Survival strategies for family feuds

We can’t choose our families but we can choose how we respond to them.

Did you make it through the holiday period with your family? If one of your new year’s resolutions was never to spend time with them again, perhaps think again and see if these strategies can help for the next holiday or extended get together.  Although spending time with family can be challenging, most of us couldn’t do without them.

Against our fervent aspirations to the contrary, most of us are flawed beings who sprang from less-than-functional family systems, and the reality is that we take those imperfect dynamics with us wherever we go.

These flaws can be especially evident when we spend extended periods of time with our families and can be further heightened when travelling together . If you’ve travelled with family recently, you’re probably among many of us who find that it’s not always smooth sailing.  So, what can you do to avoid the drama?

Thomas-Kilman conflict model:  Cooperativeness and assertiveness

The Thomas-Kilman Conflict Model provides a visual model to assess how two parties can engage in a conflict situation. By looking at the model, we can get tips to help survive time with our families. 

The model categorises approaches to conflict into five broad categories, all of which are useful for understanding different situations and personality types. The model has been around for 40 years and has stood the test of time by recognising that there is no “silver bullet” when dealing with relationships, especially family ones.

There are five conflict management styles plotted on the graph, all of them a function of how assertive and cooperative someone is during a given interaction.   As you move along the horizontal axis, you are increasingly cooperative about helping others meet their needs.  Going up the vertical axis, you become more assertive about meeting your own needs.  

Survival strategies
As much as possible in our family survival quest, we will want to meet our own needs.  But, hey, we’re with family, so some amount of compromise will be inevitable.  As much as possible, we want to meet our needs in a relational way, one which meets others’ needs too.  Essentially, we want everyone to be as happy as possible. 

I have listed survival strategies according to where on the conflict model I would plot them.  Though I champion assertiveness, there are also many “avoiding” and “accommodating” strategies.  At the end of the day, we have to pick our battles, and the question we should keep asking ourselves is, “How much will this matter in a year?  A month?  Tomorrow?”

Avoiding strategies

  • Avoid the hot-button topics.  Figure out ahead of time how to rein in your reaction for those issues.  Do you really defend your stance on politics when your brother-in-law is adamantly opposed to your opinion?
  • Overlook the small stuff.  Do you really care if the kids are dressed in mismatched colours or if they get a bit grubby playing?  Avoiding is particularly a good strategy when dealing with dementia.

Accommodating strategies

  • Accept that reality is often not what we would like.  It may be wiser to cover our feelings when we are forced to spend time with people we do not like.
  • Recognise that most families are  dysfunctional is some way. Comparisons can add more stress and while other families might look more harmonious than yours, they probably aren’t.
  • Accept that others may not express their affection for you as you wish they would and that might never change, but it doesn’t mean that your family don’t love you. This is especially true for parents of adult children. 

Compromising strategies

  • Blended families can beespecially daunting.  Drop your grudges for the time together.
  • When with difficult rellies,  consider drinking in moderation, or possibly not at all? This helps ensure that you retain control over your behaviour even when in challenging company.
  • Be civil.  I have a two-step rule for surviving particularly difficult in-laws (outlaws?).  Step 1:  be unfailingly polite (you don’t want to sink to their level).  Step 2:  Restrict the “dosage”:  spend only the time with them that you can while observing Step 1.  

Competing (assertive) strategies

  • You still need to set boundaries around some things, like safety for kids and zero-tolerance for degrading remarks.  
  • Remember that you too are a “work in progress”; as such you have needs, and you need to meet them – not always last, after everyone else’s needs have been met.
  • Plan “entry” and “exit” times if you are going to be with family members who might overstay their visit.  Let them know the earliest they can come (or you can be there) and the time by which something else is happening and they (or you) will have to leave.  Setting this ahead of time saves drama later.

Collaborating strategies

  • Ensure plenty of activities are available to keep interest up and tensions down in the gaps between outings and meals.
  • Focus on the less fortunate, or perhaps on the kids:  people who everyone agrees deserve help and happiness.
  • Solve problems together, taking time to listen to the feelings being expressed.  Some find it hard to express their wants directly, and you can only pick up their needs by tuning into their emotions.
  • Give freedoms where you can; it will be appreciated and the good will should be returned to you.

By holding an essential stance of respect for yourself and others when choosing your conflict management strategy, even the longest length of time with our family can be survived intact.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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