Let’s Talk Family Enterprise Podcast Episode 22

Let’s Talk Family Enterprise Podcast Episode 22:
Fractured Families and How To Mend Them
Guest: Karl Pillemer, Ph.D
Host: Steve Legler, MBA, FEA, CPCC
Resource Type: Podcast

Guest Host Steve Legler speaks with Dr. Karl Pillemer of Cornell University and author of Fault Lines, Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. Together, they discuss various ways that Family Enterprise Advisors can act as valuable resources to their family clients who have experienced family estrangement, which can occur over money and inheritance or unmet expectations.

Let’s talk family enterprise explores global ideas and concepts and models that help family enterprise advisors better serve their family clients, brought to you by the family enterprise exchange.

All these Information and opinions expressed during this podcast are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those a family enterprise exchange for its employees.

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The let’s talk family enterprise podcast. My name is Steve Legler. It’s great to be here as your guest host once again. Today we’re going to be talking about fractured families and how to mend them and see if we can learn to become better resources to our family business clients in that tricky area. Our guest today is Dr. Carl filmer, who wrote a book called fault lines about this subject and he will share some ideas with us on how to be useful to our clients in family business situations where there has been some family cut off Dr. Pillai MER is an internationally recognized family sociologist and Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. I listened to the audiobook version of fault lines last summer and instantly thought that he’d be a great guest for the podcast. Thanks to a warm introduction from someone in the Cornell family business program. We’re happy to have him here with us today. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. So let’s say hi to our guests and kick things off. Carl, thanks for joining us today and welcome to the let’s talk family enterprise podcast.

Well, thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here and I appreciate you having me.

All right, so let’s let’s just first explore the question of family cut off and why people who in our audience, we have mostly family enterprise advisors, that’s who this is dear to them. We’re all people who work with family businesses, and we try to be resourceful to them and help them through some of their tricky situations. So why is this question of fractured families relevant to us?

You know, we have a lot of images about an idealized family life and we often ignore or overlook problems and what the one might call, you know, the darker side of families. And for some reason, in my research work, I’ve been sort of drawn to that area. So a lot of my research has been on the kinds of difficulties ambivalences, etc, that problems have. One thing I’ve noticed is it was professionals in general who worked with families, they may not be aware of the problem of estrangement. So this is not for example, not using the example right now of folks who work in with family businesses. But let’s imagine there’s someone who is talking to an older person about the kind of care or support that she can get from her family. And she says, Well, I have two daughters, and the person assumes that those individuals are available for help and support. What they may not know is that there is a pronounced estrangement in the family, meaning that this older person may not even be talking to those daughters. I think that extends to other kinds of professionals. One thing I learned in my studies is that estrangement is indeed a problem that’s hiding in plain sight. It’s something that people are unwilling to talk about. Even in a world where everybody seems to live their lives and public these days and where people share. It seems almost anything on the internet about what’s going on with them. I found in my studies that estrangement is seen as shameful and stigmatizing. And people rarely want to talk about it. So in my interviews with hundreds of people, I was often the first person they had talked to about a family estrangement. So I would say you know, the fundamental point, for folks who are doing the kind of work your listeners do is this. This is a problem that you’re not going to hear about right away. It’s one that people find difficult to talk about and being open to it. allowing people to share this kind of family problem is really important. Most people feel if they’re in an estrangement situation, that as one of my respondents told me, I have the weirdest family in the world. This is a situation where if we can bring this problem out of the shadows and into the light of open discussion, we do an incredible service to people and folks across a number of professions can serve their clients better.

I love that part about sort of normalizing it for our clients to let them know if they start to broach the subject that you know, they’re not alone. And your book talks about how pervasive this this issue is in society. And then just the whole they’re not really this. The first thing they want to talk about because they want to hide it because they sort of feel some blame and shame for it. So anything we can do to make them comfortable in sharing that is is actually something that’s welcome because most people don’t open that door for them.

