Feuding Families

Feuding Families

When parents pass away, you inevitably get ‘sibling-stuff’: “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!” “They loved you more than they loved me!” Arguments like these seem to go with the territory. Where did it all start? Cain and Able, probably – and we’ve been at it ever since.

When Rows And Resentments Tear Families Apart

Feuding families! Chances are, you know one or two or maybe more! Chances are, your family is one! They’re families living, like Cantabrians, on fault-lines. They’re fractured by feuds and torn by divisions. Sometimes it’s just a minor niggle – an irritant more than a poison. But other times it’s a full-on, front-page-news, disaster – horribly toxic for everyone involved.

Family feuds split parents from kids, sisters from brothers, inlaws from outlaws, grandchildren from grandparents. A family feud that’s high on the Richter Scale can bring whole buildings down … and the resulting liquefaction can smother qualities like love and tolerance and forgiveness.

How can we help ourselves – or others, trapped in a family feud?

We asked family-therapist (and super-savvy granny) DIANE LEVY. She believes there are things we can do to ease the tension and repair the damage. But family feuds come in all shapes and sizes. So, to give our discussion some starting points, Grapevine sketched out three scenarios we were aware of that might be similar to the feuding going on in your home or a home near you.

And we asked Diane: “Where to from here …?”


Bruce, a long-time divorcee now in his mid-60s, has remarried. He and his new wife, Sue, recently travelled to the UK to visit Bev, Bruce’s adult daughter, and her young son. But – whoops – Sue and Bev didn’t hit it off (to put it mildly). In fact, they ended up having a flaming row. Bruce now feels he can’t talk like he normally would with his daughter, because he’d be “taking Bev’s side against Sue”. Bev, for her part, is still hopping-mad with them both, and has banned any contact with Bruce’s new grandson …

DIANE: Oh dear! When you get strong-willed people (as Bruce and Bev both seem to be), almost any disagreement can turn into a loyalty crisis. And Bruce, who’s desperately trying not to take sides, feels caught between two uncomfortable choices.

However, Bruce doesn’t actually have to choose. Okay, maybe for now he can’t have a relationship with Bev in front of Sue. But he can avoid rubbing Sue’s face in it without being secretive. And he does need to keep the relationship up – a daughter needs her father, and a father needs his daughter.

So there are things Bruce can do. For starters, he can apologise to Bev for the situation that’s arisen …

GRAPEVINE: But why should Bruce apologise? He didn’t cause it. The row was between Bev and Sue.

DIANE: I know. But he’s not accepting responsibility for the row – he’s just apologising for landing Bev in it. Not, “I’m sorry I married the woman …” And not, “I’m sorry if your feelings have been hurt …” (that’s just horrible – a politician-apology). But rather, “I’m sorry things have ended up like this …”

The situation has got out of control because the women have turned it into a loyalty battle. And Bruce has to get across that Bev’s still his daughter and he’ll always love her (assuming he does). Bev’s hurting, and she needs to know he empathises with her feelings.

Of course, Bruce also needs to reassure Sue, because she’s hurting as well. A similar apology – “I’m sorry things have ended up like this” – along with some visible empathy could help heal Sue’s wounded feelings, too.

GRAPEVINE: It doesn’t help that Bev’s cut off access to his grandchild. It’s like she’s saying, “See everything my way, apologise without reserve, or you’ll never talk to your grandson again!”

DIANE: I agree. That’s a form of blackmail, and not good for anyone – especially the grandchild.

But is the mother really blocking all contact? Is she blocking Skype? Is she intercepting cards, letters, emails? If she’s that angry, Bruce really needs to be the grown-up here. He needs to recognise the hurt little girl inside his adult daughter and try to make her feel a bit better.

Ultimately, of course, Bev’s accountable to her son, who’s likely to ask, “How come I don’t see Grandpa anymore?”

GRAPEVINE: Speaking of “seeing Grandpa …” how important is it for kids to have access to a wider group, not just the nuclear family?

DIANE: Well, I like the old adage: “It takes a village to raise a child.” That’s absolutely correct. A ‘village’, of course, implies intimacy; it implies knowing enough about each other; caring about each other; being involved in each others’ lives. And a ‘village’ covers a wide range of age groups. So it’s really important for children to have connections with people across several generations.

