Warning: Disputes Appear Closer than they Are

I am always amazed by the intensity of disputes between people who are close. It seems that closeness makes us view disputes through a magnifying glass and enlarges the differences. I get mad at my wife when we play bridge or tennis while I don’t get mad at other partners when they screw up. Many couples make it a rule not to be partners for this reason.

Roger was invited to his niece’s naming ceremony in a very fancy and expensive private club in New York City. He and his sister Anne were very close and when one had financial downs, the other always helped. Even though Roger was not hurting, Anne’s husband now made oodles more—thus the expensive naming ceremony. Roger and his family flew in from Texas for the ceremony and the big, ostentatious reception.

When he arrived, Roger did not greet Anne. He felt that as the older brother, and given that he and his family made a big trip, Anne should greet him first. He avoided her and she never did get around to greeting him. He felt ignored, and his irritation mounted as the ceremony and the reception continued. Finally, he walked up to Anne and said, “Have a good life!” and left.

I know the story from Roger and don’t know Anne’s side. Clearly they had different problems and personalities, but also a long history of alliance. After not speaking for months, Anne then sent Roger a letter in which she iterated several grievances, some of which I know to be wrong (like, “You never loved Dad”) and others which seem picky (“You always teased me about my spending!”). She concluded that she NEVER wants to speak to him again: a big loss for both of them over a small misunderstanding.

Differences between people who are close seem to be magnified. There are usually histories to disputes, often small, sometimes large, but these differences seem to fester until some incident causes an implosion. Claire and her brother had agreed to alternately hosting a home Thanksgiving dinner. However, the second year, when it was Claire’s turn, her brother declined her invitation, claiming he was going to be out of town. Although they are talking now, it took Claire two years to overcome the perceived rejection.

All too often the resentments are financial. Often they involve care of an aging parent when responsibilities are rarely symmetrical. The primary caretaker often feels that others are not picking up their share. Very often, some caretakers have more skill, more room or live closer. Rather than openly discuss the problems up front, family members allow some relatively small incident to provoke a huge chasm later.

I also see the rule of proximity enlarging differences applying to international events. Today’s paper reports that orthodox Jewish settlers in Israel attacked their police. The killings by Sunnis of Shias and vice/versa is frequent. Greece and Turkey have had a cold peace for years, and the Catalonians and Basques are fomenting dissent in Spain. I am not sanguine that Pakistan and India can have a peaceful border. Tribal conflicts are typical in Africa, yet I felt a warm welcome as an American.

We need perspective. A value most of us share is peace—peace in the family and peace in the world. Yet, differences among people who live in physical or emotional proximity are inevitable. It is our responsibility to determine whether to amplify the differences or to minimize them. I don’t remember getting mad at a tennis partner for being in the wrong position, but I have to work on accepting my wife being less-than-perfect.