Conflict Is Relative: Changing Your Role in Family Conflicts

As the holiday season kicks into high gear, so do plans to reunite with relatives. In More Peaceful Holidays, Family Style, I outlined how to use mindful self-awareness to avoid conflict. Because good intentions and self-care aren’t always enough, here I offer ways to handle and repair conflict. I also urge you to consider new perspectives on old family roles and patterns to evaluate whether they still fit with your values and goals— or if it’s time for a change.

Okay, so you assembled your toolkit and implemented your peaceful plan. Nevertheless, you find yourself in the midst of an argument or upsetting situation... maybe even one you’ve replayed in your family for years. Now what?

Repair and Recover

  • Fight fair. If you must argue, don’t dredge up unrelated complaints and criticisms. Staying on topic is the only way to resolve the problem you’re having right now. Respectful communication— which means no name-calling and no insults— will help keep the issue from escalating. Positive outcomes are even more likely when you stay centered on listening, finding common ground, and expressing your own feelings and needs.

  • Take a breather. When you’re upset, your nervous system interferes with rationality. So when you need time alone to calm your nerves or vent to a friend, do it. Surprisingly, our bodies require up to twenty minutes to recover from the physiological components of agitation – and that can’t happen while you sit and stew. It’s more constructive to breathe deeply, take a walk, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

  • Depersonalize and empathize. While being the recipient of anger or criticism feels intensely personal, it actually reveals the insecurity and unmet needs of the aggressor. For example, nagging stems from fear and protective impulses; criticism from a sense of inferiority or powerlessness; and tantrums from a need for attention and control. See if you can detect the vulnerability that hides beneath the surface of offensive words and actions.

  • Check in with your values. When arguments concern past hurts, politics, religion, or personal values, there isn’t much potential for change of mind or heart. It’s up to you to examine the balance between self-respect and boundaries on the one hand, and the need to be “right” or to change someone else on the other. Ask yourself which is more important: proving your point of view? Or preserving your relationship?

Take the Long View

  • Let it go. Is there any chance that you can let this issue drop, even if someone else won’t? Clinging to blame or resentment blocks you from being present. Plus, it leaves you holding some heavy baggage. Apply a generous dose of open-minded acceptance to your respective idiosyncrasies and past mistakes. All relationships benefit from tolerance and forgiveness but not everyone has mastered these skills. It’s not about being saintly or a doormat. For your own growth and well-being, practice letting go of the burdens of expectations, judgment, and regret.

  • Learn. Even if you lose your cool, don’t punish yourself. Own your part in what happened, apologize if necessary, and forgive yourself and others. Consider this when you’re angry or hurt: will this matter one, five, or ten years from now? If so, what can you do for damage control or to prevent a recurrence? Extract whatever insight and wisdom you can, and try again. Perhaps you can even discover something valuable, some kernel of truth, in the someone else’s perspective or criticism.

  • Stay out of it, Part II. Family loyalty is nice, but it must be demonstrated in the form of mutual respect and caring. Despite your best efforts, the behavior of a family member (or members) may become intolerable. Take an honest look at your situation. Can you accept the way things are or not? If the environment feels more toxic than tonic, then avoidance may be the best way to protect yourself from further damage.

  • When all else fails, laugh it off. Appreciate the absurdity, pathos, and humor in others’ dysfunctional behaviors. When you view things from a detached perspective, the bickering and drama become less hurtful and more amusing. But be sure to laugh with, not at. And don’t take yourself too seriously.

The Choice Is Yours

Family change can take time, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. The important thing is to find your comfort zone. On a personal level, counseling or a support group can help you heal the wounds of the past and define your expectations for the future. On a family level, if you do not enjoy and benefit from time together, consider declining their next invitation.

You can’t choose your family, but you do have choices. You have the power to transcend old patterns and influence your life in the present. Let “flexibility, flow, and letting go” be your mantra as you endeavor to find a peaceful place in (or out of) your family. Here’s wishing you and your family a healthy, balanced holiday season.


