How Do I Hurt Thee, Let Me Count the Ways

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By Diane Gorgy

Families – loving, supportive, non-judgmental – Not!  Family dynamics can play out like a Shakespearean tragedy.  Over the years, everyone’s been hurt by someone in their family.  It may be something someone said about you that you find out through the family grapevine.  It may be the time you didn’t get invited to a party, wedding, reception, without explanation.  It may be the way your family treated your significant other at a family gathering.  Things happen, things get said; family gets hurt.

Family members feel entitled to say what’s on their mind, and sometimes, it’s hurtful.  Since they are family, they rarely apologize.  So, what do you do?  Do you say nothing and stew for days, months, or years to come?  Do you try to defend yourself and perhaps launch into the mother of all arguments with long-lasting consequences?  Over the years, I have been hurt by my family, and I have hurt them.  Sometimes there was an apology, more often not.

How does your family handle the hurt?  How does it affect your family’s relationship?   Many families have broken relationships because of hurtful things that were said or done.  Sometimes it is limited to one family member or one family branch.  Sometimes, no one in the family is speaking.  Maybe the broken relationship isn’t due to what was said or done; but rather to what wasn’t.  Caring for aging parents is often a point of contention, and can be the root of hurtful words, actions or negative feelings – for example, one sibling feels they bear the majority of the care-giving responsibilities while the other is shunning their duties.  Distribution of an estate is another opportunity for broken relationships within families – who was included the will, who wasn’t included, who got what assets from the estate. 

Broken family relationships can have negative emotional and physical health effects for those affected.  So, do you try to fix a broken family relationship?  Scale of impact can help you evaluate.  For example, high impact is if no one from your family will come to your child’s wedding because of a full-on Hatfield vs. McCoy.  Low impact is if you can’t sit certain relatives at the same table.  Small breaks in relationships may repair themselves over time, or, they may be inconsequential and have low impact on overall family dynamics.  Larger rifts often take a significant event to serve as a catalyst for repair.  Unfortunately, this event can be a serious health issue (cancer, heart attack, stroke) or even a death within the family.  Some rifts shouldn’t be repaired at all for everyone’s overall well-being.

After over 60 years, I know my family pretty well and have tried to become more Zen-like in my approach to familial communications.  Now, rather than focus on the hurtful words, I focus on the person who said them and why they were said.  Often, the person’s hurtful words are just their personal opinion on something they know little about.  Sometimes, the person is looking to initiate an argument, because they enjoy the drama.  Or, they are projecting their negative feelings about themselves or their life onto me.  Other times, the person means well, but chose their words poorly.  Sometimes, as is especially true of matriarchs or patriarchs, hurtful words are intentionally used to retain a position of dominance.  For the most part, I have learned to “let go”.    

During the recent presidential election cycle family gatherings were spoiled and relationships broken due to exchange of hurtful words related to the various political issues.   Hopefully, families whose rifts were started or widened due to hurtful expression of opinions will realize that hurting each other and living in hurt is not healthy.  You don’t have to say “sorry” for giving your opinion, but if your opinion was given in a way that was hurtful, “sorry” is a good way to start to repair a rift.  And, if an offending family member won’t apologize for their hurtful words, consider why they felt the need to say them and what the overall impact is.  If there is no significant impact, be Zen-like and just let it go.

Diane retired at end of 2015.  She sold her house in Northern New Jersey after both of her children graduated from college and moved out of the house.  She is living in coastal Southern New Jersey, where she is looking forward to relaxing and getting a chance to do things that she didn’t have time to do before retirement.

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