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Why do rifts happen?
All relationships have some degree of conflict, or disagreements, over anything from whose turn it is to take out the garbage to who gets the money in Grandma's will.
Conflict can be a good thing. "The absence of conflict means that you're not talking about things that matter most to you," says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Detroit and research professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Family conflicts are usually manageable and can be resolved quickly. What's important is that all parties respect their differences and put pride and hurt aside.
However, when problems or issues accumulate to the point that mutual understanding is no longer possible, deeper troubles arise. These can often cause rifts between family members.
"That is about accumulated disrespect for each other," Orbuch says, adding that although these rifts can happen in any relationship, they tend to occur most frequently between parents and children, or among siblings.
The importance of healing
While it might seem easier to close the door on a difficult relationship and dismiss the person from your life, there are good reasons to take steps toward reunion -- and healing. For one thing, you'll feel better.
"It's a selfish act, because healing is more for you than it is the other person," says Rebecca Grado, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco and co-founder of the Mother Daughter Empowerment Summit. "If you don't get closure on these hurtful relationships, you're not free to move forward in your life, and your current relationships may suffer."
"Healing is really more about taking responsibility and accountability, learning from what happened and coming out with an understanding about who you are," Grado continues. While that can lead to rebuilding and redefining the relationship, it might also lead to saying goodbye.
Healing the wounds
So how do you go about healing a family rift? It all depends on the situation, but Orbuch recommends writing down a list of positives about the other person. "You can dwell on the negatives forever, but if you want to move forward, you've got to focus on the positives, even if you have to go back 10 or 20 years," she says.
Next, put yourself in the other person's shoes and try to understand the situation from his or her perspective. "Having an understanding about the other person unlocks your compassion," Grado says.
Even tougher is forgiving the other person, but it's a necessary step if you want to reach closure. "Forgiveness is another selfish act, for when you forgive, you give yourself freedom," Grado says.
Creating boundaries is also important. "Often, issues arise because people don't have boundaries in relationships," Orbuch says, adding that family members need to respect each other's privacy. As a parent, for instance, you can' expect to be your children's best friends. Nor can children expect their parents to be their best friends. So figuring out what boundaries you need to have in place will help you move forward.
Once you've dealt with all of this, you may be ready to reach out to the other person. Both Grado and Orbuch advocate letter writing as a way to do so. When you write a letter, after all, you have time to hone your words and get crystal clear about what you want to say. Letter writing also helps slow you down, preventing anger and defensiveness from sneaking in.
Of course, none of this will happen overnight. It might take weeks, months, even years for you to reach this point, and you might not be able to get there alone. You might, after all, need help from an outside source like a counselor or therapist who can offer an unbiased view and help you work through the situation.
There is, however, one major obstacle that could stand in your
way: The other person may not be ready to heal yet -- and that's
okay. "Once you've written that letter, you've done your part," Grado
says. "You can then move on, knowing that you've responded with love