There’s something magic for a child about grandparents – and vice-versa. And, of course, great grandparents and great grandchildren – that inter-relationship is wonderful, too. We want our life experiences and our family stories to be as wide and far-ranging as they can possibly be – and Bev, eventually, will need to think about that.

Scenario #2:

An elderly couple have died. The estate has been settled, but the daughter’s furious because the valuable family silver has gone to her brother. The brother’s ignoring her demands to “share it out” – so she’s putting huge pressure on the rest of her family to have nothing to do with him, or his wife and kids. The other family members have always got on well, and they resent being bluntly told to cut the brother off and “send those bludgers to Coventry!”

DIANE: This situation is not at all uncommon: siblings scrapping over who gets what. I dislike the term ‘sibling rivalry’ because it implies that the rivalry is between the children for the parents’ attention or love – when the truth is that, usually, there’s more than enough attention and love to go around. But when parents pass away, you inevitably get ‘sibling-stuff’: “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!” “They loved you more than they loved me!”

Arguments like these seem to go with the territory. Where did it all start? Cain and Able, probably – and we’ve been at it ever since.

One thing you find with estates is that the gifting of some particular piece of property may inadvertently carry some kind of message about who was loved the most. And, often, the dispute’s not really over just the property.

Think about the silver in your example. Maybe it was just assumed that the silver would pass to the daughter? It may have been a family heirloom – Grandma’s treasure, pledged to the one who had the special relationship with Grandma. Or it could’ve been that the silver was balanced off against something the other sibling wanted.

GRAPEVINE: People can feel incredibly hurt in these situations, right?

DIANE: They sure can. And, in my experience, if you’re dealing with a hurt person, you need to forget the ‘property’ – and deal with the hurt.

Someone in this scenario needs to talk to the daughter and ask, “What did that silver mean to you?” “Were you shocked when you discovered that it was going to your brother?” “Why do you think your parents made that final decision?”

The key issue is: what is the feeling here? What is the hurt? And what’s caused it? Because these family feuds all involve people being hurt underneath.

In Scenario #1, Bruce (the dad) is hurting because Bev fought with Sue. Sue’s hurting because she had to face a very unpleasant scene. Bev’s hurting, too, because she thought she had a dad – but somehow this flaming row seems to have taken him away.

GRAPEVINE: What happens if we ignore the hurt – if we just try and solve the ‘property’ stuff?

DIANE: Well, if the hurt’s left to fester, it can turn into bitterness – and bitterness corrodes the vessel that it’s in. We may feel fully justified in our bitterness, but if we hang on to it and keep it churning and churning around inside us, it’ll keep eating away at us. Ultimately, that’s bad for our heart, our soul and our health.

How can you help people get rid of the bitterness? First you need to listen to the story, hear the hurt, and empathise with the position this person’s in. Only then are you entitled to give advice – and, even then, only when you’ve got the other person’s permission: “Would you care to know what I think?”

If they say, “Well, okay – but I won’t like it!” … you can say, “Fair enough. I don’t expect you to like it. This is only my opinion. But if we can help make things a little better, maybe it’s worth a shot?”

There are no rights and wrongs here … and no rules. Which is interesting, when you think about it. The people in all these scenarios (as in most of the feuds that erupt within families) often behave as if there’s some mythical set of rules they’re following.


DIANE: Well, like: “You ought to be loyal to only one person.” (In Bruce’s case, your wife.) But that’s not true! You need to be loyal to your kids too. They’re your kids forever.

Or: “You can only find happiness when everything becomes fair.”

These rules (or whatever we call them) aren’t necessarily correct. They’re a sort of oral tradition … the “everyone-says” sorts of laws. But they can be very strong.

We need to remember that, in the case of wills (and they’re real law!), the law-of-the-land can be overridden. A fully legal, signed and witnessed Will might actually, if it appears badly unfair, be overturned if it’s put before a judge.

Scenario #3:

Geoff and his sister are horrified that their widowed father, Harry, has remarried a woman they believe is nothing but a gold-digger. Harry really loves his new wife and wishes his kids could see that she’s really a genuine, caring person and not waiting to grab his modest resources. But he’s getting nowhere. Relationships have soured and he now sees little of his grown-up children …

DIANE: This one’s very common too. And it’s always difficult. Firstly, the children believe they must be loyal to their deceased or displaced parent. It’s like, “I’ll be her spokesman on earth!”