No, I think you’re absolutely right. And it also leads to practical issues. So it may be hard for an advisor to understand why a family member is being left out of decision making. And that may come out in the process of discussion. I would add and we could get into this more later but another major thing that I believe that advisors can do is they can help serve a preventive function. That is you may be in a position to see when a family squabble say over a business over inheritance over money issues, is beginning to spin out of control. And one thing that happens in these situations is people take very firm and hard positions. They draw lines in the sand, and then they later regret it. So there’s a sense that people may get so caught up in a business or financial issue, that the part of their mind doesn’t click in. I might be affecting my family for generations. If I create a rift in it, so I think that’s one thing advisors can also do is to help people get the kind of mediation they need to avoid a rift because one thing I learned in my studies, is these riffs have collateral damage and ripple effects that flow through the entire family, both across and down generations. I would think that folks in your field could help people prevent these rifts up before they occurred by helping them work out these kinds of complex family issues.

Yeah, I really, you know, your ounce of prevention part, I think will really resonate with people because we’re often dealing with people in family situations that are embarking on making some important choices and decisions that will affect a lot of people. And they sometimes do these things from a place of, you know, a bit of too much of a narrow mind and where we can serve those clients is to help them understand perhaps some of the unintended consequences of some of these decisions and not get fit, let things get to the point where they do get to cut off so noticing where there are some squabbles and helping them to put out that fire or nip that problem in the bud and not let it get to a point where it’s past a certain point of that’s difficult to return from.

Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And indeed, I heard from several families who had specific disputes over family businesses who were encouraged to get professional mediation. And they actually found that more useful than psychological counseling or other issues. You’ll see that the problem with these financial issues first of all, is that we found in our studies, it’s a major pathway to estrangement, lots of other family factors get involved. But money may not be the root of all evil, but it really is the root of a surprising number of family estrangement so conflicts over a business over inheritance over loans gone wrong. When money and family interact. There really are some risk factors for estrangement. And part of that, you know, in our family relationships, we don’t so often encounter a zero sum game but for example, as I found in my studies, when the patriarch or matriarch dies, for example, and leaves the business to children, the only way that that could be equitably divided would be to sell it and split the profits. So I had a number of situations where there was one person who wanted to maintain the business, other siblings didn’t and wanted to cash out. These kinds of problems are real flashpoints, because they do have this zero sum quality, there’s somebody who’s going to benefit and somebody who isn’t or at least is perceived that way. And that’s why I think the kind of advanced planning and open dialogue about finances and families is so key and I do think that’s where advisors have a sort of inestimable bull benefit for people

Oh, absolutely. I mean, you’re so I wanted to get to the point. In your book where you talk about there’s seven main causes for these kinds of fractures and families that go through divorces and in laws and lifestyle differences. But I think the two that really speak to this particular audience would be one of them is that money and inheritance that you just talked about? And I love that the zero sum game where there’s winners and losers, we if we can advise our clients to try to, you know, set things up so that there’s less of a winners and losers is great, but then there’s another category of unmet expectations that also I think, you know, plays out in a lot of family enterprise scenarios. Have you got some some comments on on those kinds of situations that might be worth exploring?

