Family Business Matters 02/12 12:27
Family Business Matters 02/12 12:27
Breaking Ties, Healing Wounds
Family members may have severed connections, but they can attempt strategies
to move forward.
By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser
Family members don't often talk about why they are estranged from one
another. Perhaps they are ashamed to admit they can't get along with a
relative, or maybe they feel they have failed at being a family. Some may not
understand why their siblings or children or parents have disowned them.
Regardless of the reasons, it is unfortunate but not uncommon to see family
members working hard to avoid any and all contact with one another. The
intimate ties of family can become severely frayed or broken.
In a December 2017 New York Times article, Catherine Saint Louis summarized
several recent academic studies on family estrangement. She describes
estrangement as a family member "choosing to end contact because of an ongoing
negative relationship" and points to common elements of the condition.
Estrangement happens over time to many people for lots of different but very
clear reasons in the mind of the person breaking off the relationship.
Consider the following explanations for why people might want to end a
-- A difficult childhood. Life can be tough for children. Their parents may
be physically or verbally abusive. One or both parents may be distant -- never
around or lacking any kind of close relationship. A number of people I know,
looking back on their parents, felt manipulated or even betrayed by their
fathers or mothers. Others I know were forced to "grow up" at a very young age
because of addiction, divorce or economic circumstances in their family. That
responsibility hardened into resentment in adulthood.
-- Parental disapproval. Parents can also harbor resentment. I recall a
family situation in which the parents were terribly upset with the way their
son was conducting business. They felt his ethics and integrity were so
different than theirs that they could not be associated with him in any
capacity. Beyond disapproval, they were deeply saddened and questioned their
ability to raise children with particular virtues. They felt their only
recourse was to break off all contact.
-- An either/or choice. A frequent reason for severed ties in the family is
because a family member feels a relationship with another relative must be
mutually exclusive. For example, if a daughter's husband and her own father are
in conflict, then she must choose between one of the men; she cannot have a
relationship with both. Sometimes, this choice is even made explicit. I know of
several in-laws who have been so frustrated with their spouses' family that
they issued an ultimatum: "It's them, or it's me."
-- Healing wounds. Childhood trauma, ongoing parental disappointment or the
influence of family members or spouses are wounds that are difficult to
overcome. Asking people to talk about the past, about conflict and about
deep-seated feelings of maltreatment or regret, is a tall order. But, all is
Two strategies are particularly helpful to begin to heal the wounds of
-- Future talk. Talking about the future is something in which everyone
likely has some interest. For the sake of future generations and their
relationships, for the sake of succession and estate planning, or simply to
move past the resentment, asking to have a discussion about the future might
help to reestablish a connection.
-- Sharing perspectives. Another strategy is to approach a family member
simply with a desire to understand their perspective or to share your own. This
requires a commitment to ask and to listen, to suspend our defenses and to
understand how we've hurt another, or to say plainly how we feel others have
Discussions about the future and basic attempts to understand one another
may not lead to forgiveness, but they are surely waypoints on the journey to
personal resolution and potential healing.
Editor's Note: Write Lance Woodbury at Family Business Matters, 2204
Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email email@example.com
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