How to Deal with Family Conflict

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How many times have you heard the advice, “Never talk about religion, politics, and money.” Growing up, I was told it was impolite to bring these topics up in any conversation. As a result, I wasn’t taught how to have conversations about my beliefs, the economy, dating, health care choices or even what might happen after death. This is probably true of many millennials and also those outside my generation.

Ryan Fournier, an American political commentator, stated in 2018, “Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.”

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I have seen the implications of this firsthand. I hear countless stories of how families are being torn apart, especially in the last year with current issues surrounding political choices, social movements, illness, vaccines and economic impacts. These differences in opinion and beliefs have led to an increase in family conflict.

In the spring of 2020, America’s families were asked to quarantine together in their homes for an indefinite amount of time. Research is now coming out that this period of family isolation not only caused pernicious effects on individuals but negatively affected the entire family unit. A study led by Penn State researchers found “that in the first months of the pandemic, parents reported that their children were experiencing much higher levels of ‘internalizing’ problems like depression and anxiety, and ‘externalizing’ problems such as disruptive and aggressive behavior, than before the pandemic. Parents also reported that they themselves were experiencing much higher levels of depression and lower levels of coparenting quality with their partners.”

So what causes family conflict?

Judy Caprez, a professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, explained, “Family conflict develops when members of a family have different beliefs or viewpoints, when people misunderstand one another, when someone gets hurt feelings and develops resentment, and when miscommunication leads to mistaken assumptions and subsequent arguments.” These situations often happen around normal developmental stages of life: beginning a new relationship, getting married, having children, separations or death. I explain to clients that any major change that requires members of a family to evaluate or shift thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs creates an opportunity for conflict. For a lot of people, these last 500 days have been such a time. We have been forced to change behaviors, in periods of isolation, during an election year.

Not surprisingly, attitudes towards the viral outbreak vary within families, social groups and even political circles. This is because the decisions we make are rooted in our beliefs, values and worldview. “People believe what they believe, and they live out those beliefs in daily life without ever even questioning whether they are right or wrong,” explained a writer for Marketfaith Ministries. “Worldview notions, for most people, are not intentionally thought out beliefs. They are unconscious assumptions. And unless those assumptions are somehow made conscious and challenged, there is never any reason for people to question them.”

Normally, we can go about life with our hobbies and interests in parallel with our friends and family even if our worldview or beliefs don’t match up. For example, I don’t need to have the same political views as you in order to watch a baseball game, see a concert or go to the movies. But when health concerns and subsequent policy decisions are forced into mainstream conversations, these topics can be polarizing.

As with most controversial topics, a culture of “us” and “them” is inevitable. Within the last year, I have seen insults thrown and people categorized based on choices and beliefs. People are divided on nearly everything, including the question of whether or not COVID-19 is even real! Researchers in India observed, “The present ongoing situation of COVID-19 pandemic and its impact not only on the physical and psychological health but also on the way people are interacting with others are compelling enough to initiate analytical examination of stigma and discrimination related with COVID-19.” The article highlighted the stigma associated with a number of classifications including “being an infected patient, or a close contact of someone infected,” along with belonging to a particular race, religion and social class. The authors concluded, “Nature has made us all equal. It is us who create divisions in society for our own benefit. Stigmatization serves this purpose.” Ultimately, they resolved that sharing information across these sectors was the best way to remove the bias seen in their study.

Researchers from the University of Miami developed a way to measure the impact of COVID-19 societal responses on household conflict and cohesion. Their results reiterated that practitioners of family therapy need “intervention strategies to prevent and mitigate mental consequences of the pandemic, including family‐based interventions that address relational stressors and build upon positive family structures that emerge from the shared experience.”

When I facilitate and teach conflict resolution, I focus on finding common ground and topics families can agree upon in addition to dissecting the source of the conflict itself. In most situations, I try to get the couple or the family to see themselves as being against the conflict, not as being against the other person. In other words, it is the disagreement that is the problem, not the specific belief the other person might hold. As a therapist, my role is to point out blind spots or biases of which my clients might not be aware. Blanket statements or statements of judgment and prejudice are often brought to light or called out in the therapy room. Believing that ALL conservatives are conspiracy theorists or that ALL liberals support getting vaccinated are gross overgeneralizations. However, polarizing movements and individuals in these groups become the face of the collective values. Conflict and disagreements drive people apart unless they are done in a constructive way with a common goal. 

I urge people, “if you disagree about something, find something else to agree on.” I want my clients to learn how to have honest conversations about what are preferences and what are values, followed by learning how to share those in healthy, relationship-affirming ways. Here are five tips for increasing your communication and conflict resolution skills:

1) Work out if the issue is even worth “fighting” about; preferences can be overlooked, but values are harder to ignore. 

2) Separate the person from the disagreement.

3) Maintain the goal of resolving the conflict, not winning the argument. 

4) Ask more questions and make fewer statements.

5) Use positive listening skills, and restate the other person’s point of view back to them. 

Conflict is not a sign of unhealthy relationships. Happy families don’t fight less … they reconcile more. Fight to understand or find common ground. Let the differences in opinions be a way to learn more about another person and challenge your views of yourself and the world. If having the discussion one-on-one is too difficult, find a therapist in your area that can help you figure out how to have these discussions.

I have seen families break apart over differences in opinions, beliefs and values, but it’s a beautiful thing when families learn to love and accept each other and are able to see the world through the eyes of someone they love. 

Candyce Braker is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Santa Clarita Therapy practicing in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. For a list of resources or to ask any questions, feel free to contact Candyce at cbrakermft@gmail.com. 

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