Sure. Absolutely. And just to orient your listeners briefly, the main study on which my advice is based is actually not my own advice, but it’s from Around 300 people who we interviewed in depth who are either currently in estrangement so around 200 and around 100, who had reconciled successfully after a long estrangement so I want to be clear to folks, I love to give my own advice, but actually, I took the advice of other people and distilled it to try to make it available to folks based on that refound a set of pathways to estrangement and you’re right I won’t go into all of them. I’ll just say that. I didn’t discover causes of estrangement, because for a problem, this complex, whoever can do that is going to win a Nobel Prize. But we did identify ways people get to the same outcome. One factor which I won’t discuss in detail, is problems in the early history of the family. So problems in childhood divorce in childhood, and also the issue of in law problems are important. Most relevant though to you folks, I think, is one this money and inheritance and business problems pathway. But another major pathway, as you mentioned, I call to some extent, a socio cultural factor, namely that we develop values and expectations for our family members. That are held by our society and we internalize them. And so these expectations are often overblown and unrealistic, given who the other person actually is. And let me give you an example. It’s not in the family business realm, but I think folks will understand it. One major place where expectations can lead to a strange moments, at least temporary ones, is around family caregiving. So I found in a number of cases among siblings, someone often a daughter is a primary caregiver for the parents in the family. And she or he has major expectations that all the other siblings will step up, when in fact they don’t, or they don’t feel it’s their role. They’re like, that’s a small way that expectations really interfere. But we also have in our minds, these cultural values and social expectations, like your siblings should always have your back. Children should always honor their parents. Parents should always be there for their children. You know, Steve, but there’s an internet meme. That expectations are disappointments, waiting to happen. Yeah. And that is pretty true in this case. So folks who did go through an estrangement and later reconciled, almost always found they had to make their expectations for the other person. Realistic, not based on one some kind of idealized family that only exists, you know, in Lifetime movies and not in the real world. So I think this issue of examining our expectations, exploring them, and making them realistic for our family members, would help to prevent a stranger and certainly helped people to reconcile

that that’s really, you know, the whole expectation things. It’s a kind of a it works in both directions, but each person sort of looks at it from their own vantage point. And so I think where you’re going is a little bit the people who have managed to mend these fractures. And I love the fact that I was listening to your book, like I said, and all of a sudden, you weren’t talking about theoretical stuff. You talked about 100 people who had a fracture and managed to repair it and I thought, wow, there’s got to be a lot of juice in that orange there to just squeeze out there’s got to be stuff there. And in fact, there is and so I guess one of the things is that one of the people has to adjust their or or recalibrate their expectations is that one of the key first steps

I would say that is absolutely key. And let me say one hopeful point, I think for folks, folks who are listening to this podcast is the strange moments that resulted from these deep seated long term childhood family issues. were much more difficult to resolve. So when the childhood was so problematic, that even if things are better in adulthood, folks just can’t get over it. I will say that on the financial side, as time passed, tempers went down. People did adjust their expectations, many of them came to accept the fact that if the other person could have acted differently, he or she would have and that is actually a theme, you know, that came up in a number of issues around money, finances and businesses, that there was a lot of anger. People felt that their relatives were in the wrong, but as time progressed, and folks did some self examination, they were able to mend it. I mean, in general, people have to ask themselves, is rupturing the family worth it because of financial and business reasons. And many people over time, dropped some of the anger and we’re able to resolve around that. So I think there is an issue here where people can over time say, Yeah, this was a bad business conflict, but but the family is more important. So I think it is part of that evolving understanding. And sometimes I will say, many of the people strongly recommended not just mediation but actually psychological counseling, trying to understand why this issue upset everyone so much, its effects on the family in general. So I would encourage people to is Don’t avoid professional help. If an issue is developing in a family that’s, you know, beyond what a financial advisor can do, and really has ripple effects into the whole family system.

Interesting that that yeah, there are many avenues that people can take to try to bridge these things. But really, I guess it comes down to somebody declaring or deciding that, that they really want to do something about this. It really takes intention because once once there is a break, that now is the default so now we aren’t talking to each other. So for that to change. One of the people at least has to do that first, reach out, but they will only really do that likely after some introspection or some therapy or some coaching or some questioning around the importance of trying to rebuild that bridge that has been burned. So So why Why should people try to mend these is it more like for your own personal good to know that you’ve given it the effort? Is that part of what drives some people to try and mend these fractures?

