Many years ago I had a falling out with a close relative I’ll call Mary. Mary had taken offense to a family-oriented decision I had made. I could see her point. I didn’t communicate my decision to my family very well, but still I thought she had overreacted. Mary wrote me a hateful letter that shocked and angered me. I did not respond.
A few weeks later, Mary called and began chatting with me as if nothing had happened. I told her, “Unless you’re calling to apologize for your letter, we have nothing to talk about.” She paused a moment and then hung up on me. We didn’t speak for a long time. I said nothing about our rift to other members of our family, and I never knew if Mary shared our disagreement with anyone.
Some months later, my father came to the city where I lived for a short visit. At one point during his stay, he said, “I don’t know what the problem is between you and Mary, but I wish you two would work it out. Life’s too short.”
I’m not sure how or what he knew about our conflict, but my father was right. Life is too short to propagate a feud indefinitely. Mary and I gradually began communicating again and eventually got back on good terms. We never mentioned the issue again. Now, decades later, we get along just fine and are quite close. We’re both glad we got over our rift long ago.
I’m not one to carry a grudge for long. If I become angry with someone, I usually get over it quickly. If I’m the transgressor, I’m apt to apologize shortly after I’ve calmed down and realized what I’ve done or said. Not everyone is like that, though. Sometimes breakups between friends or feuds among family members can last for years, for decades, or until death do us part.
It’s hard to swallow your pride and reach out to someone you’ve wronged or who has wronged you. You never know how that person will react. Perhaps she’ll be delighted and meet you halfway with open arms. But maybe she’ll still be as angry as ever. Maybe making contact will simply reopen a festering wound. You just don’t know what to expect.
A friend of mine, Steve, experienced an even more severe familial rift. Steve’s mother became very ill some years ago. He flew across the country and spent several weeks helping one of his sisters, who had been living with their mother, take care of her. Perhaps it was Steve’s intrusion into the mother-daughter dynamic, or it could have been the stress of having a third person living in the house during a crisis, but clashes arose between Steve and his sister.
Steve felt his sister didn’t appreciate his efforts to help around the house, to drive his mother to doctors’ appointments, to shop for groceries, and so forth. His sister exhibited various passive-aggressive behaviors (along with out-and-out aggressive behaviors) that upset Steve. Eventually he went back home, exhausted both mentally and physically from his mother’s illness and the stress of interacting with his unappreciative and demanding sister.
Steve’s mother died a few months later. Her passing hit the family hard. One day, a comment from one of his brothers about the care-giving sister struck a nerve in Steve. Steve wrote his brother a long letter in which he detailed the time he had spent helping his mother and the lousy way their sister had treated him.
Despite the fact that Steve asked his brother to keep the letter to himself, he showed it to both the offending sister and another sibling. The conflict escalated. Vicious letters flew back and forth, relationships were severed, and finally mail was being returned unopened. The six middle-aged children wound up polarized, three in each opposing camp. This was a chasm, not just a rift.
As time passes, you expect that grief will take its natural course, people will calm down, anger will abate, and long-standing relationships will reestablish themselves. That hasn’t happened in this family yet. Steve has taken some tentative steps, such as sending a congratulatory card to one sister in the other camp on a milestone wedding anniversary. He received a cordial, but certainly not warm, reply, and they haven’t communicated since.
It’s not clear how the situation will resolve, if at all. It would be a shame if these siblings were not able to have civil relationships again, because they’ve always been a close-knit family.
Steve would like to reestablish contact with his siblings and his nieces and nephews. But it’s hard to know how to cross that gulf. You don’t know whether a friendly hand awaits you on the other side or if you’ll be shoved back into the abyss. Do you take the risk of being hurt again, or do you hang onto that grudge, perhaps far longer than anyone wants?
If you’ve burned any bridges with family members or close friends, maybe it’s time to get over it. It’s true that time heals most — though not all — wounds, but you must let time do its job.
Ultimately, does it really matter who did what or said what to whom and why? In most cases, the right thing to do is to give up the grudge and try to get back on good terms with the people who’ve always been close to you. If you can, you put the incident behind you — maybe you don’t even mention it again — and you move on.
It’s never too late to build a new bridge and heal a broken relationship. I didn’t agree with my father about much, but he was right about this. Life is indeed too short to stay bitter and angry forever.