A few years ago I had a falling out with my father-in-law, after I unintentionally put him in a situation that created emotional trauma for him. I later learned how betrayed he felt by my actions. I love him dearly, and I still feel terrible for hurting him. It caused what appears to be an irreparable schism between us. I later apologized, and told him that I would really like to make things right. But he is unable to broach this painful subject. He’s been uncomfortable with me ever since. Family gatherings can be awkward now. Other issues have also contributed to the rift. My in-laws seem to have made us into their “black sheep” family members, and no longer include us in the inner-circle. When we are all together, they don’t seem interested in our lives. They choose to focus on what the other families are doing.
I still long to talk about our past differences to make them right, but they aren’t willing or able to have those conversations. How can I foster a pattern of meaningful communication with them, and pave the way for an increase of love, and eventual healing? I’ve resigned myself to the need to forgive on my side, and just keep praying for them. I worry about my kids as they get older, and begin to see the inequity in how they are treated as opposed to their cousins. I feel sad that their grandparents choose not to foster relationships with them partially because of something I did unintentionally.
I can only imagine how powerless you must feel, wanting to make things right with him, but recognizing his inability to heal the rift between the two of you. I’m glad to hear that you feel a deep accountability for your mistake. Even though it was unintentional, having a soft and accountable heart for your own mistakes keeps the bridge between the two of you open, even if he can’t face you.
Someone once told me that when we want to heal our relationships, we can only go as fast as the slowest person. Your father-in-law is moving slowly. He’s hurt and has created distance to cope with the emotional fallout. It’s normal for us to panic when someone we love pulls away suddenly after we’ve hurt him or her. Our sincere desire to repair the breech often overwhelms them, especially when they need time and space to heal.
I suggest you match his pace, stay soft, and continue to face the relationship so you can be accessible and responsive when he’s ready to open back up to you.
You’ll need to surrender your own anxiety about not having closure on your mistake and allow there to be time and space for things to heal between the two of you. We can’t know how long it will take, but as long as you keep your heart soft and allow yourself to be filled with compassion for his suffering, you will have the endurance to stay with him through this struggle.
Continue looking for ways that he’s able to connect to you. It might be something as simple as him making time to be with you and your family or engaging in a conversation with you or your children at a family gathering.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught God’s pattern of mercifully giving others time and space to heal when he said:
“In ways we cannot now fully understand, perfect justice is possible because an omniscient God truly knows what we know. Furthermore, He also knows the intents of our minds and hearts. He likewise knows our conceptual as well as our environmental limitations. He knows our genetic endowments. He knows the circumstantial interplay of opportunities and limitations. Reassuringly, He also knows our infirmities, sicknesses, pains, and sins. God thus can make all the necessary allowances, as He judges ever so justly our mortal performance. He gives us space or time in which not only to choose but also to repent and to change. In fact, in His plan, finally mercy overpowereth justice’ (Alma 34:15).
I invite you to give your father-in-law some relational room while he works out his reaction to this injury. You may never have meaningful communication with them about this or any other topic. However, it doesn’t mean that you stop attempting to build a relationship with them.
Your children may notice the difference between how they’re treated compared to their cousins. Sometimes the effects of well-intentioned decisions gone awry linger. Life is full of unresolved and uncomfortable conflicts that we have to endure. It feels unjust that he would pull away after you have apologized. He probably feels it’s unjust that you betrayed him. You’re both right that sometimes things just feel unjust. Thankfully, as noted above, mercy will ultimately overpower justice.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children. You can connect with him at: