How To Heal A Seemingly Intractable Family Rift
It started innocuously enough, it seemed. It was a blog post about grandparents who are denied access to their grandkids. The author’s point was basically life is too short to suffer petty differences and allow them to fester into all-out family feuds. She advised people to find a way to lay aside differences before it’s too late. Seems like good advice, right?
Hell, no apparently. The comments, several hundred of them, ran the gamut from folks calling the obviously well-intentioned writer, “passive aggressive and preachy” to others scolding her, “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” to “thanks for ripping my heart out and offering no solution.”
I see both sides. I do now, at least. When my first child was born a sudden knowledge came to me. I became of aware of what my mother felt as a parent. It settled over me, an instant clarity of sorts.
“Oh,” I remember thinking shortly after her birth as I held my daughter and looked into that tiny perfect face. “Now I get it. This is what it means to be someone’s mother.”
Then, when my grandson was born I felt instinctively what it means to be a grandparent. I knew I’d jump in front of an oncoming train for that boy. It was then I realized, way too late, what it must have felt like for my in-laws to be distanced from my daughters. It couldn’t have been what they really wanted.
So, yes, I see both sides of the complicated bad family feud. Like the post’s author I would counsel others to work for peace in their families. But like many of the commenters, I lived through a bitter family feud. My in-laws — my children’s grandparents — weren’t denied access to my kids but instead they chose to be distant, despite living only 10 minutes away. They were preyed upon by one of their children, a daughter so narcissistic and insecure she needed to alienate her parents from her siblings in order to feel loved and validated. She worked tirelessly for thirty years to do so, sadly succeeding in tearing her family apart. So, my kids were denied access to their grandparents.
My husband and I were victims but not totally innocent. We had pride, which early on occasionally fostered choices that made the situation worse. The question in these family feuds is often, “Do you want to be right or to make peace?” Maybe we chose to be right more often than we chose to make peace.
We know now it was a losing proposition either way. Our opponent didn’t ever want peace; she thrived on causing strife. But my in-laws could have been reached. We allowed our hurt feelings to guide our choices. We didn’t want to force my husband’s parents to embrace us if they didn’t want us around so after 15 years of attempting to achieve peace we just closed ranks and pulled away. Their daughter used to tell her parents we were the “toxic” ones. We long ago gave up working to prove otherwise.
Were we as bitter as some of the commenters? Absolutely. Bitter and angry for 30 years. As I read the vehemence of the comments I was transported back to the feelings I thought I buried and left behind. So, yes, angry family feud combatants, I do understand how you feel. I understand your need to cut some dangerous people out of your life and your children’s lives. And I know that is not a decision anyone makes lightly.
But still, I urge you to search for a glimmer of hope in your tattered family. We could never have achieved peace with my sister-in-law. In her own words and by her own choice, she was truly “toxic.” We were right to let her go.
But perhaps the relationship with my husband’s parents could have been saved if we had tried harder. If we had been relentless in our pursuit of peace, if we had tried harder to communicate our feelings and our intentions rather than giving up and allowing the distance they put between us to ferment and grow like yeast, maybe we could have salvaged a semblance of family.
My daughters didn’t really have grandparents for most of their lives. I still feel that void for them. Their grandparents are gone now. We will never have an opportunity to work anything out. It’s sad. Now that I’m a grandparent I know how strong that bond can be. My grandson is one of the great lights of my life. I can’t imagine being denied this loving relationship.
Maybe the writer of that blog post unintentionally made light of a complex situation and offended some readers. It’s unimaginably excruciating to be enmeshed in a dysfunctional family. Those of us who lived it are understandably defensive and easily inflamed. The pain scars the heart and the soul. I know. Believe me I know, hell, I wrote an entire book about it.
So, I won’t suggest every family can be saved. I won’t suggest every grandparent or family member deserves access to the family. I will suggest you take a closer look at your family rift and if you see any light coming through that darkness, it may be worth trying one more time to make peace.
There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from the reaction of the angry commenters. Family rifts are like a tsunami. They begin with rumblings under the surface and then erupt, drowning everything in the path — innocents included. After the wave recedes sage advice about communication and the need to seek a way back to peace can rip old wounds open again.
So try if you can but know this: if you can’t mend the family rift you and your kids can go on to live happy lives. We did. But it doesn’t mean we have no regrets as we look back.
If you’re involved in a dysfunctional family you may be comforted by reading my story. It’s available here. If you have a story to share, feel free to comment. I promise I’ll understand.
About the author – Deborah Carroll