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Just one family member can throw restrained harmony into disarray

Conflict is almost inevitible within families and when it arises we need to be kind to ourselves

One member of the family can undo familial boundaries, rules and structures. An obnoxious uncle, narcissistic mother, spoilt sibling or wayward son can complicate an ordinary family dynamic. This is not unusual.

Families are not created or raised to fit within specific structures and people are as unique as the wallpaper in every room. Conflict is almost a given as personalities, identities, beliefs and opinions clash. However, the family dynamic is complex, causing significant stress when feuds occur.

Maura Carey, psychotherapist, lecturer and director of Cherryblossom Therapy, advises that, when conflict arises within the confines of family relationships, a person needs to be kind to themselves.

“A person cannot be understood in isolation but [only] by inquiring into the dynamics, roles and patterns of the whole family,” she says. “Dysfunctional behaviour that may be handed down through generations serves a purpose within a family structure.”

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Carey suggests that understanding the emotional fallout from a family feud begins with an understanding of the importance for a person to belong.

“Humans have an innate need to connect, to belong and to be a part of a system. Family is the first system and structure a person belongs to, and family structures hold families together. Each member is bound by a certain set of rules (implicit and explicit), all unique to each family.”

These rules fall into two groups. The first is patterns of interaction which, Carey explains, are the rules around how we interact with other family members.

“There may be a rule in your family that you ‘don’t rock the boat’, meaning you avoid conflicts at all costs,” she says. “You stay quiet and don’t challenge, which often means that family members end up suppressing their feelings and needs. Another pattern of interaction would be to “keep up appearances”. Often families with this rule, be it overt or covert, will be expected to show the world that the family is perfect, which can be far from the truth.”

The second set of rules falls under family belief systems, which encompass the idea of not challenging the belief system and values of the family unit. If your beliefs are different from those of the family, then, as an individual, you risk having to keep your beliefs to yourself.

“Family rules cultivate a sense of regularity, stability and organisation within the family system,” says Carey. “They offer guidelines on how members behave and what is expected. Their function is maintaining homeostasis and deviations from the rules are resisted. We inherit patterns of behaviour from the generations that go before us. Even if the patterns of behaviours are dysfunctional, they serve a purpose.”

These unique family dynamics create alliances, coalitions and conflicts, as family members adhere to or are seen to break perceived rules. Carey recognises that this can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, frustration and anxiety. Self-esteem can be damaged, self-doubt heightens and poor overall confidence can occur.

“The prolonged stress from unresolved family conflict can have negative health implications, including increased risk of cardiovascular problems, weakened immune system and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety,” she says. “You may feel isolated and alone. You may question if you were the problem. Damage to relationships can make it difficult for family members to communicate or trust each other in the future. This can strain the relationships between the feuding parties and among other family members who may feel caught in the middle.”

While family feuds can be short-term or evolve over an extended period, resolving conflicts is often inherently complex and potentially problematic due to issues around communication, negotiation, listening, compromise and understanding the other’s perspective.

“The nature of any family conflict, including the source of the issue, how the family deals with conflicts and how long it has lasted, will influence how stressful it can be,” says Karl Melvin, a psychotherapist specialising in working with adults who are estranged from one or more family members. “For example,” he explains, “if there are patterns of blame or avoidance in families, this will make it tough to resolve and move past the issues, as no one is prepared to take responsibility and address some of the problems.”

Melvin reiterates that the “deeply ingrained rules” around how we communicate and the power dynamics in relationships may result in some family members being placed above others in the hierarchy of family structures, creating challenges, isolations, vulnerabilities, conflicts and possible alliances.

“Another challenge is the social ramifications of ongoing family issues such as whether and how they share the situation with others,” says Melvin, whose book, Navigating Family Estrangement, is due for publication in July.

“Due to the importance placed on the role of family in contemporary society, some might feel shame if their family situation doesn’t align with what is considered the norm or feel pressure to resolve the situation, irrespective of whether this is what they want.”

When gathering for an event, Melvin recommends that individuals consider the helpful “stage management” method when navigating stressful family get-togethers. He explains that this includes “being clear on why they are there and if they hope to use this opportunity to reconnect”.

“They might also need to be clear on how much of their lives they wish to share and have some options to deflect a conversation if it becomes intrusive or boundaries are being crossed,” he suggests.

Pre-empting a certain level of stress and conflict can ensure individuals who engage with or avoid certain family members can manage the tension by using calming techniques such as breathing techniques, mindfulness or surrounding themselves with people or family members they feel supported by. Melvin also recommends that people have “a solid exit strategy, such as a legitimate excuse to leave”, if the event becomes too much for them.

Considering every family conflict or situation is unique, it can be difficult to ascertain how to navigate a given problem. However, Melvin suggests approaching conflict from an angle outside of what you may have done in the past.

“So, using different ways to communicate, such as a WhatsApp voice note or written letter, might help relay a perspective previously dismissed in a face-to-face conversation due to defensiveness or bias,” he says. “Knowing when to address family issues is important, as is gauging if there have been any changes on either side of the conflict. This will also include staying on-point and sticking to key themes and overarching problems, so they can focus on a better outcome and avoid going in circles.”

Finally, while boundaries can play a vital role in protecting ourselves from stress, Melvin recognises that boundaries can be difficult to implement, especially if family members have no regard for them.

“This is why awareness around emotional triggers, as well as taking the time to safely connect with experiences of bullying, rejection etc, might help [someone] to find their voice and the strength to firmly reinforce one more necessary boundary.”

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