Sorting Out Long-Simmering Family Conflicts

My advice is not to try.

Posted Jun 04, 2018

It is natural and generally a good idea to try to resolve conflicts with important people in your life. A conflict with a boss, for instance, can fester and lead to further conflicts down the road, even dismissal. Conflicts with close friends occur from time to time, frequently enough so that an attempt should be made to resolve them, lest we be left with no friends at all. This is not a theoretical proposition. I have patients who get offended by some small and sometimes inadvertent act of a friend and then refuse to speak to them ever again as a matter of pride. These individuals become misanthropes and end up embittered and solitary. And unhappy. Adolescents seem to be in a constant struggle with others who have, for some obscure reason, excluded them from a clique. They learn from these disappointments the skills of rapprochement and how to readily manage these momentary rejections. This kind of learning is part of growing up. When you come to think of it, an essential part of marriage is quickly resolving the endless difference of opinion about everything from decorating to how to manage the children. Divorce is a testament to how difficult this process may be.

But there are exceptions to the desirability of making peace with a quarrelsome or antagonistic person. Here are some:

Don't worry about individuals with whom you have no ongoing relationship. Try not to get strangers to agree with you politically, or about anything else. Do not argue with someone with whom you have just been involved in an automobile accident. It is natural to think the other person is at fault. And what difference does it make, anyway? The matter will be resolved by the police report and by the insurance companies.

Do not argue with those you know well enough to know they will never consider that they may be wrong. Determining who was rude to the other first in an incident that happened many years ago is a waste of time. Do not, as a rule, argue with a boss who remembers things differently than you do.

Do not try to fix a relationship in which you have been rejected over and over again. This situation can happen in families. Do not stalk a former lover with the idea that if only you explained exactly what happened, he/she would come back to you.

Finally, do not try to convince someone that he/she is wrong when being wrong means admitting to something terrible. Falling into this classification are long-standing family disputes. I have seen a surprising number of situations where one sibling thinks another has stolen money from their parents. I have never seen a situation where the other sibling finally agreed, even when there was a court judgement to that effect. Thinking of oneself as a thief is not tolerable to most people.

And then there are the long-simmering, long-standing disputes I referred to earlier.

One such incident (out of very many):

A man in his 30s had not seen anyone in his family for years. He felt bad about this. He had once been very close to an older sister, but things had gone wrong between them. He told me his family was “dysfunctional.” Not only did they argue constantly with each other; they tended to blame him for everything. They accused him of bullying his younger siblings, of stealing money he thought they owed him, of refusing to take on responsibility when their father was in the hospital sobering up, of instigating fights between his parents, and so on. He denied all of this to me. More important to him, however,  was the fact that his mother had always denigrated him and, in other ways, abused him. He was treated with contempt, repeatedly. She was a miserable mother: angry, scolding, indifferent, absent much of the time, and to sum it all up, an unloving, terrible mother.

I listened to this account with my usual understanding that family matters are so charged that no one remembers them exactly. Nevertheless, there was no doubt in my mind that his mother was, in fact, a terrible mother.

Despite their prolonged estrangement, my patient accepted an invitation to a Christmas family dinner with the intention of explaining all his grievances to his family, so that they would understand where he was coming from. He wanted “closure.” He wanted “validation,” which in his case did not mean that they would accept him from now on as the person he was, but rather that they would understand and admit finally that he had been right all along, and they had been wrong. He wanted to “get everything straight.”

"Forget it," I told him. "Things are going to get more crooked. Your sister might or might not admit at some point  that she had been wrong from time to time; but not on Christmas. Your mother will never admit that she had been a 'terrible mother.' Some things are too hard to admit to oneself, and that was surely one of them.

The evening ended prematurely with his mother crying and his storming out of the house, determined once again to avoid them forever.

Assuming he wanted to recover some element of a family relationship, what should he have done?

He should not have tried to recapitulate the past. Especially not on Christmas Eve. The past is full of guilt and resentments that cannot be washed away with a single conversation or confession. And confession is not usual in families. Defensiveness and denial are the rule. What he should have done was avoid bringing up the conflicts of the past. If someone else had brought them up, he should not have offered an apology he did not feel. He should have said something like, “I’m sorry you remember it that way, and I hope we can put all of that behind us. I want to be part of the family.”

Any relationship that depends on someone admitting that they were in the wrong is not likely to survive. It is better to move on.

I am reminded of an old friend of mine, who was married to an older friend. I knew that she had been offended by me in the past, but I did not know exactly what I had done. Most of the time, our families got along fine, but every once in a while, Charlotte (not her name) would have too much to drink. Her eyes would cross a little, which is how I knew. Then she would speak to me seriously,

“Fred, I think we should get some things straight.”

“I’m too sleepy,” I always said, “Time to go to bed.”

I am inclined in these situations to let sleeping dogs lie, and that is what I recommend to others.