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Family Dynamics

4 Ways You Might Make Family Fights Worse

Are difficult family members 100% responsible for family fights? Not quite.

Key points

  • When we expect others to change after they've made it clear they will not, that's on us.
  • When we take the bait in conversations we expect, that's on us.
  • When we show up as an outdated version of ourselves, that's on us.
Askar Abayev / Pexels
Source: Askar Abayev / Pexels

Family dysfunction is at the heart of my clinical work. And so I often hear tales of “insufferable” family members who make every gathering, worse. And while difficult family members are a given, it also helps to take a look in the mirror and notice how you may be contributing to unhealthy relational dynamics.

1. Take the Bait: To prepare for tough situations, some say “expect the unexpected.” But with family members, it is more apt to say “expect the expected.” Family members show up the same way over and over unless they make an intentional decision to change. That can look like family members baiting their relatives into political debates, starting uncomfortable conversations, or making inflammatory comments. None of this is pleasant to be around. It is, however, expected. When you have a family member who acts this way, it is your job not to take the bait. This is no easy task. Not taking the bait requires planning and intentionality and may involve setting a boundary in advance, walking away when tension rises, making a joke, or finding a new way to stop the conversation. But when you take the bait, you perpetuate the old, tired dynamic.

2. Expect People to Change: Relatedly, When a family member makes it clear that they have no interest or intention of changing, believe them. Therapist and writer Nedra Glover Tawwab likes to say that instead of expecting people to change, change what you expect. When you show up to a family fight ready for a more elevated or mature version of a person who has shown no interest or capacity for change, you set yourself up for disappointment. You may hope that this time will be different because it feels painful to let go of the fantasy of improvement. But you do yourself a kindness to see your family members as they are and adapt to that reality.

3. Re-Enact Old Roles: In some family arguments, particularly those between adult children and parents, all parties may regress. Instead of showing up as fully grown adults, adult children revert to young versions of themselves, less equipped to have mature conversations, instead leaning on old, underdeveloped coping mechanisms. Parents, too, may find themselves viewing their adult child as a younger version of themselves, leading them to speak in tones more relevant to a 15-year-old than a 35-year-old. All of this makes fights worse because it means not showing up as your best self. Showing up as the adult you is surprisingly hard, but it allows every person involved to approach the issue from the present, not the past.

4. Fail to Reflect: When family fights become familiar and repetitive, it is time to reflect on what is happening and how you contribute to it. Those who fail to reflect, react. Those who intentionally reflect, respond intentionally instead. Reflection allows you to see things for how they are, make decisions about how to spend time with family members, plan for how to show up and cope with tough moments, and regain a sense of agency in chaotic scenarios.

Nobody likes to imagine that they have a role in an argument. It is easier to believe that an interaction is entirely somebody else’s responsibility. But looking at your own contribution equips you to change the dynamic by learning new steps and applying new skills.

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