Family Feuds


family-feudMany years ago, at my cousin’s wedding, my Uncle Mel shared some angry words with his younger sister, Marilyn—“Your husband never comes to any of my family events!” he said sharply. “I’ve been to every one of your kid’s celebrations,” he snapped. From that moment, Marilyn never spoke to her brother again. Their silence lasted more than 15 years. They both went to their graves without a word between them. I was the only family member who actually witnessed their argument.

These two grew up in the depression, lost their mother when they were teenagers and lived through World War II. But they still decided to cut each other off. My mother, the oldest, tried to encourage them to let go of their grudge, but to no avail. It was sad and it impacted the relationship between their families.

These kinds of “grudges” are more common than I would like to think. There is usually a “back story” that precedes the offending behavior or remarks. In my Aunt’s case, she always felt that her big brother was critical of her. For her, his remark was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

The offended party often feels that ending the connection is protective. My Aunt Marilyn felt that she was ending a “toxic” relationship that was “dysfunctional”. I am sure she thought her response to my Uncle’s behavior was healthy. Unfortunately, in many instances, both individuals feel the same way about each other. My Uncle believed that he had done “nothing wrong” and had nothing to apologize for. Indeed, he felt that he was due an apology! This is the soil in which bitterness grows into years of silence and rancor.

Sometimes, it may be the case that an adult decides to have nothing to do with their family for just reasons. I see this frequently in families where children have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In these circumstances, the abusive relatives may deny their actions. This can be intolerable to the victimized family member. I understand this decision.

But more often, big rifts between family members don’t stem from abuse or neglect. They come from taking offense to another’s behavior in the context of a weak or strained relationship. But ending the relationship prevents the possibility of reconciliation and developing a deeper bond in the future. Furthermore, the rift often spreads out to other family members even though they were not involved. It can poison their relationships. It’s not healthy. Cutting off family relationships can be like cutting off your own arm.

So what can an offended family member do?

Reach out. Don’t be stubborn. Swallow your pride and reach out to your brother, sister, child, father, or mother. Seek a conversation about how to go forward, how to let go of the offense, and how to build a relationship. Focus on the future, not on the past. “I want to have a relationship with you” is a powerful message. “I want you in my life” is a statement of hope and promise.

Don’t give up. Keep sending out white smoke signals even if your family member doesn’t respond. Be patient and persistent. Water will round the edges of jagged stone.

Don’t write a long letter outlining your version of history. I know this is a big temptation. But it’s likely to evoke anger on your relative’s part. Most likely she will have a different version of history and will only feel reinjured by your account. Usually, each person has a different narrative about what really happened.

Hopefully, at some point, you will have a conversation. Listen, don’t interrupt, and inhibit the impulse to have the last word. Share your sorrow over the loss of possibility, focus on the future, and seek to understand rather than to be understood.

I know. It’s always hard to take the high road in life. But it’s always the best road to ride.

How have you overcome a rift between you and a relative?


  1. Anonymous

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for your blog on this topic. It is one that’s near to my heart, my aunt on my father’s side has become very bitter and outspoken about her siblings and most hurtful of all, my terminally ill grandpa. This aunt says she wants nothing to do with us and often very publicly airs her greivances on her blog, many of which are exaggerated or false. She will go out of her way to be hurtful even though we want to have a good relationship with her and keep her in the loop with events.
    This has been a very painful experience for my family but she will not tolerate anyone contacting her to try and work it out. We are still not really sure what started it all. Any suggestions?

  2. Susan S

    This is a great example of why it’s so important to teach and model conflict resolution to children from the beginning. Mine is a family of grand master grudge holders, and permanent falling out is, regrettably, an inherited hobby in my family.

  3. JPG

    Interesting view on the topic and I’m not sure that I agree. I’ve been through this I just can’t see how it’s healthy to keep reaching out to someone when all they do is hurt you. Don’t they say the definition of crazy is when you do something over and over again expecting a different result?

    My grandfather was very opinionated, if he wanted to know your opinion he would tell you what it was. At 23 I very proud of myself for going back to college, and he called to ask me how I was paying for it. When I said my parents were, he proceeded to rip me apart and tell me I should refuse their money and take out loans instead – ironically he’d paid for his kids’ college. He also sent my brother a tape recorded nasty gram about having a child out of wedlock, even called him names. Neither of us had a real relationship with him after that. We would visit our grandmother, and were polite to him while we were there. I never started a conversation with him and when he would initiate one I never shared anything with him that was important to me, because I knew that was as good as loading the gun. And yes, I tried telling him how I felt but it made no difference. He would never talk about things in person, he’d always send a letter, tape recording or, if you were lucky, you’d get to hear it on the phone. If my grandmother hadn’t still be married to him he would have been a very lonely man.

