How to Help Your Family Thrive: Reparation
Part 3: Healing ruptures in family cohesion
Posted Oct 07, 2019
How are a sense of morale and cohesion restored after being damaged?
Just as important as knowing how to build cohesion and morale, one must recognize how to restore these qualities when they have been damaged. The most common way they are injured is through some form of betrayal. This can take many forms.
Betrayal may arise when the child finds that a parent has been hypocritical: a mother who always emphasized honesty is found to have cheated her business partner.
Another common path of betrayal is when parents divorce. Although the parents may have struggled and sacrificed to make the marriage work for years, and only came to the decision of divorce after much heartache, children frequently see this as a major betrayal of what they had counted upon.
Extreme anger outbursts, especially when accompanied by hurtful remarks, is a frequent source of betrayal.
Embarrassing another family member in public by disclosing something that had been expressed in private has devastating consequences. This occurs most often between siblings, but likewise is seen between parent/child and husband/wife duos. As kryptonite is to Superman, this form of betrayal is to family morale and cohesion. It should never occur, and if it does must be dealt with quickly and decisively in order to prevent its corrosive impact from rooting deeply within a relationship.
Family stress can also fracture cohesion and morale (it may also strengthen morale, and cohesion, depending upon the family dynamics). When one member of a family has a chronic illness that saps the time and other resources of the parents it can lead to resentment and alienation. When parents have intense and frequent conflicts this has the same impact. So too does financial stress when parents are not united in their response (when parents are united, and clearly communicate with their children why their ‘lifestyle’ will change dramatically to meet the demands of this financial crisis, families may enhance their cohesion).
Other sources of stress to family cohesion and morale could be mentioned, but these are some of the most common. I should note at this point that it is much easier to destroy cohesion, and degrade moral, than it is to build these qualities. The obvious lesson is that it is best to avoid such injuries in the first place.
This still leaves the question of what to do once these challenges to morale and cohesion have occurred?
The best responses fall into four categories (which often overlap). We will briefly look at each of these responses.
One: Take Ownership Of Mistakes. After a family setback, Dea Dean, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Ridgeland Mississippi, stresses the importance of setting aside “Intentional time to establish healthy emotional boundaries, family expectations and desires and listen to the perspectives and ideas of all [family] members.”
As a parent, part of this process may be responding to a mistake that you made. Quickly move to own it. That’s right, own up to the fact that you messed up. Apologize. Seek forgiveness. Then ask what you need to do in order to make things right. If the response is reasonable, get after it. Get it done and put the whole thing behind you.
What’s more, do this as soon as possible. Don’t make a mistake that hurts someone, that degrades family morale/cohesion, and then sit around thinking about it for several weeks. Move quickly to make the repair.
As Lauren Cook stresses, “The best thing to model for children is what it looks like to recover after messing up – and that includes apologizing and acknowledging the other person’s feelings.”
Important guidance: when someone takes responsibility for their mistakes it goes miles and miles towards healing a hurt, towards mending a wound. The person who has been injured feels respected, his or her self-worth restored. What’s more, the person who owns the mistake feels a huge weight lifted off their shoulders (surprisingly, even if the apology is not accepted).
So, man up. Own up to your mistakes. What’s more, make your apology clear, don’t muck it up with justifications for why you behaved poorly. If you end up saying something along the lines of “I’m really sorry but if you had not done X then I would not have done Y…” just stop. It’s not an apology, it’s an excuse. Provide a genuine apology. End of story. Trust me, you’ll feel better.
Two: Forgiveness. The flip side of this is that generous portions of forgiveness are also needed to restore family morale and cohesiveness. Providing this element within a relationship will be harder for most people than offering an apology. Even so, an attempt should be made. As I’ve written about elsewhere, forgiveness is often a process rather than a single decision point.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that forgiveness is a feeling. It is a decision: feelings have nothing to do with whether you forgive someone. Forgiveness means you wipe away the debt owed to you by another for an injustice that person committed. That debt may have been incurred by something they said to you, stole from you, betrayed you, or failed you – forgiveness simply means they are no longer in your debt on that account. You will not hold that against them with regard to your relationship.
Forgiveness does not mean that what the person did is of no consequence. Nor does it mean that you pretend it never happened. If your child let’s you down by taking the car on a joy ride in the middle of the night you would be a poor parent to pretend it never happened. Forgive your teen, but also do a better job of tracking the car keys.
Three: Compassion. Consideration and kindness expressed toward one’s children and spouse also goes a long way to restoring family unity. More specifically, extending compassion toward an offending family member promotes healing of wounds. This does not mean that their behavior is excused, but it does provide a bridge for reconciliation.
Parents who demonstrate a sense of mercy with regard to mistakes provide their children with invaluable lessons. They learn that when someone falls short, it need not destroy a relationship… rebuilding is possible, although not a guarantee.
Children who are on the receiving end of mercy are also more likely to feel a sense of gratitude, and more secure in their place within the family. It is important, however, that mercy be extended in response to genuine contrition. When consistently applied without any regard to whether the person takes responsibility for his/her error, it can catalyze a sense of entitlement and arrogance.
Four: Persistence. When family morale has taken a hit and cohesion is only a fond memory rather than a current event, it is easy to lack the motivation to continue with family traditions, get togethers, and the like.
Nevertheless, it is at these very times that it is most important to pull the family together and engage in these sorts of activities. This takes grit. Persistence. The discipline to lean in and do what needs to be done even when you would rather do nearly anything else.
Levi and Jennie Lusko had a tradition. Every Thursday they had a ‘date night.’ It was important for helping their marriage flourish. They also reasoned that their children benefited by seeing their mother and father enjoying one another’s company even after many years of marriage.
When tragedy struck, and their five-year old daughter Lenya suddenly died, the family was engulfed in a period of profound grief. Moreover, because their little girl died as a result of a severe asthma attack she had while they were on a date night, this tradition became saturated with painful emotions.
Despite their heartbreak, the Lusko’s soon resumed their Thursday tradition of dating. It required them to initially meet in the morning rather than evening, and to hide the ever-present tears by wearing sunglasses while in restaurants during their date. Nevertheless, the tradition continued, and at least in some small measure it helped the parents cling to one another, and lift their morale if only incrementally.
Jennifer Daffon, a psychologist in private practice in Mountlake Terrance, Washington, aptly observes that “When there’s been some sort of relational rift or break, these rituals serve as a sort of relationship buffer and prevent too much damage from being done.” Put somewhat differently, family traditions and rituals have the dual role of being like shock absorbers and glue. They soften the impact of interfamilial hurts, and bind family members one to another in times of distress.
Bottom line: when cohesion and morale have suffered a severe blow, it is time to lean in on family traditions and routines, especially those that were previously helpful in maintaining a healthy/happy family spirit.
Families thrive when the individual members feel a strong emotional bond, a sense of connection, shared purpose, and devotion. This in turn leads to high family morale, a happier home, and a fuller life.
But a strong sense of family cohesion and good spirits does not emerge accidentally. Intentional efforts aimed at building family traditions, explicitly affirming one another, and insisting that individuals shoulder family responsibilities are important for building this sort of healthy climate.
Every family will, in time, face challenges that severely test and sometimes degrade the cohesion and high morale that had been built within the home. This is not the end of the world. In fact, these occasions are opportunities to teach children how to repair broken relationships. When parents take the lead in confidently making efforts to restore the old order of things, cohesion and morale emerge again. Often stronger than before.