When family relationships crumble

Maybe it’s because we think our golden years should be spent surrounded by people we love, a reward for a life well lived.Maybe we strive to put our relationships in order as we face our own mortality. Or maybe we become smarter about what really matters.Whatever the reason, family relationships take a higher priority as we grow older. And the ones that have soured can be particularly wrenching.When we’re blindsided by a rift with a sibling, or a husband walks out, or a grown child stops speaking to his or her parents, the loss not only causes pain but seems irrevocable.

For 64-year-old *Tom Lewis of Toronto, whose accomplished daughter has all but shunned her family, his age has everything to do with how he feels about the situation.

“It really bothers me, and I’m not getting any younger.”

When loved ones confound our expectations later in life, do we retreat and try to recover? Or is it imperative that we try to recoup the relationship?

  • Problem #1:

Aging sibling rivalry
For *Susan Newman, it may be time to do all three—retreat, recover and recoup. wman is a 55-year-old travel agent who lives in Hamilton. Her 85-year-old father is in frail health, living in a nursing home where she visits him faithfully every week.

She has a sister two years younger and a brother 12 years younger.

At issue: the lakefront cottage in Muskoka, where her family has gathered for the past 40 years. That all changed 10 years ago when Newman’s father handed over the cottage to his son.

Newman is furious that her dad could be so unfair to his two daughters and that her brother has subsequently been so self-centred about the use of the cottage.

Furthermore, she feels she has been singled out for exclusion. Her sister and family bought another cottage nearby. They’ve come to terms with the situation. Newman has not.

Limits on visits
As she tells the story, her dad’s reasoning seems either culturally old school or suspiciously self-serving. The cottage would be left to the son because he had always looked after it. (Newman says the whole family had always shared the responsibility.)

Looking back, Newman feels her brother was always treated preferentially, partly because he was so much younger, partly because their father wanted to keep him close and partly because Newman’s father believed the girls would have husbands to look after them.

To add insult to injury, when Newman divorced 10 years ago, her dad told her she could no longer use the cottage—unless her brother gave her permission. Newman continued to go to the cottage despite the new rules, but felt unsettled about the situation, even though she carefully avoided any confrontation.

“My brother is executor of my dad’s will, too. My dad says my brother will take care of everything. Meanwhile, my dad still pays the taxes and the hydro on the cottage, and he just paid for a new roof. My brother takes care of nothing.”

About personal regard
Newman is angry. She says she doesn’t want a relationship with her brother anymore. And she’s hurt. But because her father is unwell, she says she hesitates to push the problem. But what can she do? For Newman, the issue isn’t the money. It’s about personal regard.

This is one family problem where “the seeds were probably planted a long time ago,” according to Dr. Helen O’Halpin, a psychiatrist in private practice and with the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for troubled teens and their families in Toronto. Issues that are not resolved sometimes come back to haunt us.

“This may not even be an intended personal slight on the father’s part,” says O’Halpin. “He may just think the property goes to the boy so that it stays in the family name.”

Neutral facilitator needed
It may be time for Newman to figure out what she wants to happen and face the answer. O’Halpin recommends a neutral party—maybe a respected aunt or a spiritual adviser—to act as a facilitator to help air the grievance and heal the rift.

“It’s understandable to feel upset,” O’Halpin says. “But does she feel so upset that she wants to sever all ties with her brother and keep it that way as she gets older? When people get stuck on being right, they can lose a lot.”

Next page: Problem # 2: Relationship breaks up

  • Problem # 2:

Relationship breaks up
Few things are as devastating as a marriage breakup, particularly in our later years when we may think we’ll never meet another long-term love.

As O’Halpin says, “The damage to our self-esteem can be greater as we age.”

Florine Sparrow, 65, is a retired dental secretary who lives in her own condo in Barrie, Ont. Sparrow was the common-law wife of a filmmaker until 1996, when he left her to move to the East Coast and marry another woman.

Looking back on their 15-year relationship, Sparrow realizes it was on shaky footing from early on. She had been an independent woman, divorced and raising a daughter by herself. Her partner, *John, offset his peripatetic job with a strong need for a secure relationship.

“He was a really nice man,” she says. “And he was wonderful to me. But he was more in love with me than I was with him. And he was possessive.”

Fear of loneliness
When the couple finally decided to separate, Sparrow admits, she was a basket case for nearly a year. Does the fear of loneliness and financial insecurity keep older people together in unhappy marriages?

“Definitely,” she says. “When you’re 35, breaking up is not so devastating because you still believe you can conquer the world. The older you get, the more frightened you get.”

Today, Sparrow has a comfortable life. She takes pride in her appearance. She has fun decorating her own home. And it’s gratifying to her that although she does not see John anymore, his son and daughter continue to treat her like family.

