Family Feuds: What can you do about them?


Family feuds are not unusual. They happen in the best of families, even where most of the time members are kind and loving. Occasionally something triggers one or two of the members to rebel and frequently the entire family is affected.

This happened in my own family when I was in my teen years. My two older sisters—only two years apart—had always been close. They even chose to have a double wedding and go on their honeymoon together. For the first few years after their marriage the two couples also planned their holidays together. Eventually one couple decided to take a trip by themselves. The other couple was hurt and offended to the point of breaking off all contact. This discord threw the rest of our family into a dilemma. If one couple came for dinner, the other couple refused and when one sister was visiting in our home and saw the other sister drive up in her car, she hurried out the back door as the other came in the front door. This “ridiculous foolishness”—as my father called it—lasted for several months. Finally, the couples made up and our family was at ease again.

Foolish? Ridiculous? Petty? Of course! Most family feuds are, and they can start over almost anything: hurt feelings from imagined or real insults, a difference in personal values, power plays, politics, money, greed. The latter is especially prevalent when adult siblings gather to divide the possessions of a deceased parent. One man, who is no longer on good terms with his brother, said, “Jim didn’t want Dad’s stereo set until I mentioned that I would like to have it. He pulled the same stunt when we were growing up. He always tried to take what I wanted.”

Often a feud is caused not only by most recent incidents, but can happen because of years of hidden resentments and jealousies. A woman, whose mother gave her brother a larger inheritance, commented bitterly, “Mother always loved him more than she loved me.” Because of all her resentment she only sees her brother occasionally.

While family feuds cannot be avoided entirely, they can be reduced considerably in several ways. The first is by taking the initiative of the first step toward reconciliation. Holding on to old grudges and resentments puts a heavy burden on family relationships, and keeps the members from “making up.”

Alice and her aunt had not spoken to each other for two years, since the day the aunt had criticised Alice unkindly. Alice decided the silent treatment had gone far enough and she phoned her aunt to invite her out for lunch.

Acceptance of family members also helps to lessen the chance of a family feud and to smooth out an existing one. Allowing family members to be themselves and not expect them to be other than they are, eases tensions in the relationship.

Ellen frequently criticised her husband’s younger sister, Sue, because Ellen didn’t like Sue’s lifestyle. Her negative comments about Sue created disharmony between Ellen and her husband and tension mounted whenever Ellen openly aired her opinions to Sue. Eventually Ellen decided she couldn’t change Sue so she would try to accept her. The two may never be close friends because of their basic differences but by Ellen allowing Sue to have her own space without criticism, they can manage to get along peaceably when they are together as a family.

Flare-ups and tensions are less frequent when family members treat one another with courtesy and respect. Sometimes these qualities are shown only to friends and acquaintances, often leaving family members hurt and angry because of the behaviour shown toward them. Mary wouldn’t think of not phoning her friend to let her know that she is going to be late for dinner, but she might keep her aunt wondering what has happened to her until she arrives.

Good manners should not be reserved for “outsiders”; they go a long way in maintaining family harmony when they are also shown to the “insiders.”

Some relatives can be the best of friends, if they are treated that way. “My sister is my best friend,” Carla says. “She has helped me work through my problems. I have also tried to be there for her when she has needed me. We have good times together.” The relationship between Carla and her sister is a beautiful relationship; it has friendship plus the bond of family.

Of course, not all family members can attain this type of relationship. Sometimes a relative’s personality, values and actions are so irritating that sparks fly over the smallest incidents.

Psychologists suggest that sometimes distance between the those involved in a feud is the best solution, but that they should leave the door ajar for a future reconciliation. Two brothers who had avoided each other for years met for a reunion. “Our sense of rivalry was still there,” one brother noted later. “But we have both matured and mellowed a bit. Our feelings have been softened with some understanding and sympathy. I am glad we met and we plan to meet again.

Sometimes a person is caught in the crossfire of a feud between two relatives. When that happens the “middle man” needs to remember not to foster the feud, by not taking sides or criticising relatives. An uncle, after listening to one of his nephews complain about another nephew, asked, “Why don’t you call Al and tell him how you feel? Maybe if you can talk together the problem between you can be ironed out.”

Talking out the problem is always a good idea, if the desire to understand the other person’s side is as sincere as the desire to be understood. Love and forgiveness create the basis for family harmony. But it also requires a few other attributes such as acceptance, courtesy and understanding.

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