That’s a great point and thanks for bringing it up. First of all, I have to say, it’s not clear that reconciliation is the best thing for everybody. I mean, obviously there are some relationships, which might be so damaging or distressing that people should only attempt it. You know, after a long period of reflection and probably some counseling help, but I learned that after an estrangement, so let’s say it’s occurred over a business or financial reason, people aren’t talking to one another. A few things begin to happen that lead people to reconcile. First people start to have a sense of what I call in the book, anticipated regret. You know, often we think of regret as feeling bad about something that we did or didn’t do. But actually a lot of our actions are motivated by the question. Will I regret this later on if I do or don’t do it? So and this is something that that begins to get on people’s minds after a long estrangement, and it’s been heightened by the way with the pandemic because people realize that with older relatives, perhaps that time horizon is very short. Also, people just begin to feel more as they put it, weighted down by the estrangement, this feeling that mounts Why haven’t I talked to my only brother after 15 years, starts to be starts to enter people’s minds more and more so people move to a point where they do feel ready to reconcile. But another major reason why people get ready, I will say is what it’s done to the family. And if I could digress into one anecdote that I think is really relevant here, go ahead. One of the people I feature in the book is a woman who grew up as a child, her parents divorced and they were absorbed into her big, boisterous Italian American family. It was one of those situations where everybody was at the grandparents house and sauce was always bubbling on the stove. And the patriarch died of a of a family business that involves not just the siblings in the family, but some of their spouses. And the matriarch had her own very strong feelings about it. planned in her will to disenfranchise a couple of people in the family, and didn’t tell them and told some of the other offspring who were going to benefit. After she died. This split the family irrevocably and the conference had been so close that it was like losing siblings and to this very day, these families operate completely in parallel. So the one thing that many people reconcile for is when they realize it’s not just you and your brother. It’s you and your brother and your kids and your grandkids. Here in central New York, you know, the Iroquois nation had the expression, the seventh generation principle that we should make our decisions looking down to seven generations. When people decide that they’re going to break up the family over a financial issue. They they sometimes then stop and think, Whoa, but what am I doing? And that’s the that’s one reason why they start to come back together is they look at their kids not having contact with their nieces and nephews and feel that that’s a real deficit and they start to take action.

I was wondering about that of how the different generations of the family might serve as catalysts or somehow an impetus and whether it whether it be somebody saying, Hey, Dad, how come I haven’t seen my cousins in a while or them just saying To hell with that things? I’m gonna still hang out with my cousins, right? There are ways that that this becomes more than an issue of, of this person and that person because we’re talking about a family situation. And something you said before about one person deciding it’s time. I wonder if often there aren’t, you know, the situations where each person who are the central players that are rift, one might be thinking, hey, I’m gonna reach out and the other one might be thinking it too, and they’re just waiting for some inkling of receptivity on the other side of that has that part of what you saw in the in the research that that in fact, there was a readiness that was maybe not expected.

That’s an absolutely interesting point. And it points to one of the problems with family rifts. You know, it’s one thing to be sort of in contact with your family member even even if you aren’t that close. When contact is totally broken off for which is what happens. I use the analogy of in the cartoon movie Sleeping Beauty when she pricks her finger and everything gets frozen. Well, that’s what happens. So the both people don’t see the kind of changes going on in one another, how the other person might be becoming a better person or more tolerant, or have more understanding, and that’s exactly what can happen and particularly among siblings. Both of them are thinking about it. They’re pondering it but an inertia sets in, especially if there’s been a lot of conflict and contemptuous arguments and difficulties. It gets frozen in time. We all develop our own narratives and we get very wedded to them. We talked to other people who agree with us yesterday, other person acted awfully, and it becomes very hard to make that first move. But you’re absolutely right in a number of cases where there had been a falling out over a will or an inheritance or other things that the when the first person reached out, the other person had been thinking exactly the same thing. How can it be that I don’t have contact with my only sister, however, people do have to realize and that’s why I recommend that they muster their support system before they reach out and really be prepared. It’s possible the other person won’t be receptive. And you have to understand how you’re going to feel if that occurs as well. So but I agree with you, there are a surprising number of times when everybody’s been ready and it took someone to make the first move.