And then there’s the stepmother stereotype – the folklore that paints the father as a kindly figure, well-meaning but a bit naïve, who doesn’t understand much that’s going on around him. And the stepmother? Well, she’s nearly always cast as the wicked, conniving manipulator.

GRAPEVINE: “Mirror, Mirror on the wall …” and all that?

DIANE: Exactly! And it’s deeply ingrained in all of us. Stories like this have been handed down in every culture. So do we believe they’re at least partly true? Or do we acknowledge that there’s something about the loss of a mother that is very hard – almost impossible – for a child to get over?

It’s going to be awfully hard for any woman who steps into her shoes … or who (God forbid!) sleeps in her bed … to avoid being seen as the ‘wicked stepmother’.

GRAPEVINE: So how do we deal with that?

DIANE: Well, the children have already let Dad know their fears. They mightn’t have done it wisely or calmly, but he now knows what they think. The other thing they need to say, if they’re seriously concerned, is: “Here’s the evidence – here’s why we think she’s after your money!”

This requires the children to be very grown up. And Dad needs to be grown up, too. He needs to say, “Okay – I’ve heard you. I realise these are your worries. I’ll take them onboard.”

Having done that, I think the children should just do their best to stay civilised, and avoid screaming or accusing. If Dad is right, and his new lady-love is a kind and caring person, then his kids will hopefully see that for themselves over time – and Dad will be reassured that his kids are doing what they’re doing out of loyalty and love for him.

On the other hand, if they have real evidence that she’s gold-digging, there’s a good chance he’ll begin to see it – once their worries have been pointed out.

If, despite everyone’s best efforts, it all goes pear-shaped, then at least a way should be found for children and Dad to stay in touch. My advice to Geoff and his sister is: don’t bag the new spouse! Your dad’s heard your worries … you’ve said your piece … and, unless he has dementia, he will remember!

GRAPEVINE: Let’s open this up a little wider. What can be done if the family feud is a hoary old chestnut – a long-standing row that’s been going on for ages?

DIANE: Ah yes! The historical feud that you absorb with your mother’s milk! It’s as if participants here are hard-wired to dislike one another. What we’re talking about is prejudice, and that’s very, very hard to dislodge. You have to really want to change things – really hate what’s been going on.

The first step is to recognise the prejudice for what it is – and to describe it: “I don’t like these people because (i) I’ve been told all my life I shouldn’t like them, and (ii) I’ve been told that they are …” (List all their horrible characteristics.)

It’s the Romeo and Juliet scenario – the Montagues and the Capulets and their hate-filled families. Living in that prejudiced environment seems to work well enough while we all equally share the prejudice … but it begins to break down when someone finds something positive about The Enemy.

In order to overcome prejudice, we have to overcome that tendency within us to look down on the ‘others’ over there – to see ourselves as better than, more deserving than them.

Certain personality-types emerge in these kind of feuds. You get the strong-willed types who go for confrontation, strongly motivated by loyalty: “You’re either on my side and with me, or on their side and against me!”

Then you get the peace-loving people who say: “I hate confrontation. If I can’t solve this, I’ll just back away – I won’t take any part in it.”

And then there are others who have tried so often that they’ve given up: “I’m not going to bang my head against this brick-wall any longer!”

GRAPEVINE: Surely, though, if a family feud is ever going to be resolved, someone needs to act like an adult?

DIANE: Exactly! Someone needs to be THE grown-up. And that might mean cultivating the ability to admit “I was wrong!” With lots of these scenarios, you can’t help wondering about the maturity of the people involved. I mean, you have to wonder: did Bev and Sue just say “hello …” and then immediately launch into that ‘flaming row’?

GRAPEVINE: I remember in my own family, when I was a little boy, we had this aunt who stayed with us and fell-out with my mother over the time-of-day we ate breakfast as a family. It seemed such a trivial thing – but it escalated into a big deal. My mum was able (by being the grown-up, I guess) to defuse the situation, but only by totally giving in to my aunt’s silly demands about when and how we should all eat breakfast.

DIANE: You’re talking about different families bringing a whole different set of established ‘rules’. And these can have huge momentum. It’s particularly common when someone new – a step-parent, say – enters the family circle, and the rules change. Children, even grown-up children, can easily feel betrayed: “Dad’s suddenly doing things her way, not our way!”

