What to Do About Family
When You Can’t Get Along
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
My heart always beats fastest when I’m around family. The sound of familiar voices is like music to my ears. This is true of everyone I grew up calling family, but no one can make me happier or make me laugh the way my siblings do. Also, no one can break my heart the way they have.
During our isolated teen years, my siblings were everything to me. We had a difficult and insecure childhood. We also had very few friends growing up. With no consistent church family and no high school class, we were left with nowhere to belong except with each other. There is definitely a love bond, but I think when you love your family and go through hard times, the trauma bond confuses your ability to be there for each other.
A couple of years before I published my memoir Chasing Eden, one of my sisters took offense about a story I wrote on my blog. This event happened when I was eleven, and she was nine. It was one of the most traumatic moments in my childhood.
We’d been moving at the time. This series of events included the cat’s litter box being moved, the cat pooping on the floor, my dad rubbing her face in it, her scratching my dad, and my dad throwing the cat against a wall before it ran out the door.
My sister and I walked all around the house, shaking the cat food bag while we called our pet’s name, but our father was trying to outrun a landlord, so he forced us to get into our red Volkswagen camper van and leave without knowing if the cat was okay. To make matters worse, this was in January, and it began to snow just as we were driving away. That cat slept with me. She was my best friend. My heart was broken.
In our family, we didn’t talk about things like getting belted or losing pets. Discussing very loaded and painful topics could incite another visit from “The Persuader”—my parents’ name for the belt. The only redeeming part of this story is that it was so cold at our cabin that we drove down to Medford, Oregon, where we stayed with my maternal grandparents for a few weeks. There I confessed to my Grandma what was bothering me, and she told me stories about her own childhood trauma when she was about my age. Oh, how I loved her for sharing her painful stories. Grandma was often tight-lipped and didn’t like to discuss everything about her painful past, but that day she gave me the gift of a story and shared pain. And a few months later, she brought me a Persian kitten to replace the cat I lost.
Occasionally, through our adult years, my siblings and I have discussed our anger about this event and others in hushed tones. That’s why I was shocked when this same sister who walked with me searching for that cat, and the one who sat beside me in the Volkswagen crying, would accuse me of lying for writing about this story on my blog.
But it wasn’t just one blog that she denounced; she declared my memoir full of lies even though she hadn’t read one chapter of it. This was two years before I published it, and her accusations left me with lots of self-doubts about whether I was doing the right thing. In the end, I believe Grandma telling me her own honest messy story led me down the path of healing when I was eleven and also as an adult.
It’s been five years since my sister posted her angry rant about me on her public social media wall, and she still hasn’t spoken to me. Her tirade claims that I was the monster in our childhood. Naturally, I beg to differ. As the oldest, bossy sister, there are only so many things I can be responsible for, and I’m definitely not the one who lost our cat. I can’t take responsibility for the beltings. I’m not the one who made us move every nine months. And I fought with her for my parents to allow us a high school education, but we lost. Anyone honest would have to admit that it was a very messy, chaotic childhood for all of us.
As I write this, I feel grief because I still love that sister. I also feel grief because I still love my brother, and he doesn’t speak to me either over an entirely different matter. And I know I’ve hurt them too. So what can we do when we can’t get along with our family? What is wrong with us that we can’t all get along?
I’ll tell you the problem. It’s not my memoir. It’s not my supposed sins that my brother and sister can’t forgive. It’s not my sister’s rants on her wall. It’s not even my Dad, who, in his old age, has placed a hot water bottle in a cardboard box for a stray cat on many a winter’s night.
The problem here is trauma. Generational trauma. Trauma passed down to my father, then passed onto each of his children without planning it. This trauma is complex and complicated and probably involves secrets I never heard—maybe even secrets my father doesn’t know about. Things passed down from his parents. I know enough about my father’s siblings to tell you there have been anger issues passed down from their parents and so on for who knows how many generations.
I am aware of the trauma in my mom’s family tree as well. Grandma not only hinted at this trauma but told me about some of it. The thing about trauma is that it’s not just an event—it’s damage to a part of the brain that stings whenever it’s awakened.
Trauma brings on gut reactions that you didn’t know you had. When people don’t realize why they act the way they do, they get angry, scared, and resentful as the body sends signals to the brain. Sometimes the brain goes into denial and tries to refute this pain or the stories that brought it on. As this cognitive dissonance between what is and what we wish erupts into fighting inside our brains, it comes out in angry words to each other. In order to find peace, we need to admit what happened, or we’ll numb out with food, drugs, alcohol, sex, exercise, shopping, or any number of addictions.
So how can we reconcile the love we have for a sibling when they accuse us of lying? The truth is we can’t. Have you ever stayed in a hotel with a door between rooms? It’s not possible to open that door unless both parties unlock it from their side. We can’t fix the family problems from one side of the door, but we can find healthier ways to cope on our side.
Even though it’s important to hope for the best, it’s never acceptable for others to abuse us. Understanding generational trauma makes it easier to forgive our siblings for lying, but there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiving is letting go. Forgiving is dropping judgment, but forgiving doesn’t make people safe to hang out with until the situation is resolved.
When people continue to lie about us, we have no choice but to back off until we can both come to a respectful agreement on how to treat each other. If that’s not possible, we need to stay away for a while. This is an opportunity to invest in other family members or make new family through friends.
The other evening I chatted on the phone with a cousin for two hours. We had so much to share with each other that my estranged siblings barely came up—except to acknowledge that I don’t speak with them.
The beauty of family relies not on blood—some of my favorite cousins are from an adopted family member. This connection surpasses time and situations and money or any lack of it. It goes beyond whether we are married or not. It sails on throughout our lives because we share a cherished memory of childhood or a grandparent, or maybe an aunt. As I hung up, I felt joy and warmth in my heart from hearing my cousin’s voice. And it was that same joy I feel with my siblings.
Much of the fighting between family members comes from a self-righteous attitude of believing that one person has to be right while the other is wrong, but what if it’s a misunderstanding? What if those who hurt us are simply wounded, limping along, and trying to survive? If that’s the case, I don’t want to harm to anyone. I think Rumi was onto something.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
We can’t fix our family members, but we can choose to break the chain. We can choose to become safe people who are fair and honest with whoever is willing to connect. Make some new family out of your friends.
A few years ago, as I contemplated my first memoir, I wrote these words, and I still mean them today.
Meet me at the place of honor
Where the past is not a dirty word
And memories–good and bad,
Can both be heard
Where the truth we welcome and lies we shun
With nothing between us, we can be one.
I’ve found a circle I can call family where this is possible.
And it can be just as true for you.
Peace and freedom,
Little Red Survivor Tips is always free. It’s just my thoughts about surviving at the intersection of family, narcissistic and religious abuse, and current events.
I also wrote a book Chasing Eden, about my strange childhood.
If you’d like to discuss writing memoirs, reading them, or would like a sneak peek at my next book, To Uneat an Elephant, you can subscribe below.
Beautifully and poignantly written Cheri, as usual. And the poem is awesome! My heart is with you, and we can be sisters forever!
Beautifully written, poignant, and true. Well done.