  4. I don’t think Dr. Paul is suggesting that you make up with every family member you have had a disagreement with. I think he is saying there are necessary times like distancing those who want to hurt you or are unhealthy. It’s been a struggle in my family but my husband and I have decided that once someone’s behavior is continually hurting our family (us or our children) then they are no longer welcome to participate in our lives. I think it’s great to reflect of those little fights or disagreements that have spun out of control and turned into years of not speaking. Those are inevitably what most of us will regret. However there is a big difference between petty fights and the choice to remove a family member from your life due to abuse, unhealthy behavior (substance abuse) etc. Thanks for keeping us reflecting Dr. Paul!

  5. Anonymous

    I so often wish it were only a grudge between my parents and I, but despite my efforts over the years they choose not to listen to what I have to say and change their hurtful behaviors. I have learned, that there are those who are just not willing to listen or change no matter how badly you wish for it.

  6. JPG

    Maybe what we went through with my grandfather falls into the category of emotional abuse. The rest of my family is extremely close which is awesome. We never let his negativity affect the rest of us.

    I also experienced family drama with my ex in-laws that was ridiculous. No abuse, just needy, petty, two faced behavior that had my ex cutting them out of his life repeatedly, at least until his mom would call and guilt him into calling his sisters. It’s really sad but I think when you have a family that is that dysfunctional it’s good to keep them at a distance. They are certainly not the example I want set for my kids and I’m glad that he has minimal contact with them.

  7. Dr. Paul

    Excellent points from all of you! The problem for most of us is trying to determine when it is healthy to end a toxic relationship (my Aunt was certain that was what she was doing!), when the relationship is salvageable, and when it is possible to move forward, even if you will never fully agree on what happened in the past. In most family feuds, both parties feel wronged and hurt. So who is right? Or is that really important? Remember, you have no control over what others do. The most important thing is to be the person that you want to be. It is not easy to find a path through these boulders and rocks that feels right to you.

    Dr. Paul

  8. Susan S

    One thing I’ve noticed in my life is that, just because we are blood-related doesn’t mean we love or even particularly like each other. I’ve gathered a family of people for myself, some of whom I am related to by blood, some not, but it feels a lot healthier than hanging on to abusive relationships simply because we’re “family.” The key for me was developing the self-conficence and self-determination to make my own choice whether or not a relationship was worth working on, rather than feeling like I had to continue to tolerate abuse because I was dependent upon the person who was abusive to me.

    • JPG

      Well said Susan! I totally agree! Sometimes the best family is the one you choose, and the one that chooses you. Family should be who you can count on no matter what.

  9. ml

    Dr. Paul, I really like your statement about “The important thing is being the person you want to be.” I’ve come to this understanding over many years. Notice that’s not the same as “Doing whatever I want because I feel/because I am justified because somebody else is acting/has acted badly.” If I want to be a person of integrity, if I want to set firm boundaries, if I want to show kindness in the world… that’s because of who I am, not because of how others act. It is very freeing to behave proactively instead of reactively. Just a thought.

  10. Anonymous

    This is a great topic of conversation and reflection. My huge family ( 6 boys and 6 girls are all about feuding and they put the fun in dysFUNctional… There’s only 9 children left, and also parents are deceased. Half of us don’t talk to the other half, but I am considered the Peacemaker, and I fail miserably at the task. We just are a warring clan.
    The one that really bothers and effects me most is two of my sisters who are at it. It must have stemmed back years, (they’re both is their 60s) but one sister is holding a ridiculous grudge wont accept any kind of communication or apology from the other sister, who I feed really didn’t do much to warrenty such hatred. I just feel her heart is
    hard, and she is very rigid and unforgiving (to her detrement) and she is really hurting herself and her children as well as my other sister and her children, it just messes up the
    whole dynamics of the two families. Its so senseless, and stupid. Peace begins with ourselves, and being a loving and forgiving human being. How can she be a happy person if she is harbouring such hatred? I don’t know how to help this situation, any suggestions.

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