This is a coaching session for a strained relationship in a family. If you would like personalized help with strained relationships or another issue, click on the button to find out more:

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The Coaching Situation

Thank You for the opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings and hopefully gain some clarity. It's difficult to know where to start so i apologize if this meanders or loses its way. I am a mother to a beautiful young daughter whom i cherish and love with all my heart. She is a remarkable young lady who is incredibly loving and intelligent and i pinch myself daily wondering how she can be so perfect.

I was 17 when i gave birth, living in a homeless hostel due to a turbulent home life, feeling very afraid and alone. Her father and i separated whilst i was pregnant. He had a number of problems including a heroin addiction, which I couldn't handle with all my own personal problems. I had to leave the strained relationship if i were to survive.

Initially his family was involved in my daughter's life although he was unable to see her due to his own drug habit and lifestyle. I know this pained him greatly, for all his problems he loved his daughter and was desperate to see her. He would turn up on my doorstep having consumed drugs and alcohol and this frightened and strained me so much so i withdrew completely from all contact with him and his family.

In retrospect, i realize through my own fear it was easier for me to shut them out than have to deal with his problems, which worsened and things became so difficult for him that many years ago, he took his own life. He was serving a brief prison sentence at that time. He had refused bail for a minor offense, feeling this was a real chance for him to 'get clean'. He never gave up trying to change his life.

I attended his funeral, imposed myself to some degree, as i was not invited. It was the most difficult thing i have ever had to do. I did not wish to cause any further upset to his family and it was a difficult decision for me. After much deliberation, last minute i decided i just had to go, despite the strained relationship. I crept quietly into the church and stayed at the back leaving just before the service had ended.

Some weeks later i wrote the family a letter, expressing my sincere sorrow for their loss. I asked for their understanding that although they may feel i 'gave up' on Andrew, i never gave up hoping that he could fight his demons and one be a part of his daughters life once more. I sensitively let them know that if ever there came a time where they would like to see their grandchild that my door was always open.

Tentatively they got in touch and have been a part of my daughter's life since. They are beautiful people who offered endless hours of love and support to my daughter. Initially, we sat down and discussed our strained fears. They feared that they might say something to upset me and i would again withdraw contact. I assured them i had given it much thought before contacting them.

I explained in depth the fears that led me to withdraw and apologized for the lost years, that i was young and frightened and i had grown since. I would never again let my fear stop them from seeing her. I hoped the trust that was missing from our strained family relationship would come in time as they got to know me and my daughter all over again.

The relationship between my daughter and her father's family is brilliant and the love between her and them, clear for all to see. However, since contact resumed some 4 years ago, they have remained very distant from me. His mother who often comes to pick my daughter finds it hard to make eye contact with me and the 'awkwardness' is picked up by others also, including my daughter.

It feels like they cannot bear to be in my company and hastily exit. I make no demands on them, they call impromptu, sometimes at a moments notice and where possible she is available. I have made extra effort with true compassion and regret for past occurrences. I really could not have done anymore.

I can't help but wonder if the awkwardness of this strained relationship will ever end, and my speculation of why it exists causes me great pain. I don't expect great friendship but i want them to feel easy in my company and be able to make eye contact, i truly believe it's important for my daughter as well as me.

There is an ongoing serious health issue with her Grandfather. He has had a terminal illness for the past 2 years. The strain on the family is immeasurable and i could not put on them any more by raising this issue with them. I do feel however that my daughter is starting to really 'feel' the gap between me and her family and this worries me looking forward.

Thanks for listening.

I asked for more information to write the most helpful coaching response for this strained relationship.

1. Given all the open discussion you had with your child's grandparents, have you ever thought to tell them about the awkwardness you feel and ask them to help you understand it? I have considered this on many occasions, it's the obvious answer. When a year or so had passed i convinced myself perhaps more time was needed for them to trust me. After another year, i started to feel a little more strained and felt anger (though i never expressed it) as it was noticed by others who were present when they came to collect my daughter. Guests found her grandparents to be 'rude'.

Each time i would dismiss it saying "they're in a rush" etc. I began to question why they acted the way they did and whether it was a trust issue or something more. Eventually i made the strained decision to talk to them. Before the opportunity arose her Grandfather became seriously ill. Up until 3 months ago the family were preparing to say goodbye to him, as he had outlived his expectancy. He is still critically ill and in hospital. It still isn't the right time. I will certainly keep it in mind for when the time is right.

2. What possible reasons do you think they might have for being distant from you? I have pondered this many times. During the relationship i got along famously with his parents. They were like a second family to me. We were very close. I never expected us to be that close again, i think that's wholly unrealistic, however nice it would be. What i cannot bear is the way they can't look at me, even ignoring me when i speak. My daughter has even picked them up on it.. "Mummy said.." It feels at times like they completely blank me out. I wonder if i remind them of strained and painful times with their son.

With this strained relationship I wonder if there is some resentment for the lost years and understand totally why they may feel that way though i feel they must too try to understand that i was young and scared and acted out of self preservation. I have apologized profusely and done everything i can to make up for that. Lastly and most painfully, i wonder if they do apportion blame, perhaps they feel that if my daughter had remained in his life then it may have been a guiding light for his recovery.

