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

Published: Thursday, July 3 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 9 2014 1:18 p.m. MDT

The tough family conflicts Paul has contemplated include religious differences, the breaking of a moral code — like someone going to jail — and disagreements about lifestyle, such as gay marriage or interfaith marriage.

To forge rapport, someone must make an overture. He recommends meeting in public for a meal. It provides social and physical safety and a psychological boost from eating together.

Paul's formula for the conversation: Take turns talking not about the problem, but about "how I got to where I am" with respect to each other or the issue. A boy who left his mother's church should not talk about his religious beliefs, but how he reached them. The honesty and emotion of sharing usually crumble part of the wall separating people. The potential for healing is in sharing and feeling listened to, confided in, trusted.

It's also important to share how the disputed issue enhances one's life. If one married outside the family's faith, for instance: "She makes me feel loved." If one changed faiths: "This is why I love being Catholic...."

Next, said Paul, talk about difficult things that arise, the other side of what one holds so dear. Then, define the problem one has with the other, against the background of having spent time together "deep in feelings and honesty."

"The desire is not to debate, but to witness, share experiences and be open to letting others do the same," Paul said. "You cannot influence somebody else unless they feel you are open to their influence."

Making peace

Marren had been an altar boy growing up on Long Island and was active in his Catholic parish in college, too. When at 22 he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "the fallout was painful. There were snide jokes hurled in my direction." He and his mother argued. She endured, too, the reaction of neighbors and friends.

In 1981 he moved to Provo, Utah. Soon after, he left on a mission to London, England.

The mission deepened his faith but also gave everyone a chance to cool down. Midway through it, his sister told him there was a Tony-shaped hole in the family's Christmas celebration. He hadn't seen her for two years. When his mission ended, his mom was at the airport. Today, his distance from family is geographical, not emotional. Marren, who has colon cancer, talks to one brother by phone every few days.

Rebuilding relationships takes honesty and patience, said O'Neill, who also said she wishes more people knew how to really listen to others.

Each person in a conflict must look at their part in it, said Anastasia Pollock, mental health counselor and clinical director of Life Stone Counseling Centers in Midvale, Utah. She encourages people to own their part in a rift, even if it's small. "Perception's a really important piece of conflict resolution," she said. "Validating (the other person's feelings) doesn't mean 'you're right and I'm wrong.'"

It helps to assume both parties have good intentions, despite the disagreement, she said.

Professional help may be desirable. Pollock and other experts say one advantage of addressing conflict with a therapist's help is a neutral setting. "It's new to both," she said, adding the brain is easily triggered by senses and a familiar environment might heighten memories of conflict.

While it's possible to work through things without professional help, O'Neill said to be very clear about what you want to have happen and perhaps talk through your plan with a professional.

One day when it appeared his marriage was doomed, Maggie Noud's husband, Jeff, was stuck in rush-hour traffic, "looking at everyone around me and hating every individual in every car" for not seeing his pain. He pulled off the road and prayed. It was his turning point.

"Read, listen and associate" became his healing mantra. He read books that gave him good information, he learned to listen actively and he associated with people doing things he wanted in his life. He wanted to be a better person, to have a better marriage. Eleven years later, he and Maggie are solidly together and have three kids, 12, 9 and 3.

It was a long process, Maggie Noud said, but "it is possible to heal completely if you go all in."

"We are closer than ever. I would not change the past if it meant changing who we have become now," Jeff Noud agreed.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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