Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Update on Broken Family Relationships

senior couple fighting

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

A little over a year ago my husband and I contacted you to get your advice about an almost-came-to-blows situation that happened between my husband and my brother, Andy, and his wife, Abby. It was an explosive situation resulting in a break in our relationship with them. 

When we contacted you, we had two main concerns: (1) What to share with our son, Louis, and his wife, Christine, about the incident; (2) How to handle our grandchildren visiting with Andy and Abby after the split between us, as our grandchildren often stayed with us and were used to going to Andy’s and Abby’s house, just down the street from us. 

After you gave us your advice, we gave you an update a few weeks later: 

“My husband and I agreed that we did not want to get into details with Louis and Christine, so we took your suggestion and simply declared we were taking an adult time out with my brother and his wife. Louis and Christine agreed that they would be responsible for any visits between their children (our grandchildren) with Abby and Andy when they were here. When we have the grandchildren alone, it was agreed that it will be up to us whether they can visit or not.

“We are finding a huge decrease in our stress levels just knowing we will not be interacting with Andy and Abby. We did not realize how much anxiety it was causing us, anticipating and being around them, so the whole ordeal has turned out to be a blessing. We’re both moving on and looking forward to spending time with our inner circle of family and friends.”

Now that almost a year has gone by, we thought you and your readers might benefit from an update. We know that many families experience similar situations, like the one we experienced, that can result in damaged or severed relationships

Acceptance Is Liberating

I think the most important life lesson for me has been how accepting the reality of the situation has freed me from guilt. I previously held the value that family members have an obligation to each other to make relationships work, no matter what. And since Andy is my brother, and even though he was emotionally abusive, border line physically abusive, to my husband, I was initially motivated to think about reconciliation.

Now, with some time going by, I have accepted that how Andy and Abby acted toward my husband created a situation that is irreversible, beyond reconciliation. Of course, I am sorry the way things ended, but both my husband and I are totally at peace with not having them in our lives. Just the thought of them being back in our lives raises our stress levels.

Perhaps I would have been open to a reconciliation if not for two factors. First, neither Andy nor Abby ever reached out with anything close to an apology. Second, my husband, who is the most loving and forgiving person I know, was so shattered by this incident that he said he just could not put any more energy or effort into trying to make it work. My husband throwing in the towel was huge, and a turning point for me. 

In retrospect, I have come to realize that my brother has always had a phony side to his personality, one that fosters distrust. He would be funny and pleasant around someone, and as soon as that person left, he would make hurtful, often vicious, comments about them. I, as did other family members, always passed off this nasty side of him as “Oh, that’s Andy just being Andy.” I can no longer make excuses for him. 

Deciding What to Share

Regarding what we shared with Louis and Christine, we never did go into any great detail; they were satisfied knowing that there was some kind of a serious falling out between the four of us. I think they were fine not having a lot of details because they had been present many times while growing up when Andy, and sometimes Abby, would have a blow up in front of various family members. 

As far as the grandchildren are concerned, they visited with Andy and Abby when their parents brought them to their house. At no time did they go to Andy’s and Abby’s house when we were in charge. Thankfully, this was not an issue.

As I said, we are fine with the decisions we have made. Others may have made different decisions, but based on the circumstances of what happened, and in light of an already-rocky relationship with my brother and his wife, we feel relief not having to see them or to deal with them in any way.  

grandfather giving grandson ride on shoulders while grandmother watches
Read Next | Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Best Advice After 10 Years as a Family Columnist

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is

It’s All About Relationships: 

New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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