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After a fight in the family

30 November, 1999

Ralph F. Ranieri looks at how families can recover their equilibrium after it has been lost through conflict. He sees the parable of the Prodigal Son as a template for reconciliation within family life.

There is probably no story in the tradition of Western civilisation that is better known than the parable of the Prodigal Son. One reason for its popularity is that everyone can identify with the need for disruptive family relationships to be reconciled.

Need to heal wounds
Even the most loving of families have times when feelings are hurt and promises are broken. At these times there is a great need to heal wounds and restore relationships. That’s what reconciliation is about – the restoration of friendship.

Reconciliation means more than forgiveness. True reconciliation restores the entire family to its original unity. It is a mutual process requiring effort on the part of the whole family. If a spouse or child continues to feel like an outsider after he or she has been forgiven, reconciliation has not taken place. Harmony and friendship should be restored after reconciliation.’

The reconciliation of the father and the prodigal son was complete. The young man took the first step in reconciliation. As a result of his decision to go home and his father’s open acceptance, the son was immediately restored to his former status in the household. When Jesus called sinners to be reconciled, he restored them to complete friendship with God. He told the repentant adulteress, “Sin no more.” He didn’t make her feel uncomfortable or give her a half-hearted forgiveness.

Recovering love and trust
As a family counsellor, I have seen many families struggle for reconciliation. Even spouses devastated by their partner’s breach of marital trust have worked through their feelings to eventually resume normal relationships, with all their love and trust intact.

Sometimes parents find it frustrating to contend with teenage children who are at odds with family values and traditions. But even in these situations, families of goodwill can be restored to friendship.

Until recently, social scientists considered the main determinants for well-adjusted families to be external circumstances such as financial status, education, and age. Recent studies by psychologist John M. Gottman indicate that all happy couples are similar in one respect – they know how to resolve disputes without leaving scars. And Dolores Curran, popular Catholic columnist and speaker, backs up that conclusion when she states that all happy families seem to have a good reconciliation process.

Facing the situation
The first step towards reconciliation is to “face up” to the problem. Peter and Judas were both sorry that they had denied Jesus. The difference between them was that Peter faced up to the situation.

The first of AA’s 12 steps in resolving a drinking problem is to admit that you have a problem. Family reconciliation must begin with this step also. It is often more comfortable to just sweep the problems under a rug. Even if you are truly sorry about the way you treated a family member, it is easier just to forget the matter and let it blow over. Apologising and asking for forgiveness can be embarrassing or humiliating. Initiating the reconciliation process will help you to face the situation and grow through it.

One couple had a long and heated argument over money. Both parties said things they normally would not say. The husband told his wife she had no right to spend his hard-earned money without his permission. The wife said she could do what she pleased because she didn’t belong to him. The topic then shifted from money to the issue of control.

When tempers settled down, they withdrew to separate corners of the house. They were both embarrassed about the way they had acted, the things they had said, but neither wanted to make the first move toward a reconciliation. In a few hours, things returned to normal without a word of reconciliation ever being uttered.

Nothing was resolved because neither would face up to the problem and make the initial move toward reconciliation. And, despite all the fussing and fuming, neither was any wiser. Had they attempted a reconciliation, they would have had to face their true problem. This would have brought them together as friends, and showed them the work they still had to do in their relationship.

Keep problems in proportion
When relationships become reconciled, the negative cycle that occurs with estrangement is broken. Without reconciliation, problems have a way of escalating and growing out of proportion. One father had an argument with his l5-year-old son over cutting the grass. During the heated discussion, the boy said some pretty disrespectful things and the father sent him to his room. About an hour later, the son apologised for the way he had acted. The father accepted the apology half-heartedly, but there was no true reconciliation.

That evening, the boy returned home 10 minutes after his curfew. Usually his father would not have paid any attention to such a small infraction. However, because there was still a great deal of unresolved conflict left over from the afternoon, the father pressed the son and the entire scene was repeated.

The family that really works toward becoming reconciled closes the door on this kind of cycle. They may not resolve all their problems, but at least they restore friendships before there is further deterioration in relationships.