I liked that idea of you know, the support system and and helping yourself prepare for the possible disappointment. If they’re not receptive, but you said maybe they won’t be receptive and my thought went right away to maybe they won’t be receptive now, or maybe they won’t be receptive the first time. And so maybe knowing that, you know, you’re offering an olive branch now, if they don’t accept it, maybe if you offer it again, six months or a year from now, the fact that they they know that it’s a possibility, if I guess it might have a chance to grow on them, that this is a possibility and warming them up to the situation.

Yeah, I would say that is absolutely right. And one key thing too, that I think really relates to the issue you’re raising is when asked how they were able to reconcile or go when I asked folks for their advice for so you know, if you’ve got two people who are wondering well, should I leave this relationship as it is? Or should I maybe reach out? I don’t, as a social scientists use the terms always or never that often, but I will say well, at least almost always. People who successfully reconciled, examined their own role in the estrangement. So you know, you’ve gone on you felt you were completely in the right, most people become very defensive. And it’s hard to you know, take an objective viewpoint. When they began to think about reconciling, though. People really began to examine what part they might have played, where they were involved in problematic decision making or in taking to heart align. And I’m not sure that anyone successfully reconciled who wasn’t able and sometimes with the help of a third party like a counselor to look at their own behavior and say, Okay, here’s where I might have played a role in it. By looking at those issues. They were able to, for example, offer a more meaningful apology, or at least explain their past behavior to the person who they’re estranged from. And let me tell you, the feelings of rejection and anger when there’s been a family rift, make taking the view of an objective outsider or seeing the other person’s point of view, really difficult. But if people overcome that, and at least can explore the role they themselves may have played in it. That can help and that’s where advisors like your listeners might be able to play a role. It’s serving as this kind of objective sounding board. Look at what my brother is doing. You may be able to say, well, you know, I’ve seen this before or it’s possible that there might be something of a reality check role that folks like your podcast listeners might be able to play.

Right so so I guess, people we deal with who may have always envision that this cut off that they’re living through, was 90%, the other person’s fault and only 10% There’s, they’re really not going to be able to bridge that until they move their own 10% up to 3040 maybe 50% before they’re ready to try and reach out and be able to as you say, you know, apologize and explain and maybe that’s a great area for us as third party. People that deal with these these folks to kind of help them along with that explanation part that apology part. Help them understand that that if they do desire to bridge this gap, that those are some important first elements that they’re going to first have to embrace within themselves and make those personal changes from the inside.

You know, I think that it’s so right, because because the one thing we found but these people who successfully reconciled and the reason why I think our study is valuable is it’s really the only large scale study of people who reconciled after a family rift of, you know, years or decades. I think that one key part of it too, is that they were able to give up the focus on the past. So you know, this awful fight had occurred over a business deal over inheritance and they have bruited about it, you know, for years. And they give up the idea that they have to impose their view of the past on the other person so folks who reconciled after these long term rifts almost invariably decided that they were going to live life forward and let these problematic past interactions die. Now I’ll give a simple example. You know, if brother Jim believes that he was just normally teasing his brother and brother Bob believes that Tim was emotionally abusive and statistic towards him. After 20 years of estrangement, those two different views of the past aren’t ever going to align. You’re never gonna get the other person to say, you were right. I ruined your childhood. I ruined your entire childhood. I’m a bad person. It’s just not likely to happen. So almost everyone who reconciled at some point said I can’t impose my view of the past on this person. There is attached to their narratives as I am to mine. And we’re going to focus on developing a future relationship. And that was something which came up in these conflicts over businesses too, that after years have passed. Both people were willing to say you know, we have to focus on the relationship now, and let the past be the past. It’s not easy. You know, it’s one of those answers that simple but not easy. You know, it’s simple but difficult, right? I would say that almost everyone who reconciled had to give up the idea that he or she is going to agree with my view of what he or she did a 1020 years ago.

