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