More Peaceful Holidays, Family Style

My memories of holiday family gatherings resemble a montage of Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and A Charlie Brown Christmas: we never failed to concoct a sentimental mix of comedy and caring, drama and dissonance. Somehow togetherness magnified our differences and led to conflict. Over the years, though, I found that awareness of my own part in the mess enabled me to enjoy my relatives and the holiday season more fully. I’ve assembled a toolkit to help you handle the holidays, family style.

In this article, I explain why family problems are so hard to solve, how to gear up for family time, and how to stay cool when you’re together.

Family Systems: Stable, Not Sensible

Family patterns are difficult to change because families are systems. Systems vary in design, but they all share the quality of stability—not in the sense of health and strength but in the sense of mechanical predictability, like an assembly of parts that interact to function as a whole. And while its structure may appear complex or inscrutable to an outsider, everyone within the system knows his/her role and performs it to perfection.

The thing about families is that even when extreme dysfunction, pain, and abuse characterize their system’s “stability,” real change is unthinkable because it would force the family to disrupt their familiar, and thus comfortable, equilibrium. Individual change—positive or negative—is like having a screw loose. The system breaks down and everyone scrambles to “repair” the family to its former working order.

But change is possible and a single person can initiate systemic change. You can start by redefining your family role and “scripts,” or patterns of interaction.

Assembling Your Toolkit

  • Approach with an open mind. Try to view everything through fresh eyes, without the filter of past experience. Negative expectations are self-fulfilling prophecies so let go of past resentments—they keep you stuck in your predefined role. Visualize positive interactions and peaceful outcomes. Mentally walk yourself through each step: warm greetings, pleasure at seeing your relations, and affectionate laughter at mealtime. When you catch yourself in a negative thought or prediction, replace it with a positive thought or scenario.
  • Rehearse ways to defuse and redirect. If you expect to face pointed questions or criticism, prepare a neutralizing response and repeat it aloud during the weeks leading up to your family visit. For example: “I’m content with my life as it is. I don’t feel the need to date/get married/have kids.” Or “Yes, I have gained weight. I appreciate your concern for my health.” Rehearse your firm but compassionate delivery. Then be ready to change the subject to reinforce that the topic is off-limits.
  • Stay out of it. No, this doesn't mean to lose yourself in a drunken fog. It means to stay a safe distance from family fires. You will not—ever—change the values or temperament of your parent, in-laws, or your cousin Willie. So sometimes it’s prudent to withhold your opinion or to agree to disagree, especially when the conflict doesn't concern you directly. You can choose (1) to fight (and feel distress) or (2) to surrender (and feel serenity). I know which one I prefer. Focus on what you can control: your thoughts, your judgments, and your attitude.

Your Peaceful Plan in Action: While You're Together

  • Radiate peace. Smile. You will feel happier and more likely to interpret neutral situations as positive. Plus, happiness is contagious. Imagine that your presence will infuse the atmosphere with a refreshing, open-hearted kindness and optimism. Enact the positive outcomes and non-reactive statements you prepared beforehand.
  • Practice mindful self-awareness. Monitor your mood. Be aware when your anxiety level begins to rise and intervene right away to soothe yourself. Notice and intercept any angry, avoidant, or passive-aggressive impulses. Just be aware of what pushes your buttons and make a targeted effort to pause, breathe, and figure out what you need to relax.
  • Expect some resistance. At first, your composure might confuse and even inflame others because you are stepping outside of your traditional role. Stand your ground with an empathic response such as: “I see that you are upset, but let’s relax and enjoy being together. Let’s talk about this some other time.” Then follow through on that promise when everyone is calm.

I hope this helps you prepare for your next family get-together. Bear in mind that while you can enhance your sense of peace and enjoyment, old family patterns are unlikely to change overnight. That's why my next post will tackle how to handle family conflicts when they arise.