‘Please write a column on family arguments,” a good friend requested as we
parted ways after a walk and a chat. “Hmm, where does one go with that,” I
wondered. Having recently written a book on relationships, I see no shortage of
people in my practice who are in a great deal of trouble with their family
As I thought back on my week, both in and out of the office, I was
reminded how blessed I am that in my extended family, even if we’re not all that
close, we are at least on speaking terms with one another – not something to be
taken for granted! I see adolescent and grown children who don’t talk to their
parents or siblings and vice versa. Sadly, many siblings not only drift away
from each other over the years as their parents age, become unwell and
ultimately die, but many have become embroiled in vicious fights over really
While some people think they are happier not speaking and
are determined to go to their graves in anger, others are hurting very badly but
just don’t know how to or are unable to let go of issues in order to begin to
make amends. They would rather hold onto their grievances in anger than forgive
and move on. Life is short and there is much to be gained for everyone by
establishing better relationships.
Let’s examine this case vignette
between siblings: Several years ago, a sister sensed some distance between
herself and her brother. For a while she thought it was her imagination, but she
felt something had been left unsaid, which tainted their
Finally, upset and with trepidation, she approached her
Sister: I have a feeling that you are unhappy with something I
have said or done in the past and I would really like to know if I have offended
Brother: It really isn't important. It happened a long time ago.
Let’s forget it. It doesn’t matter.
Sister: Well, it does to me. If I
don't know what it is, I can’t change anything, and something has clearly upset
Brother: [Proceeds to tell sister how his wife was upset about a
quick decision she, the sister, made over 30 years ago.] Sister: [In shock that
this was ever an issue, as this is the first time she’s heard about it.] Please
tell me more. [Not at all an easy response when you want to state your side and
defend your actions.] Brother: [Gives his take on the situation and relates this
to another incident that took place about 10 years ago.] After fully listening
to and hearing what her brother had to say, the sister stated that she could
really understand how hurt and excluded her sister-in-law must have felt, given
the sister-in-law’s understanding of the situation. She then explained how
terribly sorry she was for hurting both her brother and her sister-in-law and
stated that it had been completely unintentional. She went on to explain how,
from her perspective, her decision had been made only out of caring and concern
for her sister-in-law.
HAD THIS been brought up at the time it happened,
the misunderstanding could have easily been cleared up years ago. For years the
sister-in-law was upset – and eventually the brother was too – and valuable
opportunities for clearing up the misunderstanding were lost. But by openly
being willing to step back, listen and really hear where the other person was
coming from now, this conversation enabled past issues to be dealt with and
finally be put to rest.
How you approach the person you are annoyed with
is key to resolving a situation.
You can say anything to anyone. How you
choose to say it though, will determine how it is heard. While you may feel
angry, hurt, indignant or abused, when initiating a conversation with someone
who is upset with you, an open approach focused on trying to gain a deeper
understanding of the other’s side has the potential to open up the conversation
and begin the process of resolving long-standing issues. Your job is to try to
understand what is going on from the other’s perspective and not to pass
Remember, we often are not witness to the events that went on
in their lives, which color their perception. See yourselves as teammates rather
than opponents. Being open to really hearing the other person can change things
Use statements that begin with “I”; don’t blame or make
assumptions. Finally, ask what you can do to change things and find out what
would be helpful or make things better. You might be surprised by the answer.
Remember, when you’re in a good mood and feel good about yourself or a
situation, you are less likely to get upset, are more able to accept criticism
and can laugh things off with greater ease.
Family relationships, in
spite of their complexity, have the potential to bind people with a similar and
shared history. While many are not ideal, we can find the positive if we are
willing to search a little and not focus on the negative. There may be lots of
pain, with layer upon layer of hurt which has eroded communication over the
years and ultimately you may need professional help to enable you to sit down
together to resolve issues. While this is just the beginning, if you can get
this far, you can begin to open the door to a more sincere and lasting
Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in
private practice in Ra’anana. Send correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org or
visit her website at www.drbatyaludman.com.
Her book, Life’s Journey.
Exploring Relationships – Resolving Conflicts, was recently published by Devora