How to Navigate and Resolve Family Conflicts — Strategies for Happy Family Life

family rifts argument

As long as Linda can remember, she felt like she was in competition with her three older siblings. Growing up in Wilmette, she remembers that they were “better at everything — sports, academics, more friends… you name it,” she says. “I always felt like I didn’t measure up.”

But looking back, she doesn’t place blame entirely on her two sisters and a brother for her battered self-esteem. “My parents always pitted one kid against the other. They believed that was the way to elevate everyone’s performance…Instead, we just grew up resenting each other.”  

Today, the 45-year-old accountant hasn’t spoken to two of her sisters since 2017. “It’s painful…but it’s just easier that way,” said Linda, who, to keep her family’s rift a secret, did not want to use her last name.   

These days, such stories about major family conflicts are all too common. The rupture may be between siblings, or parents and their adult children, but the drama can have a profound impact on a much wider circle, such as grandchildren who are denied access to grandparents and cousins. No one seems to be immune — not even royalty, as anyone who has followed the Prince Harry-Meghan Markle saga knows.

While it’s difficult to pin down exact numbers, researchers estimate that such serious splits affect an increasing number of families. More than 25 percent of adults responding to a survey by the Cornell Family Reconciliation Project reported being estranged from a family member. The number may actually be higher, they say, because there’s so much shame and stigma surrounding the issue. 

family riffs

So how to explain all these broken relationships? According to Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco area psychologist and author of the new book, “Rules of Estrangement,” there can be many reasons why we cut off the very people we should be closest to. Certainly, long-simmering childhood grievances as in Linda’s case, can be contributing factors — but other causes include in-laws, addictions, money, undiagnosed mental illness and especially divorce.

In his survey of more than 1,600 estranged parents, about 70 percent of the respondents were divorced from the estranged child’s other biological parent, said Coleman, who specializes in parent/adult child estrangement and speaks from personal as well as professional experience. For two years, he had no contact with his daughter from his first marriage. (They have since reconciled.) 

“Divorce can increase the risk of estrangement because it creates a realignment of loyalty by bringing in new people, such as step-parents and step-siblings,” he explained. “It can also tempt one parent to poison the relationship with the other parent.” 

Joshua Coleman
Joshua Coleman is a San Francisco area psychologist and author of the new book, “Rules of Estrangement.”

That shift of loyalties can also happen when an adult child marries and the new spouse is not eager to have a relationship with the new in-laws — perhaps because he or she had a more distant relationship with their own kin.  

That was the case for one woman who often dropped off dinner for her son and daughter-in-law, who both were juggling full-time jobs and going to school. The mother-in-law soon found herself on the receiving end of a scathing email.

“What I saw as loving and supportive, my daughter-in-law saw as intrusive,” said the mother, who has not seen her son in almost a year. Given that the wife is typically the keeper of the social calendar, she doesn’t expect to see him any time soon. 

Of course, there may be more to the story than unsolicited casseroles, but why — at least anecdotally — do such splits seem to be more prevalent today? There’s nothing new about divorce, sibling rivalry or parents meddling in their children’s lives and yet, in the past, you rarely heard about a family member severing ties with the rest of the clan.

Amy Dickinson has noticed an uptick during her 18 years as a nationally syndicated advice columnist, which she attributes to a multitude of factors, including the rise of social media and the fact that people are more candid about airing their problems. 

“The same tools that make it easier to communicate with one another, can also bring on misunderstandings,” she said. “A foolish post, a snarky comment, an unkind or unflattering photo or video… can all lead to relationship problems.” 

Another factor: A change in the way parents interact with their children today. A century ago, elders were to be respected, if not feared. However, in recent decades, parenting became less authoritarian and more democratic, giving children more of a voice in family decisions — and, when they’re adults, that includes wielding more power over the relationship. 

Karl Pillemer, the researcher who led the Cornell study and is the author of “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them” summed it up this way: “There’s a lower threshold breaking point — for younger people in particular.” 

That’s the case for a 70-year-old mother of three daughters in Mill Valley. Her oldest daughter can “turn off her family with the flip of a switch,” said Nancy, who like other families in this story, are not using their last name for privacy.

One day, seemingly without provocation, her oldest daughter came over and delivered a litany of all the things Nancy did wrong raising her. “I was just stunned. I told her that she was my first — that parents are bound to make mistakes and that kids don’t come with a manual.”

The conflict hardened into a rift that lasted 13 years, and Nancy did not see her oldest granddaughter from age 2 to 15. One day, her daughter called, saying that she wanted to come over and, just like that, the break-up was over. The fragile peace held for eight years, until a few months ago, when the daughter became upset over some language in her mother’s will. 

“My friends all tell me ‘You ought to call her.’ They have even offered to intervene on my behalf, but I know what I’m up against…I can’t ever win a discussion with her. And I just don’t have the strength to go through that again.”

Nancy ticked off a long list of privileges that her daughter received growing up — such as summer camp, private school tuition and, as a newlywed, living in the family’s second home, rent-free. It’s what University of Virginia sociologist Joseph E. Davis called the “reciprocal bond of kinship” in which years of parenting will be repaid with later closeness. When that doesn’t happen, parents see their offspring as ungrateful and their actions as the ultimate betrayal. 

Of course, experts note that not everyone is deserving of such reciprocity and some cut-offs are necessary — for example, in cases of abuse — and other relatives should respect the decision.  

But for the most part, people can refuse to be caught up in feuds, because it only leads to more drama, Dickinson said.

She cited an example from her own family — a relative who has drifted away completely. Now, after four decades of nearly zero contact, he is drifting back, in poor health and needing help. 

“My work has inspired me to try to welcome him back, others refuse. I don’t blame anyone in my family who might want to keep their distance… but nobody has the right to control who I choose to have a relationship with. I am making my own choices based on what I’m capable of and what I want to do.”

Joshua Coleman offers the following strategies for taking care of yourself in a family conflict:

1. Get support

Reach out to friends and family and consider joining a support group or getting professional help.

2. Don’t cut off in response

You are not the one cutting ties, your family member is. Don’t cut off your family member in response. Continue to reach out, letting him or her know that you love them and that you want to mend whatever has broken.

3. Don’t feed the anger

It’s understandable to feel angry. Step back and try to understand what led to this estrangement. If the door opens, you will be in a much better position to reconcile. 

4. Listen to without defending yourself

If there’s a chance to talk with your loved one, listen with an open heart. Even if you disagree, look for the grains of truth. Try to empathize with your family member’s pain rather than get caught up in the hurt and anger.

5. Focus on yourself

If you do begin communicating again, you will be in a position to learn from the mistakes of the past and work toward an improved relationship. Put your efforts into changing yourself, not your family member.

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Bonnie Miller Rubin grew up on the North Shore and was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 25 years, specializing in health and family issues. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.