When family members have a falling out, is it possible to “make over” their problem dynamics?
Sure, we know that siblings squabble and middle-aged parents may still treat adult kids like teens. Those same young adults — in their twenties or older — may continue to rebel against issues that linger from childhood.
The result of conflicts like this?
Stubbornly we dig in, perpetuating the problems. We avoid frequent contact if we can. We cut off communication for long periods, or altogether.
So why is this a topic of particular relevance at midlife?
Mature Enough to Know What Matters
It isn’t that we slow down at 45 or 50 or 55… but with 20 or 30 years of adulthood behind us, we’re likely to be reshuffling priorities. We have the maturity to know what really matters.
Haven’t we made our share of mistakes — more than enough to realize that people are the most important ingredient in a life worth living? Haven’t we begun to watch our parents begin to age? Aren’t we beginning to consider how our universe will look in five years or 10? Don’t old squabbles start to seem less significant?
None of this is to underestimate the joy and significance we (and others) may derive from our work — whether we’re neurosurgeons or musicians or stay-at-home-mom (or dad) — how we spend our days, how we pursue our passions — we know these are vital to who we are. But navigating without any family?
It’s tough. It’s lonely. It’s sad.
Every Family Has Issues
Even in the most close knit families, an old rift or resentment may be allowed to go untended for too long. If it seems serious, what we need to ask ourselves:
- is it worth the end of the relationship or damage so significant that we will never be able to build a bridge back?
- Does this damage in anyway hurt my children? Does it hurt my aging parents? Would they benefit if I could make repairs?
- Are there others in the family who could help heal the rift?
- Will the other party to the problems be willing to talk, listen, own up to mistakes, and even possibly change?
- Am I capable of the same?
- If we don’t make amends, what does that future look like, and how are others I love impacted?
Naturally, I can’t answer these questions for you. All I can do — and have done — is ask them of myself. In so doing, I realize that my answers vary based on circumstances and also timing.
Why Families Fall Out
So what are the reasons family members fall out with one another? Why do some differences last a lifetime?
Psych Central explains how we screw up our kids when we compare them to each other. Think Smothers Brothers “Mom always liked you best” — but without the humor! Animosity is unavoidable. An undercurrent of dislike (and low self-worth for one) may develop into something much worse as those children become adults.
Sometimes, we’re dealing with a narcissistic personality… or just a difficult one! If every conversation becomes an argument, and “my way or the highway” is the only apparent resolution, family member or not, don’t we reach a point when enough is enough?
Disputes over money are another reason. Somehow, these disagreements feel more divisive when dealing with blood — especially if one of the parties is financially comfortable, and the other is not.
Mending the Familial Fences
Is it possible to make over family dynamics? If not completely, to achieve improvement? Can we outgrow disputes and quarrels, or at least put them in perspective and find a way to make peace?
These aren’t simple questions and the resolutions may take time, careful thought, and the involvement of others (to mediate). Let’s remember that mending fences (and restoring trust) may be a gradual process.
Our personalities, our emotional state at a point in time, our sense of security in life, our health, our financial situation, even our politics — all of these may trump the conventional wisdom that “you can always count on family.” In similar fashion, these same factors in how and where we are in life may lead us to approach differences more dispassionately, and focus on the potential of closer bonds. Maturity, and with it, our ability to look both back and ahead, are tools to use to our advantage.
We should also seriously consider external factors in any rifts. What if there’s a pressing situation we just don’t know about? Health problems, financial worries, marital issues? And what about our role in the drama. Shouldn’t we look in the mirror and see if we aren’t partially or wholly to blame?
The reasons that certain words and actions wound us are, of course, deeply personal. Likewise, I believe, the motivations for refashioning our damaged relationships.
The desire for reconciliation may take root in losses — our own, or those close to us — both of which are more prevalent as we grow older.
If our hearts are heavy witnessing a friend battling illness, don’t we envision a day when that struggle may be ours? Wouldn’t we want the support of family? If an estranged sibling or parent or child were suffering, wouldn’t we want to reach out?
At middle age, aren’t we more capable of forgiving and forgetting? Of forgiving, if not forgetting? Aren’t we more willing to simply accept what we cannot change, and find the good where we can?
We Don’t Choose Family
We may choose our friends and our mates, but we generally don’t get to choose our families. The concept of making over our parental and sibling relationships sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. I’ve dealt with these issues. I know how hard they are.
In one instance — which I characterize as an example of fool me once, shame on you, and fool me twice, shame on me — I cannot imagine ever healing the rift. Eight years after the event that caused the break for me, the sense of betrayal remains fresh. Only if the other person involved extended the olive branch, something that has not happened and I doubt it will, could I even consider a first step toward reconciliation. Trust was shattered — to the detriment of myself and my children — too many times.
In a second example involving issues with my mother, despite hurtful behaviors that left permanent scars, I came to understand that she would never change. I had to accept that. We were finding our way to re-establishing a polite connection just before she passed away. I’m glad we both made the effort while we still had time.
Hoping for Holiday Harmony
So what can we do? What is a reasonable set of expectations of ourselves and others if we look at familial dysfunction from the vantage point of our forties, our fifties, and beyond? Will experience enable us to find the compassion, the courage, and the perspective to make repairs?
For lesser challenges — you know the sort — Aunt Becky drives you crazy with her complaining, your elder sister can’t help but criticize, your adult children bicker non-stop and you wish they’d cut it out (especially at holiday gatherings)… we may have to dig deep for patience. We may also find that a quiet (non-accusatory) conversation might help, or pointing out the offending behaviors in a video clip of holiday preparations just might advance the cause!
If it’s important enough to us, surely it’s worth a try.
Falling Out for a Lifetime
One of the best ways to lead is by example. If we take steps toward resolving problems, we may encourage others in the family to follow suit.
Still, no one can tell you if it’s worth the emotional investment to attempt to bridge broken familial ties. Whether they’re the result of disappointments, rivalries, betrayals or toxic personalities, repair work of this type is never easy.
We may try and subsequently fail. We may decide to try again in a few years time. We may make a conscious decision not to try.
Though we may be bound by blood to those who have hurt us, some wounds never heal, some acts don’t ever warrant our forgiveness or, they don’t warrant forgiveness… yet.
Many will disagree with the concept that not forgiving is ever acceptable. That said, can we agree that these scenarios of irretrievable impasse ought to be the exception?
Enjoy more of the Makeover Series in entirety here.
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