Family Conflict and Stress

Family conflict and stress are often a part of life for most of us.  Many people have a person in the family that everyone is slightly uncomfortable around.  Other families will cut off relationships and refuse to gather for decades because of old feuds that were never resolved.  With the current political and social atmosphere, many people are struggling to communicate well with each other, and this is particularly true in families where members hold opposing views.  But conflict within families is normal and should be viewed as an opportunity for growth in the relationships that make up the family. Understanding the conflict and effectively healing it can relieve stress and tension surrounding the family.  However, this takes practice and willingness to work on the conflict from both sides.

This article will discuss the idea of family conflict and what often causes conflict in families. It will discuss the effects that conflict can have on families and relationships, including an examination of the stress caused by conflicts and how his stress can often make a conflict worse.  It will evaluate tips for resolving conflict and healing familial relationships, and discuss when it is appropriate to put up strong boundaries or even cut off contact with a person.  Finally, it will conclude with a brief discussion of how some of the methods of alternative dispute resolution may be used to work on relationships and when it may be useful to include alternative dispute resolution in the healing process.

Defining Family Conflict

Family conflict is the active opposition or tension between members of the same family.  This can happen within the nuclear family, or it can be throughout one’s entire extended family.  This animosity may be the result of an active disagreement between family members, or it may be the result of years of tension between the people at the head of the family that affects everyone else involved.  They may last for moments or years and can take on a variety of forms, including verbal, physical, financial, or psychological conflict.  While all conflict has the potential to affect relationships long term, the family conflict has this ability for three distinct reasons:

  • Emotions: Family members are often highly emotionally attached, so they will not bring the same ability to separate the issues from the person to a discussion as a person with little emotional investment in another party.  These emotions may cloud judgment.
  • Insular: Families will often have their own sets of rules and traditions on how things are handled.  This can make it difficult to resolve conflict when one member is attempting to break the rules or if a family has a way they deal with conflict that is unhealthy and does not resolve this particular dispute. This often makes family conflict resistant to outside interference.
  • Daily Interactions: Because the parties in a family dispute are family, they deal with daily or regular interactions with the other party in a way that very few other disputes entail.  This type of dispute requires a solution that both helps to solve the problem and heal the relationship.

Understanding these key differences in family conflict will help parties navigate the conflict respectfully and carefully.  Additionally, knowing the three most common types of family conflict will help identify the cause of the conflict and help the parties attempt to reach a solution.  The three most common types are:

  • Spouses: The most common of the family conflicts are conflicts between spouses and this type of conflict may be caused by any or all of the common causes of family conflict explored below.  This type of conflict will often affect only the nuclear family, but it could spill out to the extended family.
  • Siblings: Another common type of conflict is a conflict between siblings.  While siblings are often at odds while they are growing up, that conflict rarely lasts past a few days.  However, when siblings are adults and attempting to make decisions for the family, there can be destructive conflict that arises.  This type of conflict can be caused by a variety of issues as well, but it is most often caused by disagreements over how to care for their aging parents.  This type of conflict will usually affect both the parents of the siblings and the children of the siblings.  It can even reach into their parent’s siblings.
  • Parent-Child: This type of power struggle results in parents and children vying for power.  This will often happen as a child is growing up, but the major risk of destructive conflict is when a child has grown up.  This type of conflict often pops up when a child needs to help make decisions for an aging adult but can happen for a variety of reasons.  This conflict is usually multigenerational and can impact extended families.

Common Causes of Family Conflict

Family conflict can be caused by several issues that families face.  Conflict often arises at transitions within the family and is often related to values and personal ideals.  One of the largest elements impacting conflict is the power in their relationship to make decisions, and conflict often arises as people struggle for that power.  Some common causes of family conflict are:

  • Lack of Communication: One of the most common contributors to conflict is a lack of open communication among family members.  This will often result in members of the family not having their needs and wants to be met and even feeling like they are not worth sharing.  Conflicts are also often made worse when there is a communication breakdown.  Parties will often assume the worst of the other and do not see the full picture of the conflict.
  • Money: How and where to spend money is often a struggle between partners or even families as a whole.  Different people will have different objects or services that they value and would like to contribute to, and these differences will often cause conflict in homes.  This can cause conflicts that last for decades as siblings fight over how to spend their family money or spouses constantly disagree on how to spend money.
  • Family Labor: Another common cause of conflict in families is how the labor in the family will be divided among the members.  This can be about who will work, who will care for children, who will take care of their aging parents, or who will sweep the floors.  These conflicts are often small, but they may last for a long time if not resolved adequately.
  • Value Differences: This type of conflict is most likely found in either spousal conflict or parent-child conflict.  This results when one side has different values—politically, morally, or socially—and these values affect how the parties interact with each other.  This is especially common currently, as more and more families are being divided politically.  This type of conflict can be incredibly destructive if not cared for properly and will likely always cause friction unless one side changes its mind.
  • Combining Families: Conflict often arises when two families combine.  This can occur either through two adults with children marrying and combining their families, or it can occur when a couple gets married and now has in-laws.  These conflicts are often over differences in family dynamics and rules. These conflicts are often difficult for newly formed families and may end up lasting for decades if not resolved.

