TIFT #38 Family Conflicts and Rifts

Nov 23, 2021


This is a post for holiday time, when heightened needs and expectations so often lead to family conflict. In an update to a post published in 2006, I’m looking at it a bit more from a therapist’s point of view.

Kelly wrote, “In the past few years, having moved back in the vicinity of my family, I find it extremely hard to tolerate them. After years (lifelong) of discounting, minimizing, and scapegoating by them, it seems I’ve become so healthy I can barely be in their presence because they are such wounded, fearful, unloving people. I used to respond to this with compassion and deep down I think a sacrifice of my true self (per usual) but I’m no longer able to do this. Instead I often feel rage, violation, and find myself speaking up and setting boundaries that totally baffles them (given their lack of healthy boundaries) and I can barely stand to be around them. If it weren’t for my grown children who see them as extended family and would not understand, I might cut off all contact. Thoughts?”

Humans are social

By this time, we are all clear about how our social nature is deeply embedded in the functioning of our brains and bodies. Furthermore, our social instincts seem to be optimized for life in families, tribes, and other small groups. This should not be a surprise, given the fact that our evolution was essentially complete 250,000 years ago, when that was exactly how human life was lived. We naturally organize our social milieu into insiders and outsiders and experience intense needs to stay in line within our group. Studies of the “blue zones,” where people often live over 100 years, suggest that the key ingredient is a strong sense of belonging to a community.

 Holidays are a time for reaffirmation of membership in the group and allegiance to the things it stands for. At the same time, from early in life, we also associate holidays with being taken care of personally. When, as often happens, our heightened needs come into conflict with others, not only is there trouble, but it is bound to be highly emotional.

Could open conflict have been avoided?

 One way to look at Kelly’s experience is that the order of emotional jobs was reversed. Anger should come first and be worked through, then acceptance. For Kelly, this was not to be. Her normal responses of hurt and anger were not tolerated at the time, so she sacrificed herself, thereby suppressing the anger until more recently.

When Kelly's abuse began, she was too young and too dependent to stand up to those around her and had little choice but to seek peace at any price. Her original pattern of reaction was to fix the others’ wounds by sacrificing herself and by a kind of “compassion” that was closer to whitewashing others at her expense. This was a childlike attempt to fix the grownups so they could do their job.

My observation is that we all have an internal “bean counter,” a part of our mind that keeps accounts to the penny and knows exactly who really owes what to whom. Kelly’s “bean counter” knew that as she made sacrifices to shelter others from their own sickness. In doing so, she was giving them an involuntary debt to her that they would never pay back. Eventually the dam (bank?) had to break, and the one who had given too much and received too little could no longer contain her anger and resentment.

Could Kelly have first settled her feelings in therapy? That might have avoided her distress and some ugly scenes in the family. But there are two reasons why the unfairness of her past needed to come out in the open.

Why confrontation may be necessary

The first is a genuine need to know if the family might be open to acknowledging their inadequacy. Not all families are so unhealthy that they can’t acknowledge having done wrong. The inner child first wants to solve the problem the way children do, by getting the big people to see how wrong they have been and to reform. In doing so, the child avoids what is for her an emotionally impossible task, accepting hopelessness and powerlessness in the form of knowing that her family was not up to doing their job.

The second reason is the difficulty of relinquishing a moral "hidden agenda." That is, an agenda to demonstrate to someone (God?, some big person?) just how wrong the parents are. Such hidden agendas operate outside consciousness and are often not even verbal. It begins to make sense that the only way for the inner child to be satisfied that reforming the family can’t be done is to try and fail. Pinning blame is especially important to children because cognitive limitations leave them only two possibilities: my fault or theirs. The inability to process "no one's fault" and the worry that it might be hers add up to an unconscious imperative to arrive at a clear answer.

For these reasons, even if it would avoid some pain, helping clients in therapy come to acceptance without actually trying a confrontation is not easy. Inner children want to see the proof. Either way, the emotional work to be done must include experiencing, then healing the pain of acceptance of what cannot be fixed.

Acceptance is hard. A childlike belief is that fixing the problem would be easier than accepting is another reason for insisting on trying. This may be one reason why family members put so much energy into changing each other and forcing agreement. On the other hand, in a family setting, being told one is wrong is instinctively threatening and likely to stir up intense opposition. The healthier and the more self-observant the person, the more likely they are to be capable of seeing themselves through Kelly’s eyes.

