Mending Fences

updated 02/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/2002 01:00AM

In 1995 Barbara LeBey felt at peace with the world. A retired state court judge in Atlanta, she was two decades into a happy second marriage. She cherished her closeness to daughter Pamela, now 39 and an interior designer, and son Daniel, 36, a lawyer. But at Daniel's wedding that November, a sudden frostiness emerged between LeBey and her new in-laws. "It was very strange," she says. Then Daniel "pulled away from us," says LeBey, 62. "I still don't know why." (Daniel refuses to comment.)

She tried to mend fences with her son, and the two even attended family counseling together. But after only two sessions, Daniel announced that he and his wife were moving to her hometown of Richmond, Va. Then came years of silence, broken only by a few tense calls and e-mails. "It was heartbreaking to lose contact with a child I love so much," says LeBey. But it also led her to write Family Estrangements: How They Begin, How to Mend Them, How to Cope with Them. Published last spring, the self-help manual draws on interviews (conducted with the help of two family therapists) with more than 100 people who have faced such conflicts.

LeBey and her son are beginning to patch things up, she reports, thanks in part to the insights she gained in researching her book. And for many others, the task of healing has become more urgent since the Sept. 11 attacks. "We realize how much we need our families," says LeBey. In the spacious house she shares with husband David, 75, a real estate developer, she spoke with PEOPLE contributor Gail Wescott.

How do you define estrangement?

If you've been out of touch with a loved one for months or years, and it has made you very unhappy, then you have an estrangement.

How common is it?

Statistics are hard to come by, but my research convinced me it's on the rise. One reason is physical distance: With so many people moving to different parts of the country for jobs or retirement, family members are more spread out than ever. That makes it harder to resolve problems when they come up.

What causes estrangements?

Divorce can turn siblings against each other or turn a child against a parent seen to be at fault. Other big flash points are money and property. For instance, families can come apart over who inherits an ashtray. Also, making a loan to a family member can be problematic. If you know that a loved one will have a problem repaying the money, then make it a gift or don't make it at all.

Then there are less material factors, like sibling rivalry or a family member coming out as gay. Interracial and interfaith romances can also trigger rifts, but one hopeful thing is that the birth of a baby can bring people together. People don't want to give up their grandchildren.

Why do so many celebs seem to have family estrangement problems?

With so much wealth and adulation they feel they can just walk away from troublesome relationships. And having your spats played out in public doesn't help. Jennifer Aniston was devastated when her mother spoke about her on a tabloid-TV show. Patti Davis wrote a roman à clef in which the mother is described as a manipulating pill popper and the father an island of ice. Drew Barrymore and her mother, Jaid, also had a long estrangement.

These splits don't have to last forever, though. The Reagan children returned to the fold when their father publicly revealed in '94 that he had Alzheimer's. Even the Barrymores are working out their differences.

So how can you heal the rifts?

First, let your loved one know you want to fix the relationship. If you've done something terribly unkind, make a heartfelt apology. But focus on the present and future, not the past. Try getting outside help—a therapist, a clergy member. Stay in touch, even if there's resistance. You can send cards and presents on appropriate occasions. If there's no response, don't get angry. Just wait.

The wrong thing to do is what I did with my son. I'd call and give him a guilt trip: "How can you do this to us?" It was very confrontational, and that was a mistake.

But what if you're in the right?

Give up the need to be right. As a former judge I understand there can be two valid sides in any disagreement. Lastly, be gentle but persistent.

Did that work for you and your son?

We're still in the process of mending. But you've always got to keep the door open. And it never hurts to keep saying, "I love you."

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