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Apologies can be cleansing and uplifting

I’m sometimes surprised by how many families experience divisive intergenerational conflict.

On the surface it may look like everyone gets along. The grandchildren are sweetly respectful and the “kids” play reasonably well with one another when they’re young and stay connected as they age.

In other families, if you’re inclined to look closely, you may see decades of unresolved conflict. The issues vary. There’s an ex-wife who holds a grudge, overly competitive siblings, a misbehaving uncle or a certifiably irksome stepfather. It’s challenging. When conflicts occur within families, there’s not the structured intervention that's available for workplace conflict. With families, it’s less easy to walk away from a disagreement in the way you might with a friend.

I found a helpful article at www.verywell.com that suggested family conflict is “particularly painful” because “expectations of trust and closeness are compromised.” The safe haven is no longer safe. Bruised trust and wariness hover in the familial air and resurface unexpectedly.

The classic example: your mother-in-law openly criticizes your cooking early in your marriage. It takes you years to get beyond that memory. It swells up in your thinking at every family gathering. You feel stressed by the recall, others pick up on your tension, and a shadow consistently hangs over the Thanksgiving Day meal and a summer reunion.

Some experts say the path to addressing a family conflict starts with a suggestion to “just be polite.” The advice is to not use family gatherings to revisit a conflict. “Conversations often get messy before they get resolved — if they get resolved.”

In a setting where other family members are present, redirect the conversation or avoid the person(s) altogether. But be mindful of the need for a plan that ensures you meet directly with the involved family member and discuss the situation. If it is you who needs to start with an apology, do that. If you feel you deserve an apology, ask for one. Sincere apologies work miracles. The word “sincere” is important.

When you receive a “good apology” — an authentic “I’m sorry” — it “re-establishes that both parties know the rules of engagement and commit to honoring them.”

If you’re the one receiving the apology, you feel comforted, knowing the other person realizes “hurtful behavior is not OK.”

Some family members, once they realize the power of the apology, choose to offer one and are amazed at how quickly family dignity and the feeling of good will is re-established. But sometimes people simply cannot find it in themselves to apologize. To do so makes them feel weak or inadequate. They may see it as “lost control” or “lost face.” Some cannot get beyond the fact they were “wronged” not “wrong.” And family psychologists seem to agree.

“Don’t do it if you cannot do it with sincerity.” It should not be an automatic or mandated response; it needs to be from the heart.

Maybe this will help. There is a thoughtful statement attributed to Greg LeMond, the professional road racing cyclist and anti-doping advocate, “Sincere apologies are for those who make them, not for those for whom they are made.”

The simple statement, “I am so sorry” can be cleansing and uplifting. Let it be so.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.