3. Can you think of any reasons for the distance that don't involve you personally? Make some things up if you have to. This is a particularly difficult question. I really wish i could think of a reason that doesn't involve me as to the distance but i can't, as hard as i try.

4. Have you invited them to spend time with you and your daughter as a family? Please explain. This is something i am extremely keen on. I have on many occasions made suggestions to go out together, days out to the zoo, or even a picnic at the park. Each time i make the suggestion i am rebuffed for various reasons. With her Grandfathers illness it's difficult to see whether the reasons are genuine or it's merely a 'good excuse'. On my daughters 6th birthday i invited them to her party, they came, gave her present and left almost immediately even though i had eagerly asked them to stay and offered them both a drink. They had, as always, somewhere else to be. It was so strained. They celebrated my daughter's birthday with her the day later, preferring to do that with her alone. I will keep trying though.

5. Were there ever any judgments about you not having been married when you got pregnant? When they discovered my pregnancy there was some disappointment that we were not married. I was asked when staying over to sleep in a different room despite our scenario. They are religious and I respected their wishes totally and i think it's important to say that despite their beliefs, i never felt judged by them.

6. Are you willing to set up a meeting with the grandparent's and talk to them about how you feel prior to my response? With her Grandfather so critically ill in hospital this is not a possibility. I am afraid it will strain the family relationship even more.

The Coaching Response

It is important to learn how to communicate clearly, without the fear of being judged, rejected, or fear of conflict. We tend to avoid situations where we may encounter this, especially in strained relationships. Yet so much can so easily be resolved if we learn to deal with things when they come up.

The alternative is what you experienced, building up resentment and anger at what you perceive as a wrong being done to you. We are afraid to find out what is happening for the other person in case we don't like the answer.

Then, not really knowing the truth, we create scenarios in our heads based on the fears that stopped us from communicating in the first place. The longer we wait, the bigger the emotions get around the situation, until a person becomes unable to speak about the situation without the resentments showing up.

When I asked you about possible reasons for your child's grandparents distance, it is to get to you to try and think differently than you have been. It may be hard to do, but take all your assumptions about why they were acting the way they were and assume that they are all wrong. Your mind will try to fight this since you have believed the fears and judgments for so long. It will feel foreign to think otherwise.

But to resolve this issue, you will need to assume different thoughts to take any possible blame off of you. Some other possible reasons for their distance is: they do not have a full understanding that everyone is responsible for their own emotional reactions. Or that had you stayed in their sons life, you did not have the power to change him, that having his daughter around did not guarantee that he would still be alive.

Something may have happened to their son in prison that traumatized him and pushed him over the edge. They are still afraid of saying something to upset you. It could be a catch-22 of them sensing your suppressed emotions and fear of being judged, fearing that you are judging them and thinking that you may choose to withdraw contact any time. You are both misreading the other, resulting in this strained family relationship.

Maybe seeing you reminds them on a subconscious level of their son and they have not learned how to resolve their own feelings of loss of what could have been. Parents tend to grieve their whole lives over a lost child. Some reasons that would not include you personally are: they are still so absorbed in the pain of the loss of their son, that they have put up a wall against all reminders of him, with the exception of their granddaughter.

It is a blanket coverage, not specific to anyone or anything. The grandfather's sickness was known before and it ate them up inside, angry at knowing that he had little time left to spend with his granddaughter, creating a narrow focus just on her. They are still so consumed with grief that they have bottled their emotions and have become numb, their granddaughter being one of the few ways to feel joy.

You can see how these explanations are not focused on you, but what is happening for them. Stop going out of your way to be extra nice to them and trying so hard to make them be different than what they are. That extra effort may come across as not real to them or they may be subconsciously responding to your frustration, not understanding your intention, just picking up on the fact that something is off.

People think that they hide their emotions, but they really don't. Emotions, especially ones that have been stuffed down for years, and the ensuing resentment, are subconsciously and consciously picked up through facial expressions, body, language, tone of voice, etc.

The receiver of this information doesn't necessarily understand the signals they are getting, but they respond to those signals, frequently misunderstanding them and creating explanations for them that fit their own fears.

Whether or not you were aware of it, you did not give unconditionally. You had quite strong expectations in return. I think that if you were to really look honestly at yourself and how you have felt over the last few years, you would see that you did want them to be a certain way with you in return for everything you were doing.

That expectation alone set you up for a lot of disappointment. If the expectations hadn't been there, you would not be taking their actions (or lack of) so personally. All of this contributes to the strained relationship with the family that you have been experiencing.

If the grandfather is coherent, go visit him in the hospital. Rather than thinking you will put additional strain on him, consider this an opportunity for a healing experience. Be clear and concise in communicating your love for him, your appreciation for his love for his granddaughter and then tell him how you have been feeling and that you have missed interacting with them.

Conclude with even though you do no understand why things evolved the way they did, that you still love and appreciate him. Keep your visit short and go in with no expectations; watch for any hidden ones and remove them. There is a high probability that he will not change just from your visit. But you will benefit from facing your fears.

Whether you choose to visit the grandfather or not, talk to the grandmother. Again, watch for and remove any expectations about being understood or getting an explanation of their behavior. They may not even fully understand themselves. Because it has been so long for your emotions to be bottled up, focus on just saying how you feel using "I" sentences.

If you follow these suggestions and do more work on better understanding yourself and others, you will find that the strain in the family relationship will ease up.

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