Our extended family has shared a lake cottage in Northern Wisconsin for the past 152 years.
In that time, siblings and relatives have squabbled about everything from whether to get running water, to how we were supposed to fish the lake, what condition one leaves the cottage in and of course how we share cottage time.
Being an active participant in some of these squabbles and an observer in others has revealed a lot about what it takes to get along with each other when tempers rise between relatives.
Often it has been the same voices being raised toward each other, revealing that disputes have less to do with the lake and cottage than they do with the people involved.
Here are five tips that you may find useful to inspire more love between relatives.
Never imagine that you know what someone else is thinking
Even identical twins have very different views of the world, so don’t imagine that just because someone is related to you they think like you. Learning how to “play together” can be challenging but it contributes to more than just family politics—it can make all your relationships sweeter.
I have shared a cottage with two brothers. One thinks fracking is a great idea, the other is totally against it. These two have never voted for the same candidate. But they have been part of the cottage sharing arrangement. To do so they focused on what they had in common: love of the lake. And they didn’t try and change each other.
You don’t have to agree to get along.
Continue to communicate no matter what
There is a time to speak and a time to hold your tongue. Which time it is should be is up to you, not up to someone else. The first amendment gives you to right to free speech, even with family members.
This isn’t to say that you should go on talking no matter what.
The time for silence is when you feel compelled to speak or you think you might explode. Be silent then, and you won’t likely make a mess that haunts you for months or years.
The time to speak is when you don’t want to, early on in a dispute, when you cajole yourself into thinking that things will get better on their own. Speak up early, before you want to and you are likely to avoid escalation of confrontations later. After all, you will have to live with or around these relatives for a long time, long enough for something that seems insignificant to come back and bite you in the butt.
Keep the lines of communication open no matter what. You don’t have to have a beef to speak. I am not suggesting small talk, though there will be some of it. Continue to communicate who you are and what is important to you. One really cool way to do this, that worked well at our cottage, was to have a blank book that relatives could share their experiences in.
Reading about loon sightings, big thunderstorms or kids first swim reminded us that we are in this together. Keeping lines of communication open reminds us how connected we are—a useful reminder when tempers flare.
Always give them the benefit of the doubt
There are at least two points of view to every confrontation or problem. The going gets tough when you consider uncle Ned to be just plain wrong. Instead, step back, take a deep breath and realize that whoever seems impossible in this moment is doing the absolute best that they can.
Give them a break. Doubt yourself so that you aren’t so damned sure. Give them a break, and you will give yourself a break as well. Adding a little relaxation to an interaction goes a long way. It can lead to decompression, which is so necessary for love to seep in, reminding you that whatever it is you don’t agree on won’t always seem as important as it does now.
Relax, don’t react
In person, over the phone, text or e-mail there is plenty of opportunity to react to the things your relatives say. But wait. When you don’t react, you are likely to discover that it isn’t really what they said that you are reacting to, but more likely the similarity of this moment to moments from the past.
Rather than jumping to conclusions, relax, take a deep breath and pretend that you are communicating with a stranger, not someone you know well. That pause, that small hesitation and tiny shift in perspective will provide you room to relax instead of react.
Never text back, e-mail back or verbally respond when you are upset. If it seems like you just have to: don’t. Most things will wait, and not reacting will save you from making a mess that may take a long time to heal. The momentary relief you get from blowing your stack, or reacting, simply isn’t worth the repercussions.
Give compassion not advice
Compassion is having the desire to help. It is caring for another and it serves both the person being compassionate and the one receiving compassion. Everybody wins. True compassion is passed between equals and inspires bonding and intimacy.
Advice is offering your opinion, not caring. It’s patronizing; everybody knows when they are being patronized, and nobody likes it. Advice may be a well meaning attempt to change someone, but is seldom welcomed or taken. Even when someone asks for advice, don’t give it. Offer compassion instead, and you and they will soon discover that we are all created equally—and knowing that makes relating to relatives much more fun and enriching.
Author: Jerry Stocking
Editor: Catherine Monkman