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How to mend fences with your extended family

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Rifts happen repairs happen

While many of us count “family” as an area of primary importance in our lives, many of us also may have a little secret: a rift with a member of that family. Whether over something “little” or “big,” mistakes are made and feelings get hurt in even the most loving and tight-knit of extended families. Rifts happen, sadly, and whether they are short-lived or of longer duration, it takes some effort to repair and rebuild the relationship.

two-women-talking-on-bench

No one is proud of rifts in the extended family. These rifts can cause stress not only for you and the family member on the other side, but also for the rest of the family not involved in the rift at all. What happens at family gatherings? Does one go but not the other? Is this kind of behavior fair to the rest of the family? And what about messages you are sending to your children? Do they miss this family member? And do they then think it's okay to have rifts like this in the family? Do they think such conflict is normal?

1Make the decision

If there is a rift in your extended family, the first thing to do is decide that you want to repair that rift. You have to decide whether the effort -- and possibly difficult effort at that -- is worth it to you and that you want to make it happen.

If you decide that repairing this rift is important to you -- and the comfort of other family members and the example to your children is important -- make the decision to try to repair the rift. It may not be easy, and it may be slow going, but you'll know you did the right thing and your extended family will appreciate your effort.

2Let go of your ego

No matter the core issue of the rift, you and the other family member likely made some mistakes in handling things. Sure, it's embarrassing to make mistakes. But for the sake of repair, let go of your ego -- put your tail between your legs -- and reach out the other side. Send an email or make a phone call and let this family member know you want to try to mend the fence for yourself and for the sake of your whole family.

3Take some heat

You might have to take some heat in this process. The family member on the other side of the conflict might well have some residual anger that he or she "needs" to throw at you. If repairing the rift is what is important, you can take a little bit of heat for the greater good. Make apologies if appropriate and express a desire to work through that anger to a better place.

4Take the high road

It would be oh-so-easy to shoot back an insult or two during this process. Don't.

If the family member in question is still angry and you've made the decision to take some heat in the interest of family unity and harmony, you can't fire back. It may be unfair, but if you do, you risk making the rift wider and that much harder to mend later. If you do need to vent, make sure it's with someone well outside the family dynamic.

5Keep trying

If the family rift is deep and long-standing, it may take more than one try to start mending fences. It may take more than two or three or even four tries. If you have decided that mending this family rift is important to you, you may have to keep trying until it happens. Be patient and persistent in your repair efforts.

It might NOT Happen

All this said, repairing a rift is a two-way effort. While it takes just one to initiate efforts, it does take both (or more) sides to actually make the repair. If the other side of the conflict is absolutely unwilling, even after repeated efforts and patience, you might need to drop it for a while. Perhaps after a little more time has passed you can try again.

If family is one of your life priorities, mending fences with family members when possible should be a priority, too. It may not be easy, but it is possible in many situations, and it's the best kind of example to your kids about the importance of such relationships in your lives. Your extended family may even become stronger for your efforts.

More on family relationships

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