Watching the Royal Wedding last year, I was astonished at how gleamingly perfect the whole affair was. Walking down the aisle as the whole World watched, the smiling faces of their regal relatives and friends glued to the couple’s every move and word, they must have felt like they were part of a fairy tale.
There was one thing missing. Her family. The media coverage of her father and siblings’ anger at her decision not to invite them to her wedding, documentaries about the feud and an upcoming tell-all book written by Megan’s sister reveal a deeply emotional conflict. It may seem sensational but the reality is families often have disagreements that end in long-lasting rifts.
Why do Families Argue?
Conflict is about a clash of interests and needs. Family relationships are based on close bonds of love and support which are reinforced by trust and respect. It is within this context that many of our basic needs are met. In fact, much of the way we perceive the world and interact with others is based on our experience of family relationships and whether those needs are met at a young age.
Functional, healthy family relationships understand that and communicate in a respectful way that prioritises the well-being and acceptance of each other. They may not always get it right but they do their best to make amends when things go wrong.
In many families, needs are not met in a satisfactory way. A parent may have displayed an obvious preference for the eldest child, leaving the other children feeling unloved or deficient in some way. Some siblings form early alliances against others and step-children may feel that they are not valued in the same way as their parents’ later offspring. These are just some examples which can lead to disagreements. Family members may not even be aware of the behaviours that have caused unconscious resentment.
For years, jealousy, resentment and fear can lay hidden until a life-changing event happens. The death of a parent may bring these feelings to the surface and manifest in disagreements over the will which some siblings may perceive as clear evidence that one child was loved more than another. Long-term illnesses can also test the reliability of family members and feelings of betrayal and disappointment might arise when relatives are not able to support you.
Weddings can also bring about an awareness of a lack of family support. I remember attending a wedding service of a friend whose father turned up forty-five minutes late so he couldn’t give her away. This was a sad reflection of a life-long paternal pattern. Siblings and extended family are forced to celebrate the happiness and success of those who they feel jealous of or contempt towards. Perhaps they have always been the focus of their parents’ attention and it feels unfair to see them gain more love and recognition.
Preventing Family Conflict
It’s difficult to give any concrete advice to Meghan because we only have newspaper reports and documentaries to rely on. However, here are some tips that might help to prevent things from escalating and to resolve conflict in the future:
- Acknowledge emotions. Family conflicts are usually highly emotive which makes sense when you consider how abandoned, rejected, betrayed and hurt they can make you feel. It’s important to acknowledge and express how you feel and to listen to how others feel.
- Anger is normal. We all feel it, there is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s a normal part of the human experience. Show yourself some empathy and others when suffering.
- Try to see your family as people with unfulfilled needs. Many family conflicts are about the need to be accepted, loved, valued and connected. Perhaps you have the same needs. If you feel comfortable, expressing yourself in terms of need fulfilment will help you to move away from blame and insults which prevent conflict resolution. This can also help you to view your relatives more compassionately as adults who, as children, were not given what they needed.
- Choose Your Battles. Sometimes, arguing with somebody will not bring anyone any benefits. This is an important consideration in any conflict and this question should be at the forefront of your mind, even if emotions are high.
- If all else fails, distance yourself. When family members are divulging secrets to newspapers and staging photos for cash, this might be difficult but if you don’t have that level of celebrity, don’t be afraid to take some time off from the conflict. This isn’t about avoiding the conflict forever but it is about gaining some perspective, calming down your own emotions and thinking of how you will communicate with the people involved. Cutting off toxic family members is an option and in some situations, a necessity for your own mental and emotional well-being.
Family conflicts are often the most complex and difficult to resolve. Entwined in this dynamic is our personal perception of our identity and our place in the World, our self-esteem and our conditioning which either limits us or allows us to shine. It’s easy to see how conflict in this context can lead to emotional turmoil and deep hurt. In some of the most difficult disputes, you might benefit from a mediator’s help with communication and exploring needs and emotions.