One family says “We always get together on July 10 to celebrate so-and-so’s birthday.” But a newcomer to the family says, “Sorry. On July 10 I’ll be away on holiday …” A big clash! How are we going to manage it?

At least you know what you’re dealing with here. The clash is out in the open. It’s much worse when there’s been a breech of under-the-radar rules and utterly different expectations.

GRAPEVINE: Why’s it often so hard to soothe the ruffled feathers in situations like this?

DIANE: Well, FEAR is a big factor in all these scenarios. All counsellors learn that two surface emotions which show up when relationships go wrong are anger and sadness – and what lies beneath these emotions is often fear.

In our society, men are allowed to be angry, but not sad. So, when you’re dealing with anger in men, it helps to ask: “What’s the underlying sadness here?” Women in our society are allowed to be sad, but not angry. So, to find out what’s going on here, you need to ask: “What’s making her angry?” And underlying both anger and sadness is fear and loss.

Look at each of the scenarios you’ve raised: everyone is scared they’re losing (or might be losing) something.

GRAPEVINE: So how do we help ourselves deal with this fear?

DIANE: One way is to simply find someone we trust who we can talk to about our feelings – because fears often get expressed when we start to open up. But if we’ve got no-one to talk to and have to tackle this distress on our own, there’s a useful technique recommended by John Gray in his book ‘Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus’. He talks about the value of writing love-letters when you’re upset or angry or cross or scared or hurt. These are letters you’ll never actually send, but they help you access your feelings.

For example, to deal with anger, he suggests writing letters that start: “I don’t like it when you …” “I feel angry that …” “I’m frustrated when …” “I’m annoyed that …”

He has similar starters for sadness: “I’m sad that …” “I feel hurt that you …” “I’m disappointed that …”

For fear: “I’m worried that …” “I’m worried that I may never see you again if this goes on!” Or, “I’m worried if we meet again we’ll just have another big row!”

For regret: “I’m embarrassed that …” “I’m sorry about …” “I feel ashamed that …”

When I’m working with people, I usually suggest they choose one of these starter-lines for each main emotion – and fill in the details.

And here’s what I think is John Gray’s cleverest idea: he suggests you write down the reply you’d like to get back from the person to whom your letter is aimed … what’d you’d ideally like to hear.

GRAPEVINE: Isn’t that usually pretty clear? Don’t most of us just want an out-and-out apology – “You’re right! I’m wrong! I’m very sorry and I’ll never do it again!”?

DIANE: No, it can be more complex. That other person’s apology may not fix things, and we’re still left with corrosive and bitter feelings. The ‘unposted letter’ can help get those bitter feelings out of our system, so we can stop hurting – because how we feel affects how we think and act.

Frankly, I see that unposted letter as nice, inexpensive therapy!

Remember: family feuds happen in the nicest families. And they happen when we least expect it. You may find that you can’t get the whole family on board – but you might be able to stay connected with a few of the family members. Perhaps you can’t fix things with the parents, but you can maintain some sort of grandparent-to-grandchild link.

You can always send cards or notes (depending on the age of the recipients) – maybe texts, postcards (unless you have proof that they’re being blocked). “Saw this and thought of you … love Grandpa.” You may not get a response, but it’s worth a shot.

In all these situations, of course, timing is important. We can’t always see the other’s point-of-view or ‘put ourselves in their shoes’ while the battle is raging. We’re much more likely to achieve that after things have calmed down, when we’re alone and able to reflect.

GRAPEVINE: Got any other tips for people who find themselves stuck in a fractious and feuding family?

DIANE: I think the first hopeful idea is that you can take control of the situation you’re in. You don’t have to feel helpless, bobbing around like a cork in a storm. You can at least deal with your own feelings. And when you’ve got control of them, when you know what’s going on deep down inside you, you’re more likely to think rationally.

The second hopeful idea is that you’ll usually find there’s something – some plan or idea – that’s worth a try.

And the third hopeful idea: if you’ve tried and tried, and still nothing’s working, you are allowed to give up – at least for the present. You can run away and heal your wounds, and try again later … at a different stage and maybe in a different way.

Yes, occasionally, when all else fails, you may conclude that staying away permanently is the safest and healthiest thing to do. But that’s rare, in my experience …


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