When clients in therapy discuss whether they should take a stand, knowing these dynamics can help us understand the high stakes as well as the probable futility of changing others. With that knowledge, we can help our clients evaluate if and when confronting a family member might be productive and how to deal with a disappointing result. It is important to realize that even a negative outcome can also give a kind of closure in which the wronged inner child can, at last, be clear that trying to reform the grown-ups can never happen. Such a demonstration may lead to acceptance more readily than anything we might say. In supporting such a confrontation, we let the abusive person provide the ultimate proof of their ugliness.

One rule is that arguing and convincing are only productive with people who not only have an emotional stake in seeking common ground but are healthy enough to look at themselves through another’s eyes. For all others, arguing may amount to giving away one’s power. The one we are trying to change gains the power to render us helpless simply by saying, “I don’t buy your argument!”

What to do when others won’t change?

The adult healthy response is to disengage. That might mean distancing physically, or it could mean simply declining to enter into an argument. The peaceful solution is to agree to disagree, to accept that not everyone thinks or feels the same. As therapists, we do well to realize how daunting, even impossible, this may be to the child inside.

Closed and open systems

Like children, our natural instinct is to think the family or group cannot survive disagreement. Studies of systems have clarified that cults, cliques, authoritarian regimes, and other “closed systems” are less healthy and cannot tolerate differences, while healthier “open systems” embrace diversity. Some families more than others tap into the more primitive instincts that make closed systems endemic to human existence. 

A family system caught between unity and truth

I once worked with a couple whose extended family viewed themselves as particularly moral and virtuous through their religion. The problem was that the trappings of morality covered up a long tradition of cruelty, scapegoating, and subtly encouraging some members to act out in hurtful ways. One of the in-laws was covertly bullying to the wife and children I worked with. Not surprisingly, the wife whom the bully had selected as a victim was, herself, a survivor or early trauma. Eventually, hurtful words could not be ignored. When confronted, the bully said, “But it was only a joke!”

When his victim refused to pretend she was not hurt, all hell broke loose in the family system. The extended family rallied in denial around the cruel one, pressuring my couple to admit that they were “overreacting.” The extended family was protecting its illusion of virtue and goodness at the expense of truth. The result was a major rift and a great deal of emotional energy and pain on all sides as the family tried in vain to keep from breaking apart. My couple refused to shield the extended family from the consequences of their covert and largely unconscious support of cruelty.

In taking a stand and holding to their truth, the couple came under intense fire. To withstand the onslaught, they needed a good deal of inner peace and self-honesty. Above all, they needed not to try to fix the family. Otherwise, a true feud could have broken out, and would have done no one any good. The best they could do was to hold to their reality without trying to change the others.

 I have often been impressed an even surprised at the power of honesty expressed without anger. More than once, I have seen the sicker members, those who wanted to scapegoat the healthier ones, eventually coming back to heal rifts that have been in place for years. I have also seen the opposite, where an abuser, for example, even on his deathbed could not face the truth of what he had done.

Here are some lessons garnered from experience:

  • Never say never. Humans are always capable of surprising us with honesty and readiness to change. The need to repair family bonds is one of the strongest forces in us and can work miracles when they are least expected.
  • Outsiders have a lot of trouble accepting a rift in a family. “How can you treat a little old person like that.” They don’t realize the magnitude of the hurt that “nice” appearing people can perpetrate within a family.
  • People who have made a career of being dishonest, consciously or unconsciously, must face very powerful shame and guilt if they hope to become honest. Often this is simply more than they can do.
  • Holding family members accountable for the first time unleashes tremendous emotional energy and poses a real challenge to those who make the decision to do so.
  • In our culture, expressing anger will almost always lead to retaliation and will give the other side an excuse to feel justified. Words can't always be taken back and impulsively burning bridges may block future healing.
  • Investing in changing others who don’t want to change can be tantamount to giving away power and needs to be done with full awareness.
  • Protecting oneself is an important part of healthy living and may necessitate doing things that are unpopular with others.
  • A middle ground may be to speak the truth but refuse to argue. It is possible to hold one’s ground without trying to change others.

I wish you all joyous holidays and offer these thoughts in the hope that those who are capable of growing will do so with as little pain as possible.

Jeffery Smith, MD


Photo credit, chris-sabor-qlaot0VrqTM on Unsplash.

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