Ending the family feud

Relationships: Author says there is hope for healing estrangements, but it takes forgiveness and persistence.

April 08, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

A son refuses to have contact with his divorced father. A failing family business divides two generations. A brother and sister no longer speak because one got a bigger share of their late father's estate.

Barbara LeBey has heard all the stories about estranged families -- each uglier than the last. But she steadfastly believes most of these relationships can be repaired. And she ought to know -- she's done it herself.

"The reality is that most estrangements are not over things that are so heinous," says LeBey, an Atlanta attorney and former administrative law judge. "Once you learn to put family first, pride doesn't have to stand in the way."

LeBey, a 61-year-old mother of two and grandmother of four, has interviewed 135 people with stories of smoldering family feuds for her new book, "Family Estrangements" (Longstreet Press, $24.00).

It is a topic, she argues, whose time has come. From divorce to interfaith marriages, gays who are coming out of the closet, ugly inheritance battles and conflicts over child custody, modern America has no shortage of topics to fuel and prolong family fights.

Only last year was she able to patch up a relationship with her only son. The fellow lawyer and father of two had inexplicably cut off all contact with his mother and the rest of the family five years ago -- at his wife's insistence, LeBey says.

How did LeBey end what she describes as an "intensely painful" four-year silence? She called him up and asked if he was interested in his high school track trophies -- and then reminded him that she still cared.

"I didn't say a word about the past," says LeBey. "After that, I kept e-mailing and calling. I think it helped. I don't think he wanted to be estranged."

The first-time author says the problems she experienced with her son motivated her to write the book and, she hopes, to help others heal their own family estrangements -- a problem she believes is threatening to become an epidemic in our society.

At every speaking appearance, she asks her audience: How many of you either have a family estrangement, had one or know someone who has had one? Usually, everyone in the room puts a hand up.

"It only takes one person to cause an estrangement," she says. "Very often, these are just average people."

Some of the more painful estrangements LeBey recounts in her book include a Baptist minister who admitted he was gay after 27 years of marriage and was promptly cut off by all five of his children.

In another heartbreaker, a grandmother who was diagnosed with cancer was not given a chance to see the granddaughter she helped raise -- unless she gave her ex-daughter-in-law the cash she demanded from her.

In the case of the minister, all his children eventually reconciled. But the grandmother and her granddaughter still haven't seen each other. Altogether, about one-third of the people she interviewed were not able to end their estrangements.

"Many people who are estranged feel they're at a dead end and nothing will change, but reconciliations do happen," says Jim Fitzgerald, a Marietta, Ga. psychologist who helped LeBey gather material for her book. "I'm hopeful that a book like this can expose people to others who have been able to change."

Still, sometimes a relationship can be so completely toxic that the other person will refuse an apology no matter what, admits LeBey.

"Ultimately, in time, they may regret it. But not always," she says.

LeBey thinks many quarreling relatives don't realize the impact these long-running feuds can have on the rest of the family. "People are pushed to the corner to take sides. It hurts everyone," she says.

She admits that many of her tales of estrangement are one-sided and she presents them without the opposing person's point of view. But, she argues, who is right "doesn't really matter. After a while, estrangements take on a life of their own."

The best way to bring about a rapprochement, LeBey says, is for one person to seize the initiative and tell the other that they wish to be closer. That can often require some "gentle persistence," she says, just to be heard.

Her final piece of advice is the simplest -- remind the other person of your feelings for them. "Remember to say, 'I love you.' "

How to patch it up

Author Barbara LeBey offers these steps toward mending an estrangement:

* Communicate your desire to repair the relationship. Let the other person know your door is always open.

* Allow for individual differences -- like the parents who come to accept their daughter's sexuality. "You can't expect this other person to be exactly what you want them to be."

* Don't rehash the old arguments -- even if that's what the other person wants to do. "Just say you understand how they feel."

* Hold no grudges. "Don't blame. Don't hate."

* Be understanding and forgiving.

* Don't allow geographical distance to cause emotional distance. "Use the technological wonders of today like e-mail and fax machines."

* Seek help from other family members, friends, clergy and family therapists.

Forgiveness -- 'a gift to yourself'

"When a resentment of a wrong or a hurt or an injustice persists in your mind, it becomes toxic and corrupts not just our life but the lives of everyone close to you. Resentment escalates into grudges, then to rage and hatred, then to damaged and often completely ruined relationships. The only way to get over resentment is to forgive the person who caused it, but the act of forgiving is difficult because it always occurs within a tangled knot of emotions. What can make it somewhat easier is to view forgiveness as a necessary gift to yourself."

-- From "Family Estrangements," by Barbara LeBey (Longstreet, $24)

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