All in the Family

A friend of mine recently referred to divorce as being like open-heart surgery without the anesthesia. The same can definitely be said for family business conflicts.

Family businesses are unique entities. They carry with them all the normal complications of a business, with potential battles over power, decision-making, compensation and job descriptions. They also carry such family legacies as rigidly defined roles, competition for elder approval, and multi-generational expectations and perceptions of success and failure.

In my role as therapist I have seen just how limiting it can be to be cast in a family role since early childhood. “I was the stubborn one, the bad luck kid, the smart sister, the beauty, the clown, the bad seed, the dumb jock...” But it wasn’t until I began to mediate conflicts in family businesses that I came to fully understand just how debilitating and damaging these defined roles can be. Choosing to carry on the family business can sometimes feel like junior high school “Ground Hog Day” where you can never get past that old family role definition, no matter how much you may have grown or changed. Then add to the mix the influence of new wives and husbands of the younger generation and you’ve got a recipe for very complex conflicts.

Let’s set aside for the moment the psychological damage to the individual of internalizing those rigid familial roles. In a family business there is often no escape. Your older brother will never see you as anything but the screw-up who never takes responsibility for anything and who has been coddled since the day you were born. And the younger brother will never see you as anything but a control freak who is the mouthpiece of your controlling dad and who never has given you a chance to showcase your talents. Your sister’s husband will always feel like an outsider and your cousin will always be from the “successful” branch of the family while your branch is seen as the takers.

So then why, you might ask, would anyone choose to become part of a family business? There is the obvious comfort in the known, and in carrying on the success of the previous generation(s). There is also the hope of finally being able to prove your value and overcome the old role definitions. There’s the fear that you will lose out if you go your separate way and your sibling ends up getting all the goodies that the business represents. There is also the expectation of the older generation that you follow in their footsteps and keep the “business baby” alive. But perhaps most compel- ling is the fantasy that we will, at last, be the big, happy family we always wished we were.

Family business mediations are some of the most challenging, complicated and rewarding mediations we do. The amount of pain and hurt that gets expressed is profound. We’ve seen tough patriarchs brought to tears as they describe how painful their own father/son relationship was and how much they wanted to change the course of that family legacy by working with their own sons. We’ve seen sisters and brothers no longer able to speak to each other outside of the workplace and we’ve heard how destructive a work atmosphere that creates for the other employees. We’ve seen mothers sue their own children for benefits they got when Dad was running the business. Even with all that pain, these cases resulted in resolutions.

While there are no magic tricks to resolve these family business conflicts, there is no doubt that it helps to finally be heard by a neutral mediator who can understand just how much pain this conflict is causing and hopefully get to some of the root causes for the conflict. It is always powerful to remind all the parties of the alternative of not finding a resolution because the shock waves go to the very core of family life — Thanksgiving and Christmas and summers with the cousins. But if ever there was party’s ambivalence about settling a case these are prime candidates. Because, in the end, those old family hurts and ties go very deep.

I will end this article with a poem my sister wrote many years ago:


My sister
tells a  story
(and tells it often)
about how
when I was 8
& she was 4
I brought home
these big chocolate
chip cookies
You could only get
at my school
and ate them in front of her
& when she begged me
to bring her some
or give her a bite
I said we weren’t allowed to,
It was a school rule.
and she cried
& even though
I remember
nothing about
this alleged incident
I fear it is true
& I do most heartily atone
& beg her to forgive me
(& to stop telling the
damn story!)