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7 Effective ways to fix a family feud, according to experts

BY Edwin Kiester and Sally Valente Kiester

11th Sep 2023 Inspire

4 min read

7 Effective ways to fix a family feud, according to experts
Family feuds can be among the most vicious of disputes but, with some careful mediating, there is always a way to come back from them
Tears came to Molly's eyes as she looked across the dinner table at her three sons and their families. Molly felt sad because four faces were missing: those of her youngest son Tom, his wife Eileen arid their two children.
Years before, Eileen and another of Molly's daughters-in-law had stopped speaking after an incident they resolutely refused to explain. Now they refused even to be under the same roof.
Two years after David's first wife died, he decided to marry again. He asked his eldest son, Charles, to be best man. Charles accepted, but then, after a squabble over his father's cat, he suddenly backed out and wouldn't even go to the wedding. Deeply hurt, David cut off all contact with his son. It was ten years before the two were reconciled.
"Unfortunately, most feuds arise from petty incidents, the details of which are long forgotten"
As families become more mobile and dispersed and their ties fragment, virtually all of them seem to have some ongoing feud. Often the anger rages for years, painfully wounding other family members, like Molly, as much as the combatants.
Unfortunately, most feuds arise from petty incidents, the details of which are long forgotten, says Jay Folberg, an experienced mediator of family disputes. All that remains is the carved-in-stone attitudes of parties too stubborn to take a conciliatory step.
"I'd make up in a minute," one of Molly's daughters-in-law told her. "But I won't be the first to phone."
In these cases, it may be time for a go-between. This could be a respected family member, a spiritual adviser, a counsellor—or you.
"Despite the animosity and the duration of the rift," says Jay Folberg, "it's an odd person who doesn't ultimately want a better relationship with people he or she once loved."
If you'd like to bring harmony back to your feuding family, here are some strategies experts suggest:

1. Do it now

When you see hostilities escalating, step in quickly. The longer you wait, the more embittered participants become, and the harder it is to make peace. "Remember the clock is always running," says psychologist Carl Zlatchin.
Bernice Itkin, a family counsellor who has negotiated numerous deathbed reconciliations, recalls the case of a mother who had bitterly denounced her son after he married someone of a different religion. Years had passed since the two had spoken; the woman had never seen her grandchildren.
Finally, when the mother had only days to live, the son relented. Tears cascaded down her pillow as she embraced him.
"Do you have photographs?" she asked in a quavering voice. Moments later, she saw the faces of her grandchildren for the first time. "She died within a few days,"
Bernice Itkin says. "But I'm sure she died smiling. I just wish all reunions could occur in time."

2. Don't take favourites

Mother in law having feud with daughter in law over son
Break the ice with both parties simultaneously, making it clear you are strictly an intermediary. That's what Carolyn and her brother Harold did after trying to make peace between their mother and aunt for nearly a year.
"Harold went to Mum on the same evening I saw Aunt Martha," says Carolyn. "That way, neither could feel we had approached the other first."
"Make it clear it's time to create a new history, not rewrite the old one"
According to Carl Zlatchin, "If you talk to one before the other, you give the impression that the two of you are going to gang up on the third. You want to avoid that."
Hear each side with a neutral ear. And don't look for confessions or apologies, says Folberg.
"Make it clear it's time to create a new history, not rewrite the old one." Adds Zlatchin: "You can begin by saying, 'I don't know how this started, and I don't care. I just know the whole family is being hurt.' That kind of appeal is hard to resist."

3. Establish ground rules

Ask each party for suggestions about where to meet and what to discuss. Then compare the two lists. Agreement on minor points, such as who sits where or who speaks first, can foster discussion of larger issues.
Sometimes a traditional family gathering can serve as a meeting ground helping each party edge towards the other in a warm, supportive atmosphere. Don't push the idea too hard, however, if either party is unwilling. Some feuders prefer to attempt reconciliation in private, where they feel less "on display."
Once they're face to face, let each state his case without interruption by the other. Keep the discussion centred on problems and feelings, not personalities. Rule out remarks such as "Sam has always had a mean streak" or "Mary has it in for me because I'm brighter."
Above all, follow the agreed meeting plan to the letter. Any deviation may be seen as favouritism.

4. Try the "Columbo approach"

Bernice Itkin named this technique after the ostensibly innocent manner of the television detective.
"Now let me see if I have this straight," you might begin. "At the Christmas party ten years ago, she spilled champagne on your new dress, and you've been angry ever since. Have I got that right?"
Says Bernice Itkin, "When you put it that way, people often see how foolish they've been to blow an incident so far out of proportion."

5. Recall happy times

Father and son reconciling on sofa
When Meredith was the go-between in a longstanding disagreement between her father and brother, she stressed special moments the two had shared.
"Happiness in the past can mean happiness in the future"
"I said to Dad, 'Remember the cricket game when you were umpiring and called Jimmy out? How he cried, and you comforted him and told him people had to be fair even when it hurt? Jimmy still remembers that.' My dad got tearful and I knew I had jumped the first hurdle."
"The message," says Zlatchin, "is that happiness in the past can mean happiness in the future. You have to try and bring back the old close feelings."

6. Don't expect miracles

Some warring parties may agree to let bygones be bygones. For others, the reunion may never be complete.
"Mother and Aunt Martha seemed relieved when their feud ended," Carolyn recalls, "although I doubt they'll ever be close again. But it certainly improved my relationship with both of them."
Once the healing process has begun, work to keep it going. A reconciliation of family members not only frees combatants from the baggage of old grudges but also benefits the entire family. And it is those ties of blood—in times of crisis and joy—that give families the strength and support they need.
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