Linda Lewis Griffith

Healing family rifts

Family rifts are those prolonged periods of discord that can be attributed to a specific event. They arise from a variety of situations. Grown children may disapprove of their father’s new wife. Siblings may squabble about the distribution of their deceased parents’ estate. A brother-in-law may drink too much alcohol and make inappropriate remarks to his wife’s sister.

Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same. Oncecordial relationships are replaced by stony silence. Anger, pain and resentment assume the emotional forefront. Members refuse to attend important family gatherings. All sense of pleasant functioning comes to a screeching halt.

The underlying cause of family rifts is hurt feelings. Particular members feel they’re being mistreated by other members in the group. The precipitating event may actually happen, as when one sibling receives a large portion of an inheritance while another is left with practically nothing. Or it can be imagined: A sister-in-law feels unaccepted by her husband’s mother, so she refuses to go to their home.

In either case, offended parties disengage from the family at large, making it clear that they’re unhappy and that the others are to blame. They also seek to enlist like-minded members in their cause, further widening the schism and drawing us-against-them battle lines.

Family rifts can happen in the best of households. But they’re more common in contentious, highly opinionated clans where folks run roughshod over each others’ emotions. They’re also fueled by a stubborn refusal to clear the air or by an unwillingness to move past the pain. In fact, unresolved rifts ultimately lead to family estrangements, where members sever all contact for years at a time.

Fortunately, rifts can be healed. Psychic damage can be contained. If all members act together, they can turn a potential familial car wreck into a mere fender bender on the highway of life.


Value the primacy of the family unit. Families are far greater than the individuals who comprise them. When we set our sights on the larger picture, we behave in a way that supports the well-being of the unit.

Express your love and commitment to all parties involved. A family is comprised of unique individuals, each of whom is vital to its functioning. Tell members how much you respect and adore them. It’s not easy when you’re temporary rivals. But it’s more important now than any other time.

Hold a family powwow. Gather all parties in a neutral setting for the purpose of resolving the problem. Designate a moderator to maintain decorum and keep everyone on track.

Hear all sides of the story. Allowing parties equal expression helps them feel valued and defuses hostility. Even if their accusations seem outlandish, it’s imperative that everyone is heard.

Address the issue quickly. The longer negative emotions simmer, the more difficult they are to resolve. Face problems as soon as they crop up to stave off collateral damage.

Don’t do anything permanent. We fantasize about foolish retaliations whenever our feelings get snubbed. But those only fuel the discord and cause troubles you can’t undo.

Control your anger. Yes, you may feel wronged. You think other members are behaving like fools. Still, your outrage is toxic to the proceedings. Don’t let it interfere.

Arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. Once everything’s been said, reach some sort of conclusion. Decide how things will be different, and figure out a way to make it work.

Be willing to apologize. Even if you don’t think you’re wrong, you can still say, “I’m sorry. I never wanted this to get out of hand.” When both parties say mea culpa, the healing process can begin.

Accept the olive branch. Grudges are like clogs in our relational plumbing. They prevent hard feelings and ugly moments from flushing away. When members express remorse, graciously forgive them. We’ve all done things we regret.

Be patient. Rifts take time to heal. They’re wounds that require sutures and ample TLC. Hang in there. Things will get better. There’s too much at stake to quit now.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit  .