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it covers some basic areas that conflict may arise for families.  Identifying the root cause of the issue will often help the family adequately address it and learn to move past it.

The Effect of Conflict on Families

Now that there is a basis for understating what conflict is and where it comes from, let’s examine the effect that conflict can have on families.  When families face conflicts constructively and with the intent to resolve them, these effects are often lessened and families can exist together.  However, when a family is either dealing with conflict destructively or is facing a continuing conflict, these effects may wreak havoc on a family for a long time.  Some common effects of conflict on families are:

  • Strained Relationships: Even the healthiest of relationships experience the occasional strain.  However, a sign of a destructive conflict is a strained relationship that occurs for an extended time.  This often results in the breakdown of relationships and trust within the family, which contributes to a variety of other effects.
  • Exaggerated Strengths and Weaknesses: Often, when parties are in constant conflict, one party will try and overpower the other party through manipulation and threats.  If this continues over time, the party asserting dominance may end up having a type of control over the weaker party.  This will be especially exaggerated where one party already dominates the other.
  • Mental Health Issues: When families are facing conflict, especially if it is dealt with poorly, one or more family members may develop mental health issues due to the constant exposure, such as anxiety or depression. This is especially common in children whose parents are often in conflict.
  • Physical Health Issues: Similar to mental health issues, there are physical ailments that may be linked to constant exposure to conflict.  This can include digestive issues, heart disease, insomnia, and tooth and gum disease. While conflict is not the only cause, the constant strain on the family will often cause members to neglect other aspects of life.
  • Repeated Patterns and Conversations: When a family has been dealing with conflict for an extended amount of time, they develop a rhythm to deal with any interactions that may come up between the sides.  Often the same conversation between the parties is repeated every time they see each other and little or nothing will change about the outcome.
  • Dehumanizing Others: Another effect of conflict is the tendency to dehumanize others.  Because the conflict is often at the forefront of everyone’s mind, they tend to associate a conflict with a certain person rather than an issue.  When a person becomes synonymous with a conflict, they begin to feel more like a villain and less like a human to the person making the assessment.

These repeated behaviors and patterns are a constant source of anxiety and worry for families that are struggling with conflict.  In fact, stress is the most common effect that families will face amid conflict.

Family Conflict and Stress

Stress is an incredibly common reaction to situations outside of our control.  In certain cases, stress can be a motivating factor to achieve a goal or get something done on time.  But stress can also cause significant issues for people who are experiencing stress. Stress can cause or exacerbate health problems while leaving a person exhausted and unable to do anything further.  Stress can also strain relationships and family dynamics.  This is especially true for families in conflict who are not dealing with the situation in a healthy way and when parties to a conflict are dehumanized by the actions of another.

The constant friction caused by conflict can often cause stress.  This can be compounded by the addition of feeling cornered or overwhelmed in the conflict or like one’s voice is not being heard or cared for.  This can be particularly poignant when the parties are in a close relationship, such as a partner or spouse.  When there is severe conflict in these types of relationships, the emotions of the conflict can take over reason and people can feel totally and completely overwhelmed by the issue, thus increasing stress.

While conflict can contribute to stress, stress can also contribute to conflict.  When a person is feeling particularly stressed, they are less likely to be in control of their emotions and are more likely to make decisions based on what they need right now rather than in the long term.  Stress can cause people to lash out or react strongly to things that would normally not be an issue.  This can cause the other person to become stressed, which in turn can make the conflict worse.  Stress is both the result of and a contributing factor of conflict.  This is especially true in family conflict, as the stressful conflict may affect the place where people rest and usually try to step away from stress.  When the conflict is in the family, there is little escape from the stress it causes.

Tips for Resolving Family Conflict

After evaluating the conflict and examining the types and causes of a conflict, it may be time to start addressing the conflict and looking to resolve it.  Find the best resolution for the conflict will likely not be an easy or fun process, but it will help the family grow and learn more about how to interact with each other.  If done constructively, family conflict can eventually strengthen relationships and encourage family members to consider everyone when making decisions.  But how is a family conflict resolved constructively? Several tips help determine how to approach a resolution in a conflict and what can be done.  These tips include:

