Communicating With the Black Sheep in the Family


Every family has one – the eccentric spinster aunt, the prodigal son, the strange uncle.   In our family, it’s the crazy cousin, who was raped as a young boy, then given away by his father, who couldn’t cope with a son who he assumed “asked for it” (!!!).  This tragedy was compounded through the years as the confused child grew up into a strange adult, estranged from the extended family.  His core family tried to help; the extended family just feared his strangeness.  It’s easier to look away and stay away from our fears, even when it’s family.

This cousin, now in his late 50s, having been away for decades, is suddenly back in the state.  He recently sent out a postcard to the cousins (there are 15 first cousins), outlining his intentions writing, “I will be back for good next month – it will be great to finally see everybody!”  Since we really don’t know this person anymore, where’s the interest in forging a relationship? 

The real question is – is it too late?  When did the window of opportunity to regain a relationship close?  Is the door always open for family – or not?  Well, the definition of ‘family’ expectations is different for every person. The truth is that most adults have a limited willingness capacity to bridge relationship gaps, and the longer those gaps extend, the harder it is to make the effort to close them.  To change takes effort, which requires a degree of caring – caring enough to want to move out of our comfort zone;  caring enough to break though old fear patterns to look for a behavior change; caring enough to think that there could actually be a behavior change.

Two basic human traits are at play here.  One is: we are creatures of habit – we like things the way they are; our habits feel like old comfortable clothes that we are used to and enjoy.  We resist changing habits unless we can clearly see the benefit in doing so.  “What’s in it for me, to go through the trouble to change?” we subconsciously wonder.  If the habit isn’t harmful, we tend to keep it.  Sorry, Black Sheep, it’s just too easy to keep my habit of fearing you and keeping you at a distance. 

The second trait is that our brains form patterns – it’s how we organize all the data that bombards us constantly.  Those patterns help us to decide how to act, and we form them quickly, largely based on prior experience.  If you were a Black Sheep when I saw you last, and the time before that, and the time before that, why should I think that you have changed?  Yes, it’s been decades, but instead of giving you a chance, I am even more entrenched in my views as I age, and my flexibility in thinking in my 50s is not as agile as it may have been when I was younger.  I am highly unlikely to think that you have changed much, let alone changed for the better.

So all of this adds up to a pretty bleak prognosis for this problematic black sheep trying to join back into this family fold… which is quite sad because everyone deserves a chance to change.  But communication barriers are up pretty high and scaling them is next to impossible.

COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY:  When we ‘choose’ to extricate ourselves from relationships, and those communication breaks last for a lengthy period, it becomes very difficult to repair the damage and get back to ‘normal’.  Each repair must be done one-on-one and must be wanted on both sides.  The level of caring by each person will determine the level of success that is possible.  On the one hand, it’s a lot of emotional work to mend bad communications.  On the other hand, life is too short not to enjoy happy relationships.

QUESTION: As we approach the ‘joyous season’, how hard is it for your extended family’s black sheep?

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