Thursday, 21 June 2012

Family rifts

Photo of lightening in forbidding sky

Sometimes things happen which stop you in your tracks and cause you to look again at the way you do things.

In the last few weeks, I have had some difficult moments with my family - my siblings in particular. No, I'm not going to tell you any of the juicy details because this story isn't mine alone to tell. But I am going to share the profound effect this has had on me. And what we did to avoid a disagreement turning into a family rift. 

Families are complex systems, constantly in a state of flux as youngsters grow up, new members are added as in-laws, older members pass on and others simply leave. I would describe my family of origin as having 'loose but tight' connections to each other. This means we can always rely on each other to be there if we are needed, without living in each other's pockets. A rift in our family would affect my sense of security, my knowledge about where I've come from and how that has helped to make me who I am today.

The lightning strike impact of being told you are wrong

In a free country we grow up with our right to hold our own opinions - and to share them when we feel moved to do so. Most of the time we share common core values with the people we care most about. It's no surprise that at a deeper level we generally agree about the things which are most important to us. Sometimes we may not express what we mean very well. Or maybe we don't listen very attentively to what is being said. And then misunderstandings follow. But most of the time we are secure in the knowledge that deep down we agree about the important stuff.

Until we don't.

When this happened just recently, I was shocked to the core about how disabled I felt by being told I was wrong - not just by anyone but by someone I care for. I felt judged, not just for holding the wrong opinion but for being me. My instinct was to go on the defensive. And I was in a mess emotionally - angry and upset at the same time - certainly not able to see the other point of view.

I was also frightened. In families people soon adopt a position, take a view. Before you know it, there is the risk of a rift opening up as people take sides. What would be the knock on effects?

How did we cope?

The difficulties between my siblings and I had all the hallmarks of an unexploded bomb, suddenly uncovered and with unknown potential to create wide-ranging damage. It took courage and commitment to work through our differences. The courage to be completely honest and stick with the issue until we at least understood each other's perspective, even if we didn't agree. And the commitment to our relationships - to continue working to put things right and prevent the rift becoming bigger than it needed to be.

As we let our emotions die down, we used a simple but vital tactic to deal with our conflict. We identified specifically what it was we disagreed about and separated this from any judgement about who we are as people. In this way we were able to retain our respect for each other. As we looked at the bigger picture, we discovered we had the same overall objective. In this case a core value about caring for others, even though we disagreed about the best way to achieve it.

What lessons have I learnt?

There are many. A couple are key:

The first is 'Time Heals'. It may not put things back like they were before. It simply allows the high emotions to subside. Reason is allowed back in and you can begin to work out once more what is really important to you. If you find yourself in conflict give yourself - and the others involved - time. How much time might depend on the scale of the argument. You may only need a little 'Time Out'. Or you may need to take things in small steps as you rebuild bridges.

The second is a reminder that only comes from experiencing strong emotions first hand. Even when you have lots of useful techniques for managing your state of mind, for choosing the right words to use or avoid, for seeing the other point of view, you can still be momentarily disabled by strong emotions.

If this has rung any bells for you, please leave a comment below - or get in touch.


  1. Thanks for sharing this very personal story, Jenny. I think that one of the keys to sorting out potential conflicts is, as you say, having the courage to really 'speak your truth' about the situation and what's going on for you. When everyone is able to do that, understanding and healing can then take place. It sounds as if you were able to do that admirably. Not easy, though.

  2. Hi Annabel, thanks for your comment. I'm not sure it felt 'admirably'at the time. It was a realisation about the consequences that made me hang on in there despite being very upset. I took a while to decide to publish this story - and was only persuaded by the lesson that it's all too easy to forget how disabling strong emotions can be. And this is where our clients often find themselves.