This festive season means gift-giving, gatherings and family reunions. For some clans, however, bringing the family together won’t be easy, especially when conflicts remain unresolved. Family dynamics can change over time, once close ties can break down due to strained relationships.
Yet the reason why festivities are celebrated can become the impetus to bring healing into these broken bonds, especially when one party desires reconciliation with the other. Sister Angelina Julom, CSFN (PhD), a faculty member at the Department of Psychology of University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines, says: “People often use the festive season to try to reconcile with their friends and relatives because these are seasons when love, unity, forgiveness and apologies are called for.”
Breakdown of ties
Estrangement can be attributed to a variety of reasons, lack of proper communication being chief among them. Sister Julom cites a lack of moral and spiritual values, unfulfilled high expectations and immaturity as other factors that can lead to familial break-up.
Diane, 43, is married with two kids. She hasn’t seen her mother for over five years. Communication has been completely cut off. She claims their initial misunderstandings might have been a factor of aging; in any case, some hurtful things have been said, straining the relationship to the point of breaking. She reflects: “I think this distance, this space, has been good for us. We were always fighting before.”
In Angela’s case, the estrangement occurred with her sisters-in-law. Because they could never get along, she chose to keep her distance. She says being with them on certain occasions were always unpleasant affairs. “At first, I felt that I should do my best for them to like me, but then, having done my part, I concluded that I can’t please everybody. We try not to talk or meet with them.”
A further downside of estrangement is when it affects other members of the family. In Diane’s case, her husband and children have also been cut off from her mother. Choosing not to come between his wife and mother-in-law, Diane’s husband keeps mum on the issue and avoids contact with the other party. As a result, Diane’s mother has been left out of birthdays and other special occasions.
Similarly, Angela and her family have experienced not being invited to family events. This may partly be a reaction of the Angela’s sisters-in-law avoiding them when they dropped in uninvited at her son’s birthday celebration. To avoid conflict, she kept her distance by attending to the details of the party. She also kept herself out of the pictures they were taking by pretending she was busy.
Closing the gap
Avoidance, as Diane and Angela have shown, can be a way of coping with estrangement. This works in the interim, but not in the long haul. In order to achieve a harmonious relationship, reconciliation needs to take place. Holiday gatherings provide a venue for communication, but reaching out requires several levels in order to resolve the issue. Below are the stages accruing to Susan Dwyer’s Reconciliation for Realists:
• The first stage requires a clear view of the events or issues that caused the rift, where only the barest of facts – who did what to whom and when – are relevant.
• The second stage involves the articulation of a range of interpretations of those events.
• Finally, both parties attempt to reconcile their interpretations to arrive at an understanding of the way to resolving the issue(s).
Reconciliation, depending on the severity of the problem, may take time. According to psychologist Joshua Coleman, in the case of parent-child conflicts, parents are typically the ones who initiate the reconciliation. Though there isn’t a clear-cut formula for bridging the gap, the process begins with opening the lines for communication. This includes owning up to your mistakes. In How Parents can Stat to Reconcile with Estranged Kids, Coleman says, “It’s hard to get very far in a parent-child reconciliation without honestly acknowledging the ways you may have contributed (or continue to contribute) to the difficulties between you and your child”.
Sister Julom, meanwhile, cites the importance of friends of the estranged family members to act as arbitrators. Other relatives can also help. A perceived insult created a years-long wall of silence between formerly close siblings Jack and Gretchen. While they remained loving to the other’s children, the rift discouraged family reunions even during birthdays and festivals. It took Walter, a first cousin who was close to them, to break the ice. He invited Jack, Gretchen and their respective spouses to his house for a conciliatory dinner.
For an estranged couple, Sister Julom suggests they seek guidance from people who would have the experience, training in counseling, and knowledge to guide them, such as religious leaders, psychologists, counselors and other married couples.
In the spirit of the season, when people are more open to the possibility of reconciliation, the hardest gift to give may be that of forgiveness. Yet it may also be the greatest – and the most needed.