Families Stuck in Silence


I keep meeting people who are frustrated by the same big problem in their families. In fact, I’ve heard so many almost identical stories from people that I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a cut-and-paste formula that I don’t know about. The specifics change with each family, of course, but by now the basic plot is so familiar that I practically expect to hear it. And, true to form, when it comes, it’s always as a pair of complaints. Complaint #1: There’s a major rift among relatives. Complaint #2: Nothing’s getting done about it.

Okay, everybody who’s had a family knows how rifts can develop. Somebody disagrees with somebody else, or maybe a bunch of people get their feelings hurt at the reunion, or maybe Christmas doesn’t go very well and it’s all you-know-who’s fault. People get upset, and then maybe they talk about it a little and maybe they take sides. But in the stories I’ve been hearing lately, the big problem is that nobody ever really talks about what happened.

Or if they do talk, the parties involved don’t talk to each other enough or well enough to reach resolution. Rather than apologize, forgive, and change, they let the original conflict build. In the process often a whole load of bitterness, anger, and deceit piles up right along with it. How do you fix something like this?

I think there are a few things to be done. First, we should acknowledge the problem, owning up to the role we’ve played and the ways we’ve made things worse. This has to happen for there to be any chance of progress. Next, there should be a sit-down conversation. Here’s where we break the family silence, calling attention to the distance that it’s put between people. We apologize for our mistakes and missteps and try to find a way to move forward.

Without ignoring or denying the past, we find a way to let it be just the past, and we let ourselves get unstuck from it. This won’t magically make everything perfect, but maybe it will change things enough. Maybe next time we all sit down to dinner, the first thing to see won’t be an elephant at the table, but a family.