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By Allen Feld

From FMSF Foundation Newsletter 1999, Vol 8 No 2

Patterns of family communication are of interest to more than academics, researchers and text book authors. Many families who read the Newsletter are also very interested in communication patterns. A review of letters from families in back issues provides dramatic evidence of the various approaches that families have taken in communicating with their accusing children. These letters evidence strong opinions and the writers’ successes or failures with their chosen approach.

What I believed to be common sense about communication some six years ago may not be that "common" now. Six years ago, people with whom I spoke were unanimous that there would surely need to be discussion about the accusations when an accusing daughter or son returned. (These were people without contact at the time.) I believed that too, but I speculated that family history and family patterns of communication, particularly the manner in which families handled conflict or disagreement, would be mirrored in the conversations around accusations and reunification. The question, "Does there need to be discussion?" continues to be raised in some form by members of the Foundation.

I now believe that while family communication patterns may indeed be highly relevant, they are only part of the picture of what and how much may be discussed when a family reintegrates. This recent belief can be traced to the changing picture of family unification I have formed after many more conversations with families who have returners and retractors. It seems that the interplay of the needs, desires and/or wishes of the family are also key elements in how and if the accusations are ultimately discussed. Using an anecdotal collage of conversations with families over the past several years, I’ll attempt to illustrate the essence of these discussions.

Some parents express a strong desire to have contact, whether or not conversations about the accusations take place. For some, in fact, I sense that discussions about the accusations may even be avoided for fear of derailing the family reunification or because of apprehension about the stress and discomfort of what might be an intense discussion. Some parents may have faith (or, perhaps, hope) that a retraction may come later, or feel that retraction isn’t as important as seeing and being with their daughter or son. For some, reunification also means renewal of contact with (or meeting) grandchildren, who are so important and were so sorely missed.

Aging may also be a contributing factor in determining the nature of any conversations that may develop. As people age and begin to come to terms with their own mortality, perhaps the desire to have the family unified becomes a higher priority than dealing with issues that separate the family. I have spoken with some parents who express this kind of thinking in a variety of ways. For example, when illness has seemed to lead to reunification, dealing with that illness may have a greater familial priority than the accusations.

Logistics and financial reasons may also play a role in deciding to reunite without discussing accusations. Or perhaps parents recognize that they remain parents regardless of their age or their children’s ages. It may be that the parental role is felt to be extremely important as a defining and featured aspect of their adult life. If parents believe a child is hurting, they respond spontaneously to lessen the hurt. After all, parents are accustomed to responding automatically to a perceived need for help by offspring.

I also speculate about the influence of generational differences that society has witnessed in the role communication plays in human relationships. Open communication in the family and the work place seems to be strongly endorsed by "experts." That mantra has found its way into text books, magazines, television talk shows and radio call-in shows. Younger generations may have had greater exposure to that notion.

Simultaneously, society has witnessed greater challenges to its major institutions (e. g. government, religion, education, etc.). Perhaps parents adhere to earlier notions of communication in the family and pay more attention to generational boundaries. However, this speculation doesn’t seem to account for the younger generation’s (the accusers) failure to initiate discussions. Perhaps a partial explanation is that the plea for open communication has yet to be fully accepted by many while the risks inherent in "open-communication" are becoming more apparent. Additionally, the recommendation that open communication is important in enhancing relationships often has been asserted without full exploration of the risks involved.

These thoughts are provided as illustrations and by no means are intended to be all inclusive. I believe factors like these, and others unique to each family, interact to form the basis for the pattern of communication that may evolve. I also conclude that it would be both wrong and a serious error for me to suggest how (or, if) a family should, or needs to, communicate, or that there is an ideal approach in dealing with reunification.

It would be even more inappropriate to make value judgments about the communication pattern that develops in a particular reunifying family. Like so much of the familial uncertainty created by false memories and accusations, how communication evolves in any family is unique to and controlled by each family. It might be that the uniqueness of these kinds of family contact will become the basis for new theories on handling severe family conflict.

Allen Feld is Director of Continuing Education for the FMS Foundation. He has retired from the faculty of the School of Social Work at Marywood University in Pennsylvania.

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