Making Peace in Dysfunctional Families: How to Fix It and Whether You Should

Genuinely enjoying one another’s company.  A family outing to Grayton Beach, with Lorna, Aislinn, Shannon, and Brian.  All photos copyrighted.

In every dysfunctional family, there’s at least one do-goodin’ peacemaker who is either a blood relative, an in-law, or a “concerned family friend.”  Ironically, it’s usually not so much about making peace among hostile relatives but about being a hero—even through manipulative tactics designed to force everyone to make nice that really achieves nothing below the surface.  At least, that’s how it has been in my family…over and over and over again. So how do you bring peace into families where there’s never been peace and bring families back together when they’d just as soon each other disappear from the planet?

I grew up in a dysfunctional family.  To the core.  Not only was my immediate family dysfunctional, but my extended family all the way to fifth cousins was dysfunctional in ways that you normally find only in fiction or on Jerry Springer.  My extended family made the Dukes of Hazzard look like the intelligentsia of the South.  Too bad we couldn’t have had reality TV cameras following the various family branches around or we would  have been one of the longest running shows around because there was always DRAMA. DRAMA in all caps. No editing needed for maximum dramatic impact. Not the occasional tiffs that most families have every few years because the wrong sister was the Maid of Honor in a cousin’s wedding or somebody named a baby after Grandpa first, but near-daily DRAMA.

When I was a kid, I seriously never knew when I came home from school each day which relative outside my immediate household was going to be big news—who was going to be in jail, who’d hit somebody with a pipe,  who was avoiding the repo man, who’d tried to run my car off the road, whose window was shot out during the five minutes they weren’t sitting in front of it, who’d unplugged whose freezer on the back porch and spoiled all the food but left their distinctive shoeprints in the dirt, who’d destroyed an expensive piece of machinery in my dad’s barn after taking it without asking,  who’d just reneged on a debt that made half the local stores refuse checks with my surname on them, or who was covering up an affair with a little extra religiosity.  My extended family thrived on conflict—some still do—back before conflict was popularly rephrased as DRAMA.

They say blood is thicker than water, but in my family, so is toothpaste. I love my mom and brothers dearly, but I have plenty of relatives I don’t care to ever see again or expose my children to, and I don’t appreciate outsiders or self-appointed peacemakers telling me what I “need” to do “for the family.”  Usually those people have no idea of the constant turmoil I saw when I was growing up…or the more  recent threats to “beat [me] up” for talking openly about my relationship with a grandparent who never showed any affection to me,  the frequent cyber-stalking and bad-mouthing by cousins I haven’t seen since I was 5 years old, and the busy-body who refuses to speak to me (thank Gods!) for blogging honestly about how I dealt with my father’s death. Outsiders and family peacemakers usually have an ideal in mind that I have personally not known with my family in Georgia, though I do know it with my own children—and that’s why I’m one of those people with no desire whatsoever to bring certain long-lost relatives back into my fold or have a big family reunion with them

My life now is 180-degrees from how I grew up.  I have a wonderful relationship with both my daughters and our home life is peaceful.  At this very moment, there’s excitement over my 17-year-old’s  trip to Harvard to compete in a national forensics competition, the multiple weddings she’s been asked to shoot, and the prestigious summer camp she’s paying for herself out of her photography business—and I’m equally thrilled over my 19-year-old  college senior and the sudden unfolding of opportunities for summer internships either with a well-respected university or a lengthier internship with a counseling clinic or the out-of-state symposium she’ll be presenting at as an undergrad or the potential special research project she’ll spearhead herself that’ll look great on her resume’ for grad school. My family is happy and prosperous and loving and just…amazing.  Why would I ever want to muck that up with people from the past who constantly stir up DRAMA and drop problems on my doorstep?  There is nothing hostile relatives have to offer my happy little family and far too much to endanger the serenity we have.  We are thriving and blessed just as we are, and I refuse to let anyone guilt-trip me with her fantasies about what “family” should be into doing something that goes against my intuition.  My family already is what it should be.

Yet, every so often, someone wants to step in and “set things right.”   Sometimes the person is young and idealistic, with no idea of the past familial patterns.  Usually, it’s a church-inspired ego trip that’s still not going to get anyone into heaven by successful good works, often by women who have not acted ethically in the past.  I have witnessed these over the years where someone new to the extended family decided to ensure discreetly that various hostile parties were in the same room at the same time, thinking proximity would dissolve years of back-biting and they’d be praised for being a hero.  It has not worked and it will never work—and as an added bonus, at least some of the people who felt tricked and manipulated will never trust them again.

That’s not to say that families can’t be reunited or that re-discovering long-lost cousins can’t be wondrous.  I have cousins on my mom’s side of my family whom I knew as children, and in the past few years—with no help from anyone trying to intercede—we’ve found each other as adults.  I happen to think they’re some of the coolest people on the planet.  I don’t know them as adults as well as I’d like to, but I enjoy the conversations we have and look forward to building happy relationships with them in the coming years.  I’ve introduced them to my children because they augment my idea of family rather than merely extending it. It’s peaceful in ways that my other extended family relationships aren’t.

So how do you, if you want to see a family “get back together,” go about the task of bringing peace to a Hatfield/McCoy relationship?

1.        First, ask yourself why you’re getting involved. Really, is this any of your business?  Are you trying to look good to your church, to Grandma of the clan, to your sweetie?   Do you dream of what everyone will say when you’re done?  “Oooh, isn’t she wonderful because she brought the family back together single-handedly after a whopping four generations of bad blood?  Aren’t we so lucky to have her!”  Because if it’s in any way about YOU or what YOU get out of it or how people will think of YOU, back away now.  Even if “I just lovvvvvvve helping people” or “I feel good bringing fighting families together” is your motivation, that’s still about YOU.  It’s YOUR emotional reward.  Instead…

2.       Work on yourself. If your motives are honest and you really just want the family to stop fighting so there’ll be more peace in your life, then work on making yourself a more peaceful person.  You cannot change other people.  You cannot make Cousin Emmie Sue turn into Aunt Bessie Mae’s best friend overnight.  You can’t change Cousin Emma Sue’s penchant for kleptomania or Aunt Bessie Mae’s paranoia that everyone, including the Government and aliens, are stealing from her.  But you can change yourself into someone who is accepting of all family members.  Which is why you….

3.       Don’t admonish family members for things you think they’ve done or haven’t done to improve a dysfunctional relationship. Don’t write letters or make phone calls or send emails flaming them for what you haven’t even witnessed for yourself but heard about from another family member with his or her own agenda.  You may not know that Cousin Billy Bob doesn’t speak to Uncle Jimmy Chuck  because Billy Bob spent the entire fifth grade trying to keep Uncle Jimmy Chuck’s hands out of his pants.  And if you did know that about Jimmy Chuck’s pedophilia, you absolutely have no business lecturing  now-grown-up Billy Bob on forgiveness when you did nothing to stop Jimmy Chuck.  That’s because…

4.       People will let go of their animosity and forgive each other when they’re good and ready to, and not before. There is nothing you can do to fix it for them.  When they are ready, they will release what’s kept them apart and begin to mend what was broken or create something new.  Some will probably never be ready—do you think my brother will ever look kindly on the relative who sic’d growling dogs on him when he was showing off his baby daughter for the first time to her great-grandmother and he had to outrun them with a baby in his arms?   But if you really want family peace, there are some things you can do, one in particular….

5.       Be a good friend to all. Keep an open mind, stop gossiping, stop listening to gossip, and befriend every member of the family.  Not just the ones you like or the ones who’ve convinced you they’re right and everyone else is wrong.  Listen with your heart and keep your mouth shut.  Don’t contribute to the bad blood with imaginary scenarios that never happened in the past and aren’t true now.  Don’t speculate on what someone really meant or why they felt a certain way about a family member when you never even saw the interactions between them.  Ask, if you must, but don’t invent answers.   If you can be open-minded and a friend to everyone, you’re more likely to….

6.       Take notice of when a family member is ready to let go of old hatred and make peace—and actually be able to facilitate a feel-good reunion for all. This is NOT when YOU decide that it’s time for them to get back together because “Oh, wouldn’t this be nice if they got along?” or “They’re not getting any younger so they better hurry up so they can be right with God when they die.”  No, this is when Uncle Jimmy Chuck pulls you aside in a tearful confession and tells you what terrible things he did to all the boys in the family twenty years ago and how sorry he is and if he only knew how to ask for forgiveness, he would AND Cousin Billy Bob mentions privately over a beer  on the tailgate that he’s been struggling with forgiveness like his preacher talks about but can’t quite manage it because he feels that Uncle Jimmy Chuck has no idea of the consequences of his actions.  Notice that I said AND, not OR. If Jimmy Chuck wants to make amends for what he’s done, it is not your place to go to Billy Bob and open old wounds and try to force a reconciliation when Billy Bob isn’t ready to talk about the past.  Only when both are ready should you get involved.  “Both” equals “Invitation.”  “One” or “Neither” equals “Mind your own business.”  If Cousin Emmie Sue tells you she is still angry that Aunt Bessie Mae accused her stealing that jade ring that’s been in the family for years and Aunt Bessie Mae is still telling you how terrible Emmie Sue is for stealing it, leave it alone. You’re not going to convince either because they’re not ready.  If Aunt Bessie Mae confesses she found the ring in a drawer two years after it disappeared and is too embarrassed by her false accusations to say anything, then you’ve got an open door to suggest that an apology may set things right—but it’s Bessie Mae’s responsibility to go to Emmie Sue and fix the relationship, not yours.   And that’s why…

The Long-Awaited Honest-to-God Secret to Being Happy7.       You continue to focus instead on being the best person you can be—positive, compassionate, loving, understanding, open-minded, and serene. If you are all those things, then that’s the kind of atmosphere that will be around you and you won’t be dealing with fighting families.   Really…their crap won’t matter to you.  This can take a little while to transition through but it’s very worthwhile when you get there.  If it’s far more fun for you to spend your energy on fixing a family full of dysfunctional people, you’re missing out on fixing your own dysfunctions that stay so well hidden because you camouflage them with other people’s DRAMA.  As for me….

8.       It’s become a game, a splendid revelation of secrets, and it has not been wrong yet.  People who get all up in my business always have something of their own to hide, to divert attention from. The surest way I know that all is not well in their world and with their self-esteem is when they come out of the woodwork with their focus on how to fix ME.

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