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Family Conflict: What Were We Fighting About Again?

April 11, 2012 2 comments

To get where you are going you have to know where to begin. This is the same for families in conflict. Often, in my work, I come across families that are in some state of conflict. However, the common complaint that every family has is that they don’t know where to start or how to begin the healing process. This often perpetuates conflict and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Realizing that there has to be a starting point is only a piece to this complicated puzzle. Another major caveat is trying to understand the underlying cause of the conflict. Conflict can take many forms, whether it is due to disagreements in wants or needs, a struggle for control in the home, or a difference in overall opinion on a given topic. These, although valid in their own right, are typically the tip of the metaphoric iceberg that is family conflict. In my experience, there tends to be something more hiding beneath the murky waters. Something that is much bigger and much more profound that has yet to be discovered or touched upon. Sometimes, conflicting families use the aforementioned common arguments to distract from “the untouchables” of the family conversation. In other words, families use these more superficial arguments as a means of distracting or excusing themselves from having the truly difficult conversations about the underlying issues. Typically this is an unconscious act. Smoke screens are created to dim and shade out the more emotionally charged underlying issues.

For example, the family has a common close relative that has recently passed away. All members of the family are feeling strong emotions and are trying to navigate the grieving process, but are having a difficult time communicating their emotions and providing support for one another (underlying issue).   For one child, the tragedy of the situation is causing him to perform weaker in school. This causes an argument in the home that escalates into fighting because the child is showing some signs of behavioral and academic problems (superficial). The family then becomes focused on arguing about the child’s grades because as long as they are fighting about the academic performance they are momentarily distracted from the grieving process and emotions associated with grief. For the time being, the family has something else to worry about and focus on.

In this instance, the family is using their current arguments to ensure family survival. The act of superficial conflict creates a means of expressing frustration, but keeps them from having to confront the underlying pain. “I don’t have time to grieve the loss; I’m too worried about Timmy’s grades!” “I can focus on the divorce later. Right now I’m focused on paying the bills. Everything’s so expensive!” Families tend to focus on using distraction as a coping skill and as long as the pain is averted for the time being, the family can function with relatively little emotional damage.

The challenge, then, becomes twofold. First, assisting the family in identifying the difference between the superficial and underlying arguments by clearing the smoke. The second, assisting the family, in communicating effectively to reduce the use of negative coping skills and foster communication and support.  In doing so, the family can minimize or extinguish distractive conflict and focus on personal growth and understanding, improving the overall dynamic.

It’s one thing to work on conflict in families, it’s another to attempt to identify and understand it. As with anything else, understanding conflict takes time and an ability to introspect (a talent that improves with practice). As the proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” as does the path to understanding and resolving family conflict.

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