You need to get them to realize it’s time to close that chapter. And look forward and see what you can build together and bury what was what happened in the past. That’s awesome. You know, this, as usual, this time flies by when I’m interviewing great guests. And so we got to have to wrap this up, which we always do with the same two questions for every guest. And so I’m going to ask you now for one book recommendation, hopefully something you’ve read that helped you out somewhere in your career. And then one piece of advice that you have for the people who listen to this who are advisors to business family, so do you do you have a book you can recommend for our listeners?

Sure. And you know, that’s always a tough question because there are so many but I’m going to recommend a very recent one. It was a best seller called Hidden Valley Road by Robert Coker. It’s an extraordinary story about estrangement and reconciliation and resilience in a family briefly, this family had half of its 11 siblings developed schizophrenia. And so they all he also interweaves the science of how we help people with a problem like that with these very complicated family dynamics, and it would give almost anyone an insight on gifted but troubled families and how professionals work to help them so I would propose Hidden Valley robot also reads like a novel even though it’s not.

Okay, I was to ask you, is it because it sounds like a novel but it almost obviously you’re saying it’s a true story? It’s true. It’s not fiction, but it reads well like fiction. So a little bit of

it’s an absolutely true story. It began you know, in the 50s. This was a very large and very successful family and because of a genetic flaw, the sibling after sibling began to develop schizophrenia, but the families, both how scientists helped them, come to terms with it, and how the family itself continued to function. You know, despite this kind of tragedy. It’s a great read and as I say, it’s been a best seller for a while and is I think it gets at some of the family dynamics that we’re talking about.

Cool. So we’ll put a note in it. We’ll put something in the show notes with a link to to get that book to buy that book, Hidden Valley Road. And so now the last thing is one piece of advice for our audience.

In this project, I had to spend time in some of the darker recesses of family life. And indeed, I was hit with a problem. As you pointed out, the subtitle of my book is fractured families and how to mend them. And halfway through the project, I saw that I knew a lot about fractured families and not a lot about how to mend them. So I began to talk with people who had successfully reconciled and one of the most surprising things for me and one of the most relevant I think, for your listeners, is how many people who reconciled found that the act of reconciliation going through the entire process, how much that was an engine for their own personal growth. That when asked why did you reconcile with your relative almost always people said I did it for myself. So if I were to use business terms or management terms, reconciliation for a lot of people was like a discipline it and by that I mean like learning to run a marathon or play a musical instrument. It’s not just one thing. The process of reconciling after a long rift has ups and downs. It’s challenging. You have to learn new skills you have to muster your social support, and when it succeeds, people found it to be not just good for their family life, but it made them stronger people. But one of my favorite interviewees who’d been estranged from her parents for 10 years said, If I could do this, if I could reconnect with my parents after all the trauma and difficulty, I felt like a new person. I felt like I could do anything. So I think that’s something that you could convey to people who are pondering whether to reconcile or not. Reconciliation can be a powerful engine for personal growth. And help people to understand more about themselves and feel more confident in life in general. And that’s a real reason, I think, to promote at least considering it as a possibility.

Awesome, I think that’s something we could easily do not necessarily easily a lot of us will have lots of opportunities to offer that suggestion to people we work with. And of course, not all of them are going to do it. But even if a few of them do, they will be so thankful for us, nudging them in that direction based on that so so I thank you for that. This time flew by quickly as it always does. Dr. Pillai Murthy thanks again for joining us and sharing your expertise with our audience. And thanks for having me. Okay, listeners. If you haven’t already subscribed, please do so. Make sure to never miss any of these monthly episodes. So thanks again for joining us on The let’s talk family enterprise Podcast. I’m Steve Legler. Until next time,

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