the other's perspective and not to pass judgment. Remember, we often are not witness to the events that went on in their life and that color their perception. See yourself as being teammates and not opponents. Being open to really hear the other person can change things dramatically. Use statements that begin with "I…" when you speak and don't blame or assume. Finally, ask what you can do to change things and find out what would be helpful or make things better. You might be surprised by the answer. Remember, when you're in a good mood, feel good about yourself or a situation, you are less likely to get upset, are more able to hear criticism and can laugh something off with greater ease.

Family relationships, in spite of their complexity have the potential to bind people with a similar and shared history. While many are not ideal, we can find the positive if we are willing to search a little and not focus on the negative. There may be lots of pain, with layer upon layer of hurt, which has eroded communication over the years and ultimately you may need professional help to enable you to sit down together to resolve issues. While this is just the beginning, if you can get this far, you can begin to open the door to a more sincere and lasting relationship.