Tag Archives: blended families

RE-EVALUATING RELATIONSHIPS AS WE GET OLDER

Stress in American life has been a popular topic for a long time. We have been dealing with it from an early age; remember studying for tests in school or waiting for the college admissions letter? This was just the beginning. Whether it’s commuting, home repairs, deadlines, or caregiving, we have a lot of stress factors in our daily life. Some we can control, some we can’t. As we get older, we are often not as susceptible to some of the old stress factors, having more distance and maturity to deal with them. Or some of us are retired and have retired some of our work stress. But for many of us, the one stress that seems to survive and, for some people thrive, is family stress.

So many of us dread the holidays, which seem to come around with increasing frequency as we age. Relationships with siblings or parents that were tense growing up, seem to have gotten worse as time has gone by. It doesn’t matter that some of the disagreements are rooted in our teen years or earlier, these disputes that drove us apart have grown and festered with time and we have avoided dealing with them. I know people who have reconciled when a parent has died but shouldn’t we be thinking about our relationships now and not wait for something so drastic? I have worked with adults who have elderly parents where fights over their care and estates has divided the siblings and shattered their shared family lives. Despite what seems like insurmountable obstacles, family tension is one area where we can have some control and often need to find ways to move forward as we get older.

Sometimes family stress involves accepting a new family dynamic. As more people re-marry in later years, adult children find themselves having to accept step-parents and adapt to blended families at an older age. Those transitions can be difficult and hard to talk about. Holidays and family events can become even more complicated and there can be a lot of hurt to get over. Maybe there’s another way of looking at it: How lucky Mom/Dad is to find love at this age! It may take a while to get to this outlook but isn’t it worth trying?

There are costs to not maintaining a relationship with family. For one thing, when we separate ourselves from them we are also denying our children formative relationships with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have had conversations with young adults whose parents are in business and not speaking. These young adults requested an intervention for their elders so they can, once again, have holiday dinners together.  A person who had been in business with his uncle decided, after an unpleasant split in the business, that they would suspend all animosity for family occasions so as not to jeopardize the greater family relationships. My friend, who had stopped speaking to her sister after her mother died a few years ago, recently invited her sister to an event and was delighted when it went well. They will never be best friends but their families will be spending the next holiday together. Do not underestimate the value of the occasional phone calls from nieces and nephews and extended family as we age and our circles get smaller.

I sometimes hear siblings say, “I wouldn’t speak to my sister/brother if I didn’t have to.” That may well be true but life’s circumstances sometimes force the need for communication. Caring for elderly parents usually falls to adult siblings. For those who have had an ongoing good relationship, these tense circumstances can be easier to deal with. But for those who do not have a good rapport with siblings, sharing responsibility for the care of a parent becomes more complicated and unpleasant for all involved. As I often tell adults whose parents are in their 80’s and 90’s, it’s not a question of if something happens with elderly parents, it’s a question of when. Isn’t it better to think ahead and be prepared to work together, relieving some of the stress and anxiety that comes with the situation?

No, our siblings may not be the easiest people to get along with, but then again, we are no longer living with them. It’s not about going back in time and reliving the hurts and injuries of the past; it’s about finding a way to move forward. Maybe with a little effort and, if necessary, with a little assistance, we can repair these damaged relations, minimize the stress and hurt, and get what we can and give what we can with a different perspective in our later years.

 

Why I Should Have Chosen Mediation

My friend, let’s call her Cathy, has had a difficult relationship with her widowed father for a while now. She is part of an informal, blended family. Her father lives in a nearby city and is not married, but has been living with a woman for several years. The father lives in the woman’s house, spends summers at her summer house, is close with her daughter’s family, and overall has slipped comfortably into his significant other’s life. Cathy has been devastated. According to Cathy, her father’s girlfriend, let’s call her Mrs. X, has made no attempt to draw Cathy and her nuclear family into this extended, blended family. Instead of her traditional family holiday celebrations, the whole new family is included in holiday traditions that they would not normally celebrate, since they are not all the same religion. For Cathy, this has created a lot of resentment towards her father. Doesn’t he see what’s happening? Doesn’t he see that she’s left out. Why doesn’t he stick up for her? She and her father had some awful blowout fights and can hardly say a civil word to each other. The tension has gone so far as to effect Cathy’s brother and his family. Last year, I suggested to Cathy that she consider mediation so they can learn to listen and speak to one another  and come out with a plan to go forward. Instead, she convinced her father to try therapy with her, and each committed to two months. Her father didn’t make it past the fourth session.

Last week I sat down to ask her why she didn’t chose mediation. Interestingly enough, her answers were based on a misunderstanding of mediation and the process. Where as a friend did I go wrong?? I think we both made assumptions without ever clarifying the options. She went to therapy because she needed to get some of the old hurts and pain her father had caused dealt with and discussed, even though he has alway opposed doing that. Her therapist thought that this could work for them. It didn’t. Her father didn’t believe in therapy to begin with. Her father has a stereotypical view of therapy and who needs therapy and it doesn’t include him. This was not a realistic method for him to resolve any problems. His biases were already in place. She didn’t go to mediation because she didn’t think she would have the opportunity to communicate her pain and hurt he has caused her.

Now I explained the mediation process. How we interview each of them beforehand to find out their perception of the issues and then schedule one open-ended session where the issues are discussed in a non-confrontational way and hopefully, agreements are reached and the parties are able to talk to one another after they leave. Emotions come out, and there is room for it in the process, but we, as mediators, are going to keep the parties talking and focused on the issues they have identified. Cathy had an immediate problem: she and her father were losing their relationship. We insure the parties speak and listen to one another, and actually hear one another. Mediation is a problem oriented process.  It helps people resolve their conflicts, focusing on the problem at hand, and gives the parties a means to move ahead. Cathy would have been able to communicate her emotions and hurt, but in the end she and her father would have learned how to talk and listen effectively , be considerate of each other, and avoid ‘pushing each other’s buttons’.

Without asking, Cathy said, “we should have gone to mediation.” So, what were the selling points that indicated this was the better route? A la Letterman, let’s start with:

  • Number 4. Her father would have been more open to a process that wasn’t a therapeutic framework. Given his original biases, he was less likely to function well in that context.
  • Number 3: Although it was important for her to have her father hear her hurt and what the issues were for them, it would have taken them far longer than the time allotted, and possible, for them to really get into and resolve the roots of some of their problems.
  • Number 2 is the realization that she would have gotten skills that she could use when future problems arose. Her pain and emotions would be part of the session but the emphasis would have been on how they could go forward, which was the immediate problem for her.
  • And what she consider as the all important Number 1 is the ability to resolve the problems in one session. She left frustrated every time the therapy session ended and nothing was resolved. Whatever momentum they achieved, was lost when the time was up. She feels the opportunity to work through in one long session might have been a key point in helping them work through their issues productively.

Next time, I will try to be as clear with my friends as I am in my formal presentations.