Re: Comments to “Family Conflicts and Rifts”

family squabbles

Three readers have commented on my most recent post, “Family Conflicts and Rifts.” Echo wonders what to do when family members repeatedly turn her honest feedback about hurt feelings against her. Julia asks for more on how to hold your ground without arguing and Kelly, whose anger got me to thinking about the issue in the first place, describes how she is working on understanding her family members’ limitations and forgiving them.

I think we all have a right, if not a duty, to protect ourselves. Offering oneself up to be hurt over and over, as Kelly originally described, does no one any good. It actually adds to the guilt of those who can’t stop themselves from hurting. In fact, making oneself vulnerable presents a temptation that some people simply can’t resist. Even worse, each new injury adds to a long list and can only contribute further to anger and resentment. When it is time to let go, there is that much more hurt to write off.

fuba-recorder-on-flickrWith people who are able to be responsive, the healthy thing to do is certainly the kind of response described by Echo, honest sharing of one’s feelings. Healthy people will be able to empathize and will be motivated to change their behavior. When they repeatedly fail this test, then it seems safe to conclude that they do not have the ability to feel and be moved by another’s distress. At that point, I think it is fair to consider our own feelings as precious personal property that we would not put in the hands of people who don’t know its value. It is like giving antique porcelain figurines to someone who has no idea of their value or meaning.

So, responding to Julia and Echo, what middle ground might there be? One possibility would be to say, “I’m sorry you can’t help yourself, but name calling is still painful, and I will not chose to stay if it continues.” Unfortunately, this gives the name-caller a new opportunity to label one as “too sensitive” or “misguided,” as happened with the family described in the earlier post. When the hurtful people feel obligated to have the last word, then, sadly, this approach won’t work to bring about any immediate change.

On the other hand, if you are prepared to let go of the relationship, then telling the truth is a way of affirming your dignity. As I indicated in my original post, the pull of family bonds is such that taking a stand without accusing the others or trying to change their minds may eventually motivate the hurtful ones to soften their stance. I have seen this happen on many occasions, even when the immediate response was not at all positive. The key is willingness to lose the relationship. This does not work as a ploy or manipulation, but only if your are genuinely at the point of unwillingness to participate in a hurtful relationship.

Another middle ground approach is “behavior modification.” This means that when they say hurtful things, you quietly disappear. If you give an explanation, it is not the real one. “I have some things to take care of.” The real explanation would be fodder for more abuse. This bit of dishonesty is warranted, in my view, because the hurtful ones have disqualified themselves from receiving the full truth. If the approach works, then over time, the hurtful person may change without having to acknowledge any imperfection. Having grown up in such a family, you may not realize how much the hurtful ones actually depend on the connection with you. They would deny it, but a temporary absence sends a powerful non-verbal message to the mammalian brain.

Does anyone have another approach? Sadly, I think the next step is to disengage and distance. (See my post, “The Rule of Disengagement,” as well as Anne-Sophie’s, “Is it Time to Break Up with Your Family?”)

Once again, as in my original post, Kelly’s goal of working through her anger and finding compassion is perhaps more important than weighing different strategies. After facing one’s feelings, deciding what to do will naturally become clearer.


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  • Thanks Jeffery for writing these great posts about family dynamics. I am sure they resonate with many readers who want find a balance between maintaining harmonious relationships with family members and protecting one’s feelings. In my case, when you wrote the previous post on family conflict, I was pondering on my relationship with my family of origin. They live in Europe and I in Canada, so that makes it easy to ‘disengage’, and to control the length and frequency of our phone and email interactions. Yet it’s still challenging to interact at times, and since I am choosing to maintain contact with them, I need to find ways protect myself at the same time. Unfortunately, these family members come from a place of childhood deprivation and haven’t done any personal growth or healing work, so there is quite a bit of unthoughtfulness when we speak – e.g., only talking about themselves and not showing much interest in my life – and also unconscious anger directed at me, that I am not taking care of them emotionally and financially. I am not being asked directly to fulfill the emotional needs or send them money, but this comes across in various indirect, symbolic ways that are very obvious and which feel a bit uncomfortable nonetheless. I suppose it’s similar to the transference that happens in therapy when the client wants to change the therapist to fulfill his/her needs and there is anger that it isn’t happening – anger often expressed in symbolic, indirect ways. Therapists have ways to address this; yet in real life when family members show this type of covert anger towards you it can be more challenging to deal with it. Confronting does not lead anywhere, as the communication is mainly unconscious and any suggestion that they are expressing anger or hostility would immediately be denied. Understanding where they are coming from does help – and helps me maintain perspective, and to feel genuine compassion at times – but every now and then I get tired of being the target of that indirect anger, and feel depleted of energy. I have done a lot of healing work, and feel self-protective, and also protective of my inner child’s feelings, when my boundaries are being trespassed. A middle ground approach I’ve been using has been to call the family in Europe less often when I notice that the expressed neediness becomes too extreme, and also to change the subject (or end the phone conversation) when they begin talking about how miserable and unhappy they are, or ask me how much money I make. A middle ground that would involve expressing my truth wouldn’t work because my family members don’t have the internal resources to understand my truth (don’t understand such concepts as ‘boundaries’ or ‘taking responsibility’), so as suggested in today’s post, it would be like putting precious personal property in the hands of people who don’t know its value. Anyway, I didn’t intend to write a long comment, but am sharing all this in case others might resonate, though family dynamics differ widely from one family to another and it’s hard to tell what’s helpful to whom. Jeffery, I had asked that you possibly write more on middle ground approaches to dealing with family as I was curious about your take on these approaches, and I always appreciate reading your thoughts on just about any topic! Thanks again.

    • Linda, This is actually a good example of the “behavior modification” approach suggested in my post. You are sending nonverbal messages about what is not acceptable, and hopefully they will respond without acknowledging or even realizing that they are. I do agree that each family is different and that the approach needs to be tailored to the family and monitored to see if it really works.


  • Linda – thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to a lot of what you’ve expressed. My family of origin is in Japan, but I live in the US. They try to manipulate me very hard by guilt trips, usually. Although we live an ocean apart, they followed me in my head.

    Jeffery – Thank you for including examples of middle ground approach. I found the “behavior modification” part particularly helpful to me, and I felt comforted to read you say, the hurtful ones disqualified themselves from receiving the full truth. I never thought in that way, and I think you have a point. I don’t feel too bad about looking after myself.

    Also, thank you for including links for more info. “the Rule of Engagement” gave me more insights. I tried the other link, too, but I was not able to find the said article…


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