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I’m pretty close to my siblings, but when something happens that hurts someone or one of our kids, there is a lot of explaining and defending, but no apologies. I am guilty of it as well, as it’s just what we do in the family. We’re close, but it seems that no one really believes each other. Eventually, things settle down and we go back to normal interactions. I am often left feeling like nothing ever gets resolved and there are still hard feelings below the surface. I want there to be actual peace, not just damage control. We’re good at talking, but nothing ever feels better. Do you have any suggestions for how we can fix this dynamic between us?
I don’t know if you have the ability to change the entire family culture, but you can always change yourself. If your motivation for modifying your behavior is to change everyone else, then you will run the risk of feeling resentment and irritation when others aren’t following along. Engage your own agency and ability to change. You will immediately begin to feel better, even if your family doesn’t pick up on the change.
Even though their behavioral changes can’t be your primary motivation, I believe they will notice differences as you interact with them in new ways. I don’t know if it will produce an entirely different family culture, but you can immediately begin to change the culture in your own family.
Your family has good intentions. All of the talking is likely intended to reassure each other that they didn’t mean to hurt each other. You all are close and care about each other, so these injuries get explained and re-explained. Obviously, this doesn’t comfort anyone, so you eventually stop talking.
I’m going to suggest that when you hurt someone’s feelings, instead of explaining your intentions, lead with an apology. Care about their feelings and make a sincere and heartfelt apology. Let them know how important they are to you and how the relationship is. Reassure them that you want to do everything you can to repair any injuries. Ask them what they need to feel safe and connected again. Keep the focus on personal accountability.
Something important will begin to happen. They will soften over time. It may not be immediately, but you can trust that as you care about the impact your behavior has on each of your siblings, they will feel safer with you and eventually understand your true intentions. We assume the best about people who genuinely care about us.
Think of the accountability as “emotional first aid.” When a child scrapes their knee, they’re not interested in how it happened, how they should be careful next time, or how it will eventually heal. Those are all based in logic. Instead, they are looking for comfort. They want to know that someone cares that they’re hurting. When we extend empathy, it frees up their resources to make sense of what happened, to ask questions, and open up to new information.
When you lead with accountability, you have to trust that you may never get a chance to explain your intentions or the details of why you did what you did. Don’t worry about that. The reason you were going to explain all of that in the first place was to help your loved one know you care about them. If you show you care about them through accountability and caring about their pain, then they will know your true intentions.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that, “love begets love. Let us pour forth love—show forth our kindness unto all mankind, and the Lord will reward us with everlasting increase.”[i] Your willingness to show your love through caring about their pain will eliminate the need for endless talking and explaining. They will know exactly how you feel about them.
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. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 316.