Many years ago, at my cousin’s wedding, my Uncle Mel shared some angry words with his younger sister, Marilyn—“Your husband never comes to any of my family events!” he said sharply. “I’ve been to every one of your kid’s celebrations,” he snapped. From that moment, Marilyn never spoke to her brother again. Their silence lasted more than 15 years. They both went to their graves without a word between them. I was the only family member who actually witnessed their argument.
These two grew up in the depression, lost their mother when they were teenagers and lived through World War II. But they still decided to cut each other off. My mother, the oldest, tried to encourage them to let go of their grudge, but to no avail. It was sad and it impacted the relationship between their families.
These kinds of “grudges” are more common than I would like to think. There is usually a “back story” that precedes the offending behavior or remarks. In my Aunt’s case, she always felt that her big brother was critical of her. For her, his remark was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
The offended party often feels that ending the connection is protective. My Aunt Marilyn felt that she was ending a “toxic” relationship that was “dysfunctional”. I am sure she thought her response to my Uncle’s behavior was healthy. Unfortunately, in many instances, both individuals feel the same way about each other. My Uncle believed that he had done “nothing wrong” and had nothing to apologize for. Indeed, he felt that he was due an apology! This is the soil in which bitterness grows into years of silence and rancor.
Sometimes, it may be the case that an adult decides to have nothing to do with their family for just reasons. I see this frequently in families where children have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In these circumstances, the abusive relatives may deny their actions. This can be intolerable to the victimized family member. I understand this decision.
But more often, big rifts between family members don’t stem from abuse or neglect. They come from taking offense to another’s behavior in the context of a weak or strained relationship. But ending the relationship prevents the possibility of reconciliation and developing a deeper bond in the future. Furthermore, the rift often spreads out to other family members even though they were not involved. It can poison their relationships. It’s not healthy. Cutting off family relationships can be like cutting off your own arm.
So what can an offended family member do?
Reach out. Don’t be stubborn. Swallow your pride and reach out to your brother, sister, child, father, or mother. Seek a conversation about how to go forward, how to let go of the offense, and how to build a relationship. Focus on the future, not on the past. “I want to have a relationship with you” is a powerful message. “I want you in my life” is a statement of hope and promise.
Don’t give up. Keep sending out white smoke signals even if your family member doesn’t respond. Be patient and persistent. Water will round the edges of jagged stone.
Don’t write a long letter outlining your version of history. I know this is a big temptation. But it’s likely to evoke anger on your relative’s part. Most likely she will have a different version of history and will only feel reinjured by your account. Usually, each person has a different narrative about what really happened.
Hopefully, at some point, you will have a conversation. Listen, don’t interrupt, and inhibit the impulse to have the last word. Share your sorrow over the loss of possibility, focus on the future, and seek to understand rather than to be understood. I know. It’s always hard to take the high road in life. But it’s always the best road to ride.
How have you overcome a rift between you and a relative?