Many families come into therapy with a few common goals: To better their relationships as a unit, to feel validation in their experiences, and to learn how to “forgive the past.” While these goals may appear simple initially, it usually requires rewiring how family members think of each other and how they want to hold onto the past.
In the beginning stages, I often find that families start with the misconception that their therapist is the ultimate judge and jury that decides who is “right” and “wrong.” As such, each family member articulates the defining moments that have frustrated or brought them to therapy. They often identify a list of supporting facts that will “prove their innocence beyond reasonable doubt” so they can avoid being the object of family therapy.
What is “the object” in family therapy?
The “object” is usually the identified person causing the most disruption within the family unit. They can be a source of conflict, and the transitions in their life often require much support from the family. Usually, a few family members can agree on who this is. Many don’t realize that different times and situations can make each person “the object,” meaning there are no angels or permanent roles, and everyone faces challenges. I mention this here in this blog because it levels the playing field for all members; in family therapy, each person’s point of view is valid; there is no hierarchy, just different roles.
The dreadful C- word: Conflict
The first thing to know about conflict is that IT IS NORMAL and NECESSARY. Conflict does not mean the end of a relationship or that if you do something to hurt someone else, you are all bad and need punishment. Conflict is another means of communication that allows individuals to talk about their feelings to feel heard and understood and that they matter. Conflict can be an open door to better communication and a closer relationship; it all comes down to the presentation and how it is processed.
The history of conflict: From a young age, many children’s first experience around conflict is that if reprimanded, this makes us “bad kids.” Depending on family values, the criteria of what makes for a good or bad kid can change depending on culture, social norms within the family, and gender, to name a few. How conflict happens within a family also plays a significant role; Did your parents yell, spank, or ignore you if you made a mistake? Or did consequences snowball if you made more than one mistake? If so, this might have taught you to lie or minimize conflict to avoid the unpleasantness of the result. This behavior molds our relationships with family over time; it can prevent more open and honest communication and cause us to internalize what making mistakes means about us (and others) as people. If a parent doesn’t handle conflict well, children observe this behavior and internalize that too. If parents argue and fight, this can cause sensitivities in how a person interprets the effect of conflict. In adulthood, it is common to unlearn some behaviors we take from childhood to develop a more prosperous relationship with our parents as adults.
Changing how we interact with conflict in Family dynamics
Active Listening: Is the person receiving the message you are sending?
One of the first significant steps to effective communication is to ensure that the person understands what you mean and how you mean it when expressing yourself. Active listening BEFORE coming up with a response allows the person to process better what the other person is feeling to understand their perspective. Active listening involves repeating what was heard and asking for clarification if necessary.
TIP: Do not assume you know a message’s exact tone or underlying sarcasm. Inferences can take us off the path; ask questions before responding based on assumptions!
Lead with Respect: How is anger expressed?
When angry, some common pitfalls in communication can include cursing, yelling, property destruction, and cognitive distortions. These behaviors and unhelpful thinking methods can disrupt communication together in conflict because they tend to trigger the other person’s fight or flight response (also known as amygdala hijacking). When emotionally flooded, they are more likely to respond with an ineffective response or a cognitive distortion that inflames a problem instead of diffusing it.
TIP: When feeling angry, take space and write it down and then edit. When the urge to yell or curse comes up, consider the goal of your message. Is there a way to effectively communicate your emotions with respect? Can you get your point across without inflammatory language?
History of assumptions: Is your memory of mistakes keeping you from seeing what has changed?
Most clients coming into family therapy bring a lifetime of observed behavior patterns and perspectives of their families. Recounting history is often a method to ensure their feelings are valid. Entering family therapy assumes that despite history, we are operating in the here and now and making strides to improve. Emotions are acceptable without a paper trail of history, and ALL members can reserve the right to grow and change from the past. Part of processing includes finding the line between forgiveness and requiring “penance” to move on.
TIP: As we unlearn and rebuild a lifetime of a family relationship, trust must be re-established. People will make mistakes, and only some things will change at once. Take note of small changes; they become significant changes. Regressions also happen when triggered. Give each other grace.
Observations and changing perspective: What information is missing?
As we unravel conflict in therapy and talk it out, we often learn several things we couldn’t be aware of before. When each member has the can the blanks of a conflict, it offers perspective; it shifts the thinking from: “How could they do this to me?!” to “They didn’t do it to me, but I was affected by it.” The shift in understanding allows families to see that everyone is on the same team and not intentionally looking to cause harm.
TIP: When in doubt, check your observable facts! Ask questions and then voice concerns. It is all of you against the problem, not every man for themselves.
Getting started with family therapy can bring a lot of apprehension. It takes a great deal of patience and courage for a family to begin the process of healing. If, in reading this blog, you found that this resonated with your family dynamic, therapy might be an excellent option to help you navigate conflict and attach a more positive interpretation to it.