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6 Ways to Mend a Family Rift and Find Connection, Love, and Harmony

With so many happenings in our world creating divides, it’s natural that some of this discord finds its way to the homefront. Here, experts on family and forgiveness tell us how to open our hearts and move forward with family healing.

Seek a neutral party.

While the most enduring rifts reach back years, the tension triggered by current events is a relatively recent phenomenon — and because it’s less entrenched, it’s more easily mended, reveals sociologist and Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them (Buy on Amazon, $17). To better understand where the other person is coming from, talk to family members who aren’t necessarily on your side. “Research shows people who seek neutral relatives get a broader perspective,” he says. “Just ask, ‘What do you think went on here?’” A different point of view helps open our minds and hearts.

Look for connections.

We tend to see our own opinions as logical, and think folks who disagree with us are irrational, says Tania Israel, Ph.D. The author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide (Buy on Amazon, $16) and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Israel is known for her work on dialogue across political lines. “Once we know this is natural, we can acknowledge that it’s possible to have deeply held views and still be interested in how others see the world.” To show your curiosity, simply summarize what they tell you. “If they reveal they feel X way about the election, say, ‘Oh, you feel X way.’ You don’t need to win an argument — it’s the connections you want to win.”

Share stories.

Find common ground by telling stories, not harping on statistics. “After all, when is the last time a fact sheet made you see something in a new light?” says Israel. “Instead, share how you got to feel a certain way and which experiences influenced you. Our stories humanize us, letting us connect more easily.”

Let bygones go.

If you long to change your relative’s mind, you may want to put the brakes on reaching out. “Almost everyone who reconciles is able to give up on rehashing the past,” reveals Pillemer. “Just let them know, ‘I can’t discuss X, and if it comes up, I’m going to leave the room.’” The most successful families remind themselves that their love for each other is more important than any value differences.

Leave ‘always’ behind.

Families who move forward stronger are able to change their expectations of each other, observes Pillemer. “Rather than saying, ‘A brother should always have your back,’ or ‘Your child should always respect you,’ they accept that loved ones are rarely the idealized versions in their mind.” This is especially true for parents of adult children. “Research shows that parents have more to lose from estrangement, so ask yourself if what you’re insisting on is worth it,” he says. “It’s important to focus on the positives in your relationship.”

Find strength in faith.

Forgiveness is key to healing, says Julie Plagens, a teacher and blogger who faced a years-long estrangement from her parents. “I was the least forgiving person until I started praying for them,” says Plagens, author of Estranged: Finding Hope When Your Family Falls Apart (Buy on Amazon, $14). A change of heart didn’t happen overnight. More like pray it till you make it. “I didn’t actually believe what I was praying for at first, but it gradually helped me release my anger. Forgiveness is a process that ultimately frees you.”

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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