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Why Power-Play & Politics In Extended Families Can Sabotage Relationships

Understanding Extended Families

The funny thing about extended families …

… is that  the further you diverge from your nuclear family, the crazier things get. If you’ve ever been to a Christmas eve gathering with your maternal aunt complaining about the tacky gift she received from her sister-in-law last year, or your second cousin getting drunk and inappropriately boisterous, you know what I’m talking about.

Because of the emotional bond that holds our families together,  any conflict that occurs is usually loaded with past grievances and hurts. This is why holidays like thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are both the most dreaded and the most cherished part of our working year.

There is a sense of obligation to attend that holds us together. In a society where loneliness has risen to epidemic portions, mandatory family gatherings may be the only situation in which many of us put ourselves out there and step out of our comfort zone.

The lack of annoying people that you have to put up with, has eroded our sense of patience and ability to stay calm, committed and resilient in conflict situations. So naturally when there is conflict among extended family, our first gut instinct is to back away and cut that person off from our life.

Then when people get lonely, they look for superficial thrills, posting about their paragliding adventure on Facebook or taking constant selfies on instagram, just to feel like they are connected to the outside world, that they belong someplace, that they are part of a group. Do you see the irony in this?

I’m asking you today: to embrace the annoying people, the critics, the people that make you feel uncomfortable. A lot of times, this comes in the form of relatives and extended family. Nothing will inspire personal growth like an annoying aunt’s criticism. Nothing like grandma’s encouragement to help you get through growing pains with your toddler. Nothing like being compared to an obnoxiously successful cousin to inspire you to focus on advancing your career. In order to learn and grow, we must force ourselves to face uncomfortable situations. And nothing is more uncomfortable than a family gathering…

The role of power

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Power is the undercurrent that runs through all human conflict. The way human beings (or any other biological/animal  societies) function socially is through power play. We learn early and often about the different roles of power that people hold. We also learn that power is fluid. That it can be given and taken based on the perceptions of those around us. You either find where you fit in, or for the more ambitious, you seize power by manipulating or controlling other people. Power is just as universal as conflict in this regard.

If both power and conflict are universal, then it stands to reason that power lays and conflicts are inherent in the family dynamic. In fact, the family and/or extended family dynamic is there we first encounter  the ebb and flow of power and conflict. Some of us grow up feeling that our parents have wrongly manipulated us using threats, punishments and harsh words to discipline us.  This ‘betrayal’  can lead to destructive patterns of resolving conflict, often with one or both parties striving to regain the lost ‘power’ at any cost. This is a pattern of conflict resