Like many of you, I spend lots of brain time pondering family relationships. I suppose they're no more complicated and heart-breaking now than they were a century ago. Perhaps medical science tells us more now about the health risks of relationship stress, about how stress wreaks havoc on our bodies. We know this. A child's death, a failed marriage, the death of a spouse -- these things can send a person into the grave.
Some stress is unavoidable, but in families we study the situations that develop and often wonder if and how they could have been avoided. Then we wonder what could have been done differently -- how mistakes were made that caused the trauma and resulting stress, and wonder why people behave the way they do. As we watch our loved ones suffer, we can't help but ponder these things.
Is it right to ask who is at fault, when broken relationships cause stress and then lead to ill health? Sometimes, perhaps. In families, there are decades of competing narratives. Family members take sides. They stop talking to each other. This is just more fall-out from the initial actions, but this fall-out keeps the stress and trauma going.
So how can you tell who is at fault, if anyone? I don't ask this for the sake of blaming, although plenty of blame is often slathered about, in family conflict. I ask it for the sake of safety. If there's someone in your extended family who is dangerous, shouldn't you know? For your sake, the sake of your kids, the sake of your own health? But with competing narratives about fault and blame, and people taking sides, how can you know who is dangerous and who is a victim?
I look for a trail of human debris. I examine the parties and ask myself, "Who has left a trail of human debris, of broken relationships and pain, behind him or her, often for a lifetime?" This is a useful question. It's a question you can't answer accurately without knowing all the parties, talking extensively with them, and being close to the situation. So observers on the outside of the family usually cannot know the answer to this question as well as family members do. There are secrets, uncomfortable facts, that families don't tell outsiders. In fact, if you're a family outsider, and you think you know lots of private facts that support one side of the conflict narrative, you're probably being manipulated. If you haven't, at some point, talked honestly with both parties, then you can't speak knowledgeably about it. You don't know the complexity.
A trail of human debris -- what does it look like? Perhaps a series of failed marriages or romantic attachments, decades of friends offended and lost, many estranged children or estranged siblings, parents/grandparents, even a person who moves often and picks up new friends and alliances and then drops them. Equally important is examining family members for the opposite trait: a history of loving relationships. If a family member has a long history of good friends, good relationships with most siblings, parents, grandparents, a spouse, or children, then it's unlikely that this one situation in which they're being attacked or vilified, is an accurate depiction of their character.
I say this only as a normal person with the usual closet bursting with extended family conflicts spanning several generations and reaching across half the country. There are very few methods to evaluate these painful situations, and "not doing anything" is often not a good option. I find myself confused and baffled by people's behavior whom I thought I knew! Nobody's account of the situation(s) agrees. How can I assess? Should I just bury my head in the sand and ignore the train wreck going on around me? What about family members who have not buried their heads in the sand, who have become deeply involved, trying to help, and are themselves wrecked and battered by the conflict that won't end -- whose health takes a nosedive? Do I also ignore them? I can't do that.
I look for a trail, a pattern, a lifetime of relationship behavior. And although it's not a perfect evaluative tool, it helps a lot. I don't use it for blame, and certainly not for any type of revenge or hard feelings, but simply for clarity going forward, and so I can anticipate future damage, future stress, future health risks. As one in that middle generation in a family, this is a weight I feel. And even those who leave this horrifying trail of human debris need help and support. They need to change their relational habits and stop hurting those around them -- they need friends. But that role will almost certainly be taken up by someone not in the family they have just left in a bloody heap.
We should always, always forgive. Always try to move on. Always be kind and patient. And do our best not to keep a list of past offenses that we pull out and mull over, keeping the pain alive. That's so hard! Peace is our goal, peace with others and peace with ourselves. Sometimes peace looks like a close, intimate, loving bond. But sometimes peace with a trail-of-debris person looks like distance, and distance is the only position that produces peace. Sometimes distance is the only place where forgiveness can happen.
If you're the rare and lucky person with no conflict in your extended family (does that person even exist? Anyone? Anyone?), be thankful. Be aware you're unusual. And above all don't be judgmental of those around you who are being blasted and leveled by family conflict, and who are struggling to get back on their feet and correctly evaluate their loved ones who have thrown a bomb into the close family unit. It's hard to manage that private devastation with a smiling public face. Let's all be easy on each other and remember -- from the outside, it's hard to know what's going on.