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A House Divided : Think only rich and famous families fight? Not so. Unresolved jealousy and rivalries can tear us all apart.


In Washington, D.C., members of the multimillionaire Haft family publicly aim for each other's jugulars. In Houston, oil billionaires Lynn and Oscar Wyatt lob lawsuits at her brother, who's already lost his shirt. In Stoneham, Mass., nine Chesterton cousins duel over who will run the huge industrial-products firm. In Louisville, Ky., the Bingham sibling rivalry simmers long after it toppled the media empire their father built.

Tales of big-time family feuds are all around us these days. But such nastiness isn't limited to high-profile people steeped in sex, money and power. Consider the plumber whose business faltered because his son left to start a competing firm. Or the family unraveling because the father refuses to let a rebellious teen-ager back into the fold.

Except for a topcoat of glamour, experts say feuds of the rich and famous are no different than those now playing on every block. The imploding family, it seems, is an equal-opportunity phenomenon.

There's something we all ought to know about family feuds, the specialists say: They're never about what we think they're about. Cases like the Hafts', for example (in which parents battle for power, pitting their own children against each other), don't really hinge on money or corporate mismanagement, though that's the arena in which they're played out.

All such feuds--whether the families are filthy rich or dirt poor--are about personal rivalries, loyalty conflicts, perceived injuries and emotional pain, and the ways we learned from our parents to deal with these issues.

When family members are in business together, says Dr. Robert Carroll, family psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at UCLA, the business provides a concrete arena for acting out hostility that might otherwise erupt only in shouting matches around the house or in heated combat on the tennis court.

A business simply adds layers of camouflage to the basic conflicts, he says, providing tangible assets over which to fight.

What's more, people who feud are not making the independent decisions they think they are, family specialists say. Unknowingly, they're reflecting and repeating problems of the generation that came before.

"I can bet my life on it," says Dr. Constance Ahrons, a family therapist and associate director of the marriage and family therapy program at USC. "When a person cuts off from a close family member, we can always trace back and find other cut-offs. It's a learned pattern of dealing with conflict and denying pain. And it's passed from generation to generation in families. I see it over and over again."

So what is a family, anyway?

It's a group of people dedicated to the task of helping one another develop over time, through their commitment to each other.

That definition is from UCLA's Carroll, who says, "Families are in the business of solving real developmental issues: how to raise children, have good relationships, earn a living, be reasonably successful in our lives. It is the family in which information on how to survive in this culture is really handed down."

Apparently, many families nowadays aren't handing down enough good stuff. And maybe we're all a bit low in the commitment-to-each-other area, too, observers say. Pressed for time and money, many of us find it easier to fight than to learn to cope with each other.

Abigail Van Buren says 25% of the letters to her "Dear Abby" column are about family feuds, up considerably in the past few years. Feuds can start over any small thing, she says, but typically they feature jealousy: "When there's one particularly adored, talented or attractive person in a family, and that person gets attention, other siblings and cousins may feel they get none."

Rona Barrett, former gossip columnist and inveterate observer of the Hollywood social scene, says, "Feuds are all about power. One person has it; the other one wants it. And then these incredible battles erupt." Barrett can tick off dozens of feuds, big and small, simmering around the country.

Just ask your friends, neighbors, colleagues, these observers say--and you'll see feuds are happening everywhere.

So we asked around, and found they were right.

Author Dominick Dunne, in Los Angeles to cover the Menendez brothers trial for Vanity Fair magazine, says, "I had a thing with my own brother (author John Gregory Dunne), where we did not speak and avoided each other for 10 years." Dunne won't say what caused the rift, except that it had to do with the murder of his daughter in the early 1980s. "Finally, one of my own sons said it's time this should be over. And so we met again, and never discussed what had driven us apart. I now have a wonderful relationship with my brother. It's one of the most advanced things I've ever done."

Most people apparently aren't so advanced; their feuds are ongoing, painful and something they prefer to keep private. But with the promise that their real names would not be used, many have a tale to tell:

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