A new beginning
In addition to breaking the negative cycle, reconciliation also wipes the slate clean. Once you are back in each other’s good graces, you can work together to make sure that the same problem doesn’t arise again.

It is good to look at the problems in your family relationship to see if you can find the cause of them, but this is not a prerequisite to harmony. The nicest thing about reconciliation is that it depends upon love. Restore family unity first, then analyse difficulties from this united and loving base.

Reconciliation can spur your family to more closeness than before because of the love it requires. The parable of the Prodigal Son doesn’t say what happened to the family, but we know for a fact that in most families where a great deal has been forgiven, relationships reach a deeper level.

One father was talking to his 26-year-old daughter about her childhood. He told her how impatient he used to get when she would not learn math as fast as he expected. The daughter simply responded, “I remember those times. But it’s OK, I understood.” Just hearing this made the father realise how much love there was between them.

Another woman recognised how much love her husband had for her after she has an argument with his parents. Her husband had a deep respect for his parents, and she knew that she has acted childishly. Yet after his parents left, instead of challenging his wife, he put his arm around her and told her not to worry about it.

Reconciliation always creates a desire to be worthy of the love that has been shown.

Start with yourself
It is difficult to be reconciled with other members of the family if you are not reconciled with yourself. The father and son in the parable could never have reached a reconciliation if either had blamed himself for the separation. The son’s guilt would have stood in the way of his coming home, and the father’s guilt would have interfered with his ability to accept his son. Guilt has a way of making us blame others for things that are not really their fault.

True reconciliation is not concerned with blame. It restores both parties to friendship with each other. After the reconciliation, there may be some responsibility to make restitution or to change, but the act of reconciliation cleanses all of guilt. Where there is true forgiveness, there is no guilty party.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an excellent starting place for a personal reconciliation process. Once you have been reconciled with God and freed of guilt, you will be in a much better position to become reconciled with others.

A prayer of thanksgiving will also put you in a more positive frame of mind and help you to stop blaming yourself unnecessarily. If you take the time to thank God for the talents, friends, and loved ones he has given you, you will begin to see yourself in a new light, and to see your relationships with others as one of his greatest gifts.

When the prodigal son returned home, the father had a feast. There was a great cause for celebration. In the same way, you should try to develop family rituals that show how important reconciliation is to your whole family.

One little girl celebrates the reconciliation process with her father by climbing into his lap. A mother breaks out the ice cream to signal the restoration of love with her children. They all know that this is a sign that the family has been reconciled in love.

Sweets, flowers, and romantic dinners have been signs of reconciliation for centuries, but there’s plenty of room to make your own rituals. You can make a special dessert or take the whole family out for dinner or work together on a home project you have been putting off. It makes no difference exactly what you choose, but it should be something special to show forgiveness all around and to celebrate your reconciliation.

Be ready
For those times when reconciliation doesn’t come easy because a member of the family isn’t ready, keep the door open. Make it clear that you no longer have any hard feelings, and that any time the person wants to return to his or her former status in the family, you will be ready. After that, simply make yourself available. In a family where there is true love and concern for one another, it will not be long before the offer of reconciliation is accepted.

Sometimes the greatest obstacle to reconciliation is simply the inability to find the right words. This can be a problem for children as well as adults. Don’t make it necessary for the other person to be explicit about his or her transgressions before reconciliation can happen. Be sensitive. You can tell when someone is sorry without needing words. The desire to be reconciled is sufficient.

And once you are reconciled, be careful not to come across as the “great forgiver.” Everyone needs forgiveness at times. When it is your turn, do it naturally and without fanfare.

Since no one is perfect, people will continue to hurt one another, either intentionally or unintentionally. In your family, the chances of hurting each other are increased because you live so closely and love so deeply. The next best thing to never hurting each other is to develop a strong reconciliation habit. This is the sign of a healthy Christian family.


This article first appeared in Liguorian Magazine and is published here with a permission from Reality (December, 2002), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.

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