Rocking the Boat

Rocking the Boat: Resolving Family Conflict

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s is on resolving family conflict, and is a reprint from 2007.

We’re a week past Christmas now and as we take down those lights and dismantle the tree so we can sit in the living room again many of us are breathing a sigh of relief. We made it through a family dinner without any fights! Hallelujah and pass down that Christmas angel.

Families often pride themselves on the absence of conflict, as if not fighting means that we’re close. But I wonder, instead, if the opposite is actually the case. Think about it this way: in order to have a close relationship with someone, you have to be sharing your true self, which the other person then has to accept. And, of course, this sharing goes both ways. Sitting in a room together as you chat about the weather and the price of gas and did you see the colour Aunt Ruth dyed her hair? is not sharing yourself. It’s passing time. And the more we engage in this kind of surface relationship with people with whom we should have more intimacy, the more we build walls between us. It may buy us time, it doesn’t buy us peace. That’s because real peace isn’t not fighting—remember the Cold War?—it’s knowing someone and accepting them anyway.

Serious as this problem may be with extended family, it’s even more grave with our immediate family. We don’t confront our spouse on things that we consider serious, because we’re scared of the reaction. Instead, we bottle it up, pretend nothing’s wrong, and add more bricks to that wall. But is this really what we want for our relationships? If we want true intimacy, we’re going to have to share what’s in our hearts, what’s bothering us, even secrets that we’re afraid may cause that boat to keel over. There’s little lonelier than sharing your life with someone who doesn’t even know you.

Spouses, though, aren’t the only ones we hide from. How many of us really fight for that relationship with our kids, especially our teens? Too often we allow them to push us away, because we’re afraid that if we confront them, we’ll find out how alienated they really feel from us, or we’ll push them away even farther. We’d rather have the semblance of a relationship than acknowledge that there are severe problems. But how can we deal with those problems unless we name them? And most children, though they may not admit it, appreciate being fought for, rather than being allowed to do anything and everything just so you don’t have conflict.

Of course, some of us aren’t in the position to open up and share what we’re thinking and feeling. The relationship itself seems so fragile that sharing may be the final straw. When you’re afraid the person may bolt, opening yourself up just doesn’t seem worth it. But I wonder if settling for the shell of a relationship is really the better course? Only you can be the judge of that, and waiting for the right time to deal with something big may be appropriate. But putting something off indefinitely won’t build you the kind of relationship that your heart dreams about. Sometimes we need to go through a period of conflict in order to get to the other side. Taking bricks down is messy, but think about how wonderful it will look later on.

Nevertheless, while rocking the boat may be necessary, it shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself. We want intimacy, not just fights! So as you share, remember that you don’t get extra points for being loud or angry or making the other person look like a fool. That’s not removing bricks; that’s adding more. So calm yourself down, search your heart, and figure out what you want. Then decide how you’re going to get there. Letting things go on as they always have isn’t necessarily going to help. It’s going to build more walls. And then, who will be there to help you tear them down?

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Comments

  1. I know you can’t say this because you are writing for a secular newspaper, but asking God for wisdom is the most important thing. He tells us simply to ask and He will provide answers especially concerning relationships with others since He created us for relationships. God wants us to pursue peace with all men but He also commands us to rebuke, exhort, and admonish each other. Finding the way to do that in a godly way takes wisdom from God!
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  2. Sharing self vs passing the time… You just articulated something I could never put my nose on with respect to a certain relationship of mine (and more). Thank you!
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  3. I burst our laughing when I read this because my family of origin has a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of referring to the first few hours that we are together for any holiday or vacation–re-entry or happy annual family fight day. Usually it isn’t too acrimonious and clears the way for a lot of deeper discussions and better enjoyment of each others’ company. We sibs in particular are quite close and more so after a nice, vigorous discussion. I know that this doesn’t work for most people though.

  4. Oh so true! I sat and listened during the holidays as my mom brought up something that’s been upsetting her about my sibling…she’s been stewing for over a decade and my sibling had no idea! When the conversation went silent (and I knew the issue was about to be shelved, not resolved) I stepped out on a limb and asked…so, are we going to discuss this and come to a solution? To which my mom replied there is no solution. Then got up and left. So, that paved the way for my sibling and I to do more than pass the time…which we had been doing up until then. Since I’m a middle child and it literally pains me when people don’t get along, it was very difficult, but I have learned the value of getting past what’s comfortable and easy to get to the good stuff. Here’s hoping your article will prompt more people to do more than just ‘pass the time’!

  5. learning is fun! says:

    Hi, folks – and Happy New Year!

    This post is a pretty accurate reflection of how things sometimes NEED to be, both in terms of interpersonal relationships, and in terms of our walk with God. For those here that are Canadian (and likely those stateside as well), we have a contractor / TV show host named Mike Holmes, who specializes in construction problems that have simply gone beyond the ability of the homeowner to deal with – contractors that have left them high and dry, or structural problems that are far beyond ‘dangerous.’ I find it interesting that Holmes often doesn’t even TRY to ‘fix’ things. After examining them, he comes to the conclusion that ‘It’s all gotta come down’ (his now-famous tag line). In other words, trying to find some sort of patch for the problem will either be woefully inadequate, or even pointless, and would end up with the problem reappearing, possibly worse than it is now. Instead, the solution, as painful as it might be, is to strip the problem away, layer by layer, until rebuilding is possible, and they can be made safe, and good.

    Sometimes we need to do this with relationships. Yes, it’s going to hurt to rip the bandaid off, but if the result will be a more effective and complete healing process, it’ll be worth it in the end.

  6. I was blessed with wonderful in-laws and we got on well together. My wife got on well with my mum, my dad having died years before. We always had a great time at Christmas and whenever else we met.

  7. This is an interesting point. I grew up in a home where there was never an argument, there was also never much of anything else said either. My Husband grew up in a home where there was constant arguing and fighting, some times it got abusive. Guess who is now divorced and who is still together. Yes my parents are the divorced ones, my in laws still do not have a perfect marriage but are still together.

  8. This is a fabulous article and just can’t be any truer. I live my life like this everyday. My husband and I are in counseling for this very thing. Men have such a hard time with intimacy it just blows my mind. Thank you so much for your insight. I say this all the time but may be easier for him to read. I will also share with my kids.

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