Conflict and Connection in Familial Relationships

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As clients have come through my door, I’ve noticed that there are some things we as humans take for granted. These things tend to fluctuate from group to group and cohort to cohort, but there is one pervasive idea, seemingly present in all groups, woven deeply into relationships. It’s the one that causes adult children and their parents to be surprised when, looking at their parents/children, this thought crosses their minds, “I don’t know you…” and the feelings that follow.

If you’re lucky, this thought does creep into your consciousness every so often, instead of lingering on the fringe of awareness or deep in the inaccessible regions of your unconscious. I’m sure you can imagine that it’s much more challenging to deal with things that cause you pain when it feels like you can hardly identify what it is that’s causing the pain. It’s not all that complicated; people feel better when they know what’s bothering them, address it, and find what works for them to resolve it.

Now that you’re ok with painful thoughts being present in your consciousness (Woah, that was fast. You just cut your time needed for therapy right in half!), let’s focus on this particular thought, the one that can make parents and their adult children feel like they’re preparing for war when they reunite for holidays, the one that makes one (or both) members of the group(s) avoid phone calls and take an extra long time to return them, the one that makes a visit between the two groups feel obligatory and not warm or enjoyable, the one that makes us feel like familiar enemies and strangers, at best.

Nearly everyone I see comes to me because there is a relationship that they want to change in some way, have a better understanding or strengthen; almost all have reported a wish to realign themselves with their parent(s) at some point, but aren’t able to experience it. This is usually because we tend to have a long chain of memories and events from the past that accompanies these relationships and our feelings and reactions to these events and memories. For some of you reading this, you might feel that there is something you have to do or say (to yourself or your loved one(s)), some action that must take place before you can practice this exercise. Only you know what you need to allow yourself to practice this so, trust yourself.


Most often in my posts, I have multi-step processes. You’ll find that in this post I have a single step:


  1. Experiment with letting go of needing to set the record straight.


This takes a) a lot of patience b) a strong commitment to change your relationship c) compassion for both yourself and your loved one, and d) trust in yourself. The process allows both sides to stop trying to force the other to see either version of what happened (since you can’t force anyone into or out of their experience of something); it stops the relationship from playing an inauthentic win/lose game. Whether you are the parent or the adult child, if you start to reveal yourself for who you have become instead of who you used to be (or who you think you used to be), you will find yourself in a more curious and connected place to one another. You will make enough space in the relationship to move away from blame, resentment, needing to be right, enough to both see your loved one and be seen by your loved one. Sometimes this will happen quickly, sometimes slowly. Sometimes your loved one might not be able to reciprocate in a positive way at all. While you cannot control what the other chooses to do or acknowledge, you can continue to be a reflection of your authenticity.

To some of you, this might sound a little backward, “Shouldn’t we come to an understanding about the past before we’re able to forge ahead?” For some people (and many reasons), it isn’t possible. Others of you might be a little skeptical at the thought of letting anyone off the hook. It isn’t that. It’s just making room for a different part of the relationship that didn’t have enough room to breathe until now. When you can begin to see and appreciate one another for who you have become, you will be more open to hearing one another’s past experiences of one another as you will have strengthened the connection between one another.

Find the willingness within you to set aside the story by which you have lived. The idea that “He/She/They don’t want to have a relationship with me,” is rarely true. Most often we just don’t know how. We experience a lot of pain within the relationship, and we stop trying. Either side tells themselves that “If he/she/they loved me he/she/they would find a way to make the relationship work,” and either side is right. Or wrong, depending on how you see it.

Maybe part of your story is that your parent(s) judged you more critically than your siblings and you felt you were never accepted nor understood. (And maybe your parent(s) experienced themselves as pushing you toward the success of which they knew you were capable, and they don’t have a clear understanding of why you’re unhappy with them.) Maybe your story is that you did everything you thought was right for your kid, worked long hours to be a good provider, sent them to good schools, and s/he is decidedly unhappy and suffering. (And maybe your kid’s story is that you were not present in her/his life because you were always working and when you came home from work, you constantly pushed homework.) Neither side is wrong, but each lived experience is completely different. Letting go of the need to set the record straight, just for a while, can increase greater understanding of the other, start to answer questions like, “why can’t we ever get along” and “who are you” because it allows us to begin to see our loved one through a different lens… and see them.


Love and Be Loved,

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