Marriage and Family — 02 November 2003
Family and forgiveness

Family and forgiveness

Yes, it’s a season for family get together, celebration, belonging and
love. Yet, for many families this anticipated reunion is fraught with
anxiety, conflicts, concerns and worry.

Part of the problem lies within the commercial idealized image of family
love and sharing.
If your family is large enough, the chances are that some members of
this unit are less than enthusiastic about spending time with other

members. Since families are given – not chosen, it is reasonable to
expect that individual differences may cause some rifts. To expect
otherwise, is unrealistic.

Most families have these, or similar characters: “Blabbing” Aunt Betty,
“Gossipy” Cousin Gilda, “Somber” Papa Sam, “Tipsy” Nephew Tom,
“Critical” Uncle Carl and “Meddling” Granny Melva. These and other
traits are anticipated to interfere with the safety, comfort and ease of
others. Thus the dread of being together is created.

Another frequent concern expressed by people in counseling is what I
call the “Juggling” demand. Both sets of parents want to see their kids
and grandkids for the very specific evening or day. How does one family
split it’s time among all the loving relatives without hurting anyone’s
feeling? With blended families the combinations are even more complex.

And then we have the long unforgotten “sins” of old. As families have an
extensive relationship history, it is inevitable that at some point,
someone was perceived to have engaged in the most unforgivable act. This
dreadful transgression is remembered, magnified and rehashed by the
offended party for years and years.

Keeping a grudge falsely empowers the person holding on to it. That
individual maintains the victim role, whereby she perceives herself as
innocent, pure and unjustly wronged. She may even recruit support from
other family members to side with her and become enraged by the acts of
the transgressor. If others give that support, the position of the
victim becomes entrenched and the grudge persists.

This type of holding on to resentments about unresolved issues is an
unhealthy way of gaining a false sense of self-esteem. It is based on
the false belief that whatever was done to the victim, is an act that
the victim could not have done to others.

The truth is that all people are capable of the same ugly conduct under
certain circumstances. It is true that some are quicker to resort to
less dignified behavior at lower levels of provocation.

Dr. Kubler Ross, the renowned psychiatrist and pioneer in the study of
death and dying, once addressed the issue of moral conduct in the face
of need, by reciting her personal experience. She described how after
World War II, she was walking from Germany to Holland, hungry and near
death. On her way she saw a small child holding a piece of bread, she
grabbed the bread and ran. Stealing a piece of bread from a child is not
an act she would condone under normal circumstances, but in her intense
need to survive, she did just that.

This story was told in support of the idea that with the pressure of
extreme need, all people are capable of immoral conduct. The notion that
anyone is qualitatively superior to another is false.

If indeed we are all capable of (and probably already have done) the act
which we hold a grudge about, it is time to forgive ourselves and others
graciously. We may want to understand the circumstances under which that
offending individual was operating.

Here is the first premise-all people want to matter and feel loved.
Anything that interferes with maintaining that perception is likely to
be aggressed against. If you understand the need of the other, you can
understand the motivation for the act.

The second premise is- most people do not intend to disrupt, hurt, or
interfere with your life. Their primary concern is their own well being.
If they did offend you, they must have been needy- not powerful.

The third premise is- all relationships involve at least two parties. In
any conflict both parties directly or indirectly contributed to its_
Could you have inadvertently caused the other person to feel less worthy
or valuable?

Here are some guesses about the motivations behind the characters
mentioned above. “Blabbing” Aunt Betty probably needs attention.
“Gossipy” Cousin Gilda may feel that her life is boring, or she gets a
sense of importance by “knowing ” what is happening with others.
“Somber” Papa Sam may not be cold but shy. “Tipsy” Nephew Tom could be
very uncomfortable with crowds and chooses to medicate himself to fit
in. “Critical” Uncle Carl may be very unhappy with himself, and finds
solace in the imperfections of others. “Meddling” Granny Melva may feel
powerless and wants to feel worthwhile by dispensing her “wisdom” to others. If you can guess what needs are responsible for the behavior of the
annoying person, you may be able to provide those needs in advance and
reduce the disturbing conduct.

Here are some suggestions for your consideration:

  • Decide that YOU will bring and maintain a loving and friendly attitude
    throughout the family gathering.
  • When confronted with an undesirable response from another, explain it
    to yourself as a reaction to his or her unmet needs- not a personality
  • Give others attention, kind words, interest and appreciation _ they
    will most likely be pleasant.
  • Abandon all old grudges- they hurt you the most.
  • When you find yourself critical of someone’s behavior, practice
    forgiveness. Tell yourself:
    “What is true about you (the “offender”), is also sometimes true about
    me, and a recent example of it is&.” Reminding yourself that you are
    capable of the same conduct at times reduces the intensity of the
    “offense”. Since you forgive yourself, the same measure is due others.
  • When a “juggling” conflict arises about who gets your presence at what
    time, remind all the parties that you love them and cherish their
    company. Reassure them that the time spent together is what matters, not
    when it is.

Holidays do not create the joy within, deciding to be kind, forgiving
and loving- does.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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