  • Stay Calm: As discussed above, conflict can create stress and gain power from stress.  One of the best postures that a family member can bring to a resolution discussion is the intent to start and remain calm throughout the discussion.  Allowing emotions and anger to control will often contribute to the source of the conflict rather than the solution.
  • Acknowledge Mistakes: One of the most powerful tools in any conflict, but especially in family conflict, is the ability to admit mistakes in the underlying offense and the handling of the conflict.  Admitting mistakes allows all parties to feel that there is equal responsibility and that everyone acknowledges that they played a part.  Giving solid and specific examples will help open the discussion and encourage a dialogue about how these mistakes contributed to the conflict.
  • Consider Outside Help: Occasionally, a family will need outside evaluation and help to resolve a conflict.  This is usually best in situations where the parties are willing to try and create a solution but are having trouble understanding how the two proposals can come together.  The outside help can con from a mediator or conciliator or it can come through a family therapist.  Evaluating what will work best for a family will be key to success when considering outside assistance to resolve the conflict.
  • Respect Other Opinions: While it may seem like an opinion is the only right one, it is often true that most people feel that way about their opinion.  People are allowed to have differing opinions about certain things.  Avoid attacking someone’s intelligence or character when they share their opinions, and instead, remember the objective of the discussion and share your opinion respectfully.
  • Actively Listen: When people are arguing with each other, it is common for them to be creating their next attack on a person while that person is talking.  However, a conversation is more likely to be productive in resolving the situation when the parties are actually and actively listening to the points presented by the other side.  This can include paraphrasing and repeating things that the other party said to encourage understanding and retention.  This can stop the parties from discussing almost identical proposals for boundaries or resolution.
  • Practice Empathy: A family conflict will be affecting everyone involved.  This means that all parties involved will be experiencing the conflict from their unique perspective and attempting to protect themselves.  By practicing empathy, people can view the other side as a person and not as a problem, which allows everyone to approach the situation with new grace and understanding for the other.
  • Use Humor: This tip will only work in situations where the parties have a relationship where humor is a part of how they relate to each other.  When the parties have a rapport, humor can be used to break the ice and remind everyone that they care about each other more than they care about the conflict.  However, it must also be timed well to ensure that it is received well.
  • Express Love: When families conflict, it can often feel like the relationship between the parties is breaking down.  One way that family members can engage each other and encourage growth is to express their feelings and love for one another.  It assures everyone that they are family and that they will still love each other at the end of the day.

Again, this list is not exhaustive, but considering these tips may help ease the tension and help create a plan of attack for conflict resolution; however, resolution may not always be the best or healthiest option.

Setting Strong Boundaries

Occasionally, a conflict between people will be so stressful and traumatic that the parties need to spend time apart, limit contact, or cut off contact.  This is seen formally through divorce and separations, but it can also be informal and done through boundaries established by the party that needs to heal.  Many people are reluctant to use this tactic to end a conflict, but in some cases, it is the best option for the mental health and wellbeing of all involved.  This can mean setting a boundary that certain family members will only be in contact at family gatherings, or it may mean that two or more members of the family cut off contact with others.  Boundaries can also relate to the specific issues that cause the conflict, such as a refusal to talk about politics with certain members of the family.  Whatever the boundaries end up being, they can be important and necessary to protect oneself or others.

ADR Methods and Family Conflict

When evaluating how to resolve conflict, one of the methods mentioned was to consider outside help and the possibility of a mediator, facilitator, or conciliator.  All three of these options are alternative dispute resolution mechanisms create to help people resolve disputes outside of traditional litigation and court systems.  Each one of these styles may be helpful for families facing conflict, but each will be helpful in their own way and for certain needs in resolution.  Considering each of the methods in turn:

  • Facilitation: Facilitation is a process where a neutral third party creates a discussion around a conflict in a group and helps the group identify the issue fully so that they can create a solution tailored to the problem and unaffected by periphery issues.  Facilitation is a great solution if there are a large group of family members that are unable to resolve the conflict due to an inconsistency in how different members view the issue.  This would not be the best solution for groups that know the issues but are struggling to overcome them.
  • Mediation: Mediation is the use of a third-party neutral to help guide discussions surrounding a conflict toward a resolution.  The process is typically more formal and involves a day or two to allow the parties to negotiate freely with each other.  Mediation is great for families that are willing to work together but need some guidance in the negotiation discussions.  It is not good for families that do not know the issue that is causing the conflict or families that have no ideas for resolution.
  • Conciliation: Conciliation is very similar to mediation, but instead of guiding the conversation, a conciliator will often make suggestions about how the conflict could be settled or even provide feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of each side. This is great for families that need suggestions or where one or more members need to have a more accurate picture of what they are facing.  This is not good for groups where the parties are not sure what their conflict is enough to attempt a resolution.

There are other types of ADR, but they do not fit the context of family conflicts as well as these options.  For example, arbitration is often too formal for family conflicts that are not involved in lawsuits.  Negotiation is also not a good example as the parties need to collaborate to find a solution and the issues are not neat enough for a negotiated settlement.  However, mediation, facilitation, and conciliation are all wonderful possibilities to solve conflicts in families.  Resolving conflict in families is so important to strengthen and renew the family ties that bind us.

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