"People expect too much': Can you fix a fractured Family?
This Article was published in the SMH By Paula Goodyer August 10, 2021
“People are less accepting about losing relationships and are motivated to take action – we’re becoming more emotionally intelligent and ready to do some work on our relationships,” says Sydney-based family therapist Jacqueline McDiarmid.
“The barriers to getting help are also coming down – there’s less stigma sticking to therapy and families are becoming less guarded about their privacy.”
Much of McDiarmid’s work involves helping families repair a rift, and while traditional triggers for estrangement like disputes over business, money and wills are still common, she sees increasing conflicts resulting from blended families or when parents re-partner and a step-parent and child don’t get on.
“The other increase I see is where an adolescent feels they’re not fitting in with the family – a lot of these estrangements happen when a young person comes out as gay or trans. They make the decision to disconnect and the parents come for help to repair the relationship.”
But for rifts to heal, old grudges should be left behind.
“Sometimes an apology is needed but there’s no point rehashing things over and over again because that just keeps people stuck,” McDiarmid says. “Repair is a process and it’s slow – the longer you’re estranged, the longer it can take. I find it’s best if I see people separately so we can work on what needs to be heard and what needs to change before people can come together. If you put people in the same room without any preparation it can re-open the wound and distance them even more.”
Her approach is to get people to think about why they want to reconnect and what aspects of the relationship are important to them rather than digging up the past.
“Sometimes people expect too much in a relationship – like, ‘Mum isn’t nurturing enough’ or ‘Mum has no empathy’ but there may be a reason why someone isn’t very nurturing. I help people see the other person’s perspective so they can move on from the original story. There needs to be less focus on the irritant that led to the break up and more focus on why they want to connect.”
“People need to have acceptance and not be stuck in ‘I have to be right’,” adds family therapist Val Holden, Regional Manager of Relationships Australia Queensland. “We don’t take people on unless they have the capacity to hear what the other person is saying.
“Sometimes repairing a rift can make a relationship stronger,” says Holden. “In that sense a rift can be healthy if it helps people to move forward. We don’t advise repairing relationships where there’s been physical or sexual abuse though. It may not be safe to repair.
“But if you’re from a functional family and you want to try and heal a rift, start by talking on the phone and see where it goes – just remember to be bigger, kinder and wiser.”
Like Jacqueline McDiarmid, Val Holden often sees families where rifts have occurred between parents and adolescent children, and a teenager’s drug use is an increasingly common trigger, she says.
“Families often have the idea that they should take the tough love approach and throw their kids out if they don’t do something about their habit. They think it’s the best way to make them stop,” adds Tony Trimingham, CEO of Family Drug Support which helps families in crisis over a family member’s drug or alcohol use.
“Sometimes repairing a rift can make a relationship stronger.”
Val Holden, Regional Manager of Relationships Australia Queensland
“But there are tragic cases where families lose contact with a son or daughter for good, or where their child dies of an overdose or suicide. Our approach has always been to set boundaries in these situations – you may need to help them find alternative accommodation, for instance – but you still stay connected. ”
Whatever the cause, the impact of a breakup can ripple from one generation to the next says Jacqueline McDiarmid.
“We sometimes see cutting family members off as a pattern in successive generations – it’s how people have learned to deal with conflict. But if you see a pattern of estrangement in your own family, be mindful of preventing it from happening again.
“It’s important to stop and think, ‘do I want my children to cut me off?’”