She also gets support from a therapist, newfound friends and a society that no longer treats older single women as second-class citizens.

Says divorced social worker Millie Greenfield, head of outpatient services and social work at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto, “Single older women don’t look over-the-hill anymore, and they are not seen as over-the-hill. Society has given us permission to belong.”

Second time around
What’s even better, O’Halpin gives hope to new later-in-life matches.

“A smaller proportion of people may be paired off in their later years,” she says. “But if you decide to go after a relationship, you can get it.”

Even the statistics are supportive. A 1998 Statistics Canada report suggests that 36 per cent of legal marriages are expected to end in divorce within 30 years. But the rate of divorce is declining:

  • 355 divorces for every 100,000 in 1987
  • 228 divorces for every 100,000 people in 1998.

Even better news: As we age, we are less inclined to separate, according to Stats Can.

Therapists too are advising couples to hang on to what they’ve got.

Says Greenfield: “In the ’60s and ’70s, therapists were telling people, ‘You’re not happy so get out.’ Not now. The good news is that when you’re over 50, you know yourself better.”

Although Sparrow likes her freedom and feels content with her life, she doesn’t rule out the prospect of finding new love “I never say never.”

  • Problem #3:

Father-daughter friction
Tom Lewis is hopeful, but his relationship with his daughter seems to be getting more strained as the years go by.

Lewis is a well-spoken retired small-business owner who provided a good life, complete with private schools and university educations for his four children in Toronto.

Remarried in May 2001, Lewis speaks well of his first wife and says they still have a good rapport.

But his eldest daughter, a brilliant scientist who lives with her husband and young son in the United States, practically refuses to see either Lewis or her mother. And when she does visit, maybe once a year, she is distant and haughty. 

Preferred playing outsider
Looking back, Tom thinks his daughter always preferred playing the outsider in the family. Unlike her outgoing brothers, she was moody and uncommunicative as a child, preferring to go to her room rather than visit with relatives at family gatherings.

“My sister and her family used to come,” says Lewis, “and our daughter would just go upstairs until they left. My sister tells me now I should have put my foot down. It sounds as if we should have spanked the heck out of her.”

Their daughter was adept at giving her parents the silent treatment, too. When she was upset on family trips, she would sit stone-faced in the car, eyes fixed out the window for hours, Lewis says.

Talented as a rider (Lewis bought her a horse) and an actress in school plays, she studied hard and seemed to be popular at school. But after she went to university and married, she moved to England and severed most ties with her friends and family.

“We gave her a great wedding,” Lewis says, “a heavy-duty wedding.”

But when her mother went to be with her daughter when she had a baby five years ago, her presence was clearly not welcome.

Sadly, at a time in his life when he would love to devote himself to his grandson, Lewis makes do with sending care packages of photographs, along with a photo album, so that his grandson will know his grandfather as he grows up.

Next page: Advice for healing

Advice for healing
There are parallels in all three of these family scenarios, according to O’Halpin. The most obvious is a lack of communication.

  • Problem #1

In Newman’s case, rectifying the cottage situation and her relationship with her brother is at an impasse because she refuses to confront him about how she feels.

    • Problem #2:

    For Sparrow, lack of communication contributed to an irreversible breakup, one she stills regrets in a corner of her heart.

    • Problem #3:

    As for Lewis, he admits that when he and his first wife decided to separate, neither of them discussed it with their daughter. “That was probably wrong,” he says.

    Lewis also declines the opportunity to sit his daughter down and talk to her now.

    “I think everyone in the family is afraid of her,” says Yvonne, his second wife. Then, on second thought, she adds, “afraid of losing her altogether.”

    Drop the rope
    However, that’s not always a bad thing according to O’Halpin.

    “There is a time for letting go of a difficult relationship,” she says. “But letting go does not mean closing the door. Sometimes, you may be in a tug of war. If you drop the rope, the tugging stops.”

    Also, there’s something to be said for not trying so hard. Given space, damaged relationships sometimes heal themselves.

    In the interim, “You have to take back your own power,” she says. “Don’t let someone else ruin your life. Work on the relationships you do have.”

    Self-healing focus
    And don’t rely on any one person to plug a hole in your heart.

    “Look to healing yourself,” Greenfield says. “Invest in genuine connections you have with other family and friends.”

    We have to realize that certain characteristics about our loved ones can’t be changed and have to be accepted.

    American author Carolyn Heilbrun, in her wise and warm book The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (Dial Press, 1997), writes of men:

    “People are often asking me, since I have been married a very long time, the secret of an extended, mostly satisfying marriage. I don’t really know how to answer them, but the truth is … if men come with quirks that they are incapable of changing, well, a certain amount of serenity can be achieved by just realizing that it’s inherent in the beast.”

    Maybe the same can be said for brothers and daughters.

    *Names have been changed