Tuesday, January 9, 2001

The presents have been opened and enjoyed; the china has been washed, dried and stored for another year; and even a few thank-you notes have been dashed off some even by the children, believe it or not.

But in the back of your mind, a nagging irritation remains, one that crops up every Thanksgiving and Christmas. What are you going to do about that feud between Cousin Bob and Aunt Mary? Every year you must hold two parties, just to keep them from having to be in the same room. Family reunions are torturous affairs. Nobody you talk to in the family seems to know what even caused the rift in the first place.

Family rifts and conflicts can be excruciating to everybody, so much so that several people experiencing such a rift were too hurt or embarrassed to talk about it for this article.

Family psychologists, therapists and counselors agree that one of the most treacherous minefields of conflict resolution comes within the boundaries of family because of the strong emotional bonds and feelings. Their almost unanimous advice proceed with caution.

Mind your own business?

The first decision family members must make when confronted with a family rift is whether to get involved at all. Stephen Shere, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the District, says family members should decide how important the relationships involved are to them and weigh the potential outcomes, good and bad, of getting involved.

“If there is enough connection to something that is worthwhile having, obviously there should be some effort made to preserve it,” Mr. Shere says. “It’s not simple to know when something’s important. You have to figure it out.”

Mr. Shere says that sometimes the best solution might be no solution at all.

“I don’t always assume the best outcome for people is to stay together and to get things resolved,” he says. “It may be, but that sometimes has to be discovered. Sometimes it’s helpful for it to be a legitimate option for people to go their separate ways.”

An example Mr. Shere gives is where a brother and sister may get along, but their spouses cannot stand each other. In that case, he says, it may be better for the siblings to get together on their own, but not feel obligated to bring their spouses to a situation that can only go downhill.

“There is this expectation that when we all come together, that everything has to go smoothly,” he says. “There’s pressure for that [to happen], but a lot of opportunity, too.”

Phyllis Clymer, a licensed certified clinical social worker in Columbia, Md., says it’s hard from her perspective for family members not to get involved because, as she says, “If it’s a family problem, you’re in it.”

“If there is a problem in the family, it affects everybody,” Ms. Clymer says. “It goes beyond a cliche; it does affect you.”

That goes even for people who marry into a family where there is friction, she says.

“If you’re married to someone in a family where there’s a long-standing conflict or tension, and it’s not being worked on or not being worked on productively, it affects you,” Ms. Clymer says. “Every time you see that family member and your partner gets upset, confused and frustrated, it affects you. Even if you weren’t there at the date of the original affront, you are living with this as a legacy as much as anyone inheriting a disease. In some ways, it may be harder and in some ways, it may be easier, but you’re certainly impacted by it.

‘Win-lose’ to ‘win-win’

One of the basic tenets of the art of conflict resolution, experts say, is to help the aggrieved parties move from a “win-lose” mentality to a “win-win.”

In other words, mediators try to break both parties from thinking that they are always right and the other party is always wrong, moving them to a point where they can each give up something and still feel like both sides have won.

The problem with family disputes, psychologists say, is that the “win-lose” mentality is so deeply ingrained in both parties, many of whom are absolutely convinced that they are right, that moving them out of it is difficult. The familial bonds and natural emotions that swirl around the conflict make it even more difficult.

“When you’re locked into a win-lose framework, there is no way to get out of it,” Ms. Clymer says. “If you make a point, you make it at the expense of someone else, and if you win, you win at the cost of their losing.”

Bob Caldwell, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Bethesda and a former minister, calls the “win-lose” mentality “gridlock,” and the only way out of it is for an offended party to look within for change instead of putting the blame and the burden solely on the other party.

“At least one person needs to get to a place where he or she says, ‘I wonder what I can do to make this OK? I wonder what part of this is me,’ ” Mr. Caldwell says. “And if they can begin to accept that, that’s the only way out of gridlock. It’s to look at yourself and say, ‘What can I do?’

“But when you throw people into the category of winners and losers, you get a primitive response. It becomes fight or flight. People otherwise have a rational brain, but in this kind of situation, forget it. The more primitive, reptilian part takes over, and it becomes winners and losers, and you’ve got to change for me to be OK.”

The difficulty in trying to mediate these kinds of gridlocks, Mr. Caldwell says, lies in the fact that mediators must be extremely mature.

“It’s a tough skill to have,” he says. “You can go in trying to control the outcome, but if you do that, you run the risk of exacerbating it and trying to make them get together in some sort of artificial situation.”

Impartiality is another necessary component of mediation, and family members, by definition, seldom seem to have it.

“You really need to get clear whether you have a strong bias, whether you can be there for both people,” Mr. Caldwell says. “Can you appreciate the dilemma of both sides, or are you an advocate of one over the other?

“That is an important piece of it. So the first thing is to look at yourself and see where you’re coming from,” he says. ”

You want to help both parties get along better and reconcile, not just join one side in beating up the other. And that is hard when human nature indicates your sentiments will side with one over the other in a family situation.”

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