Why cut what can be untied? This wise, old saying can apply to family conflicts. Some of our family ties are threadbare and frail; there is strain, and there is underlying conflict that we are aware of but too timid and, dare I say, too peace-loving to address.
During my years as a pastor and chaplain, both in Canada and Germany, I witnessed many families in conflict. I heard the pain of parents and adult children no longer talking with each other. I heard the pain of people nearing the golden years of their life weighed down by relationships in need of healing: “I just want to sit with my family in church again,” one person said.
Conflict can involve inheritance, succession, moving to care homes, forced separation of couples due to differing needs, kids “knowing best,” caregiver burnout and more. Factors like dementia, financial strain, health crises and geographical distance can compound matters.
In all these cases, how can we go about untangling the knots without ripping the ties that bind us together?
Intergenerational mediation, sometimes known as elder mediation, can provide a place for these conversations.
In the mediation process, participants are asked: What are your hopes? What are your core values? How can you create a legacy of peace in your family? Might you become a guiding light in approaching your family conflict?
I try to avoid labelling these conversations as “difficult” because most of us tend to shy away from difficult conversations; who wants to enter a process with the prospect of potential failure?
What we seek instead are open and relatable conversations, conversations that deepen our understanding of the other’s fears and threats, giving us insight into their actions and opening pathways of ongoing communication.
Intergenerational mediation provides a space to work through problems between older adults and their families with the guidance of a neutral, trained third party. Intergenerational mediation can be initiated by an older person or the adult child of such a person. Such mediations are often a mix of legal and non-legal matters.
Mediation can address past conflict and/or help prevent future conflict by addressing issues, such as inheritance or succession planning, before they arise. Families can come together to plan their future. Voices are heard and different viewpoints understood within a private, confidential process that could unfold around a kitchen table, virtually, or at a conference table in a mediator’s office. Families can set the place and the pace.
Some conflicts in families are so great and so entrenched that it can feel as if the legal route is the only way forward. Mediation can provide an alternative for people of faith who seek peace and understanding.
While court is necessary in some cases, it is not an ideal place for families. An adversarial approach will not bring the family together for Christmas. Rarely do people walk away from court saying, “this improved our family relations.”
Despite the benefits of mediation, many families shy away from planning a future in which everyone has a voice. There are varied reasons for this. People worry about the cost. Often mediators work with the family in finding a financially viable option. If the cost of one mediator can be divided between participating family members, it can be more doable.
Sometimes people hesitate to engage in mediation because they do not want to make trouble. “Why rock the boat?” they say. “Our relationships are not perfect; addressing them might make it better, or maybe not.”
On the flip side, not addressing underlying issues can lead to caregiver burnout, a widening rift in the family and further buildup of resentment. The boat is rocking one way or the other.
The fear of a failed mediation process must be addressed. There are families who are not able to settle their disagreements. Not surprisingly, sometimes it takes a long time to untangle issues that have developed over decades. Generally, as people hear and learn more, deepening understanding of others’ viewpoints, the dynamics shift over time.
The greatest benefit is that it helps families work together. They can sit down and find solutions that everyone agrees to, creating stronger ties, leaving a legacy of building peace in our own families.
A thread that is no longer threadbare becomes stronger over time. It brings transformational power. It brings peace back into the family. Instead of pulling at the thread, we strengthen it and become witnesses in the process.
Cathrin van Sintern-Dick is a former pastor and chaplain who now serves as regional ministry associate for Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. She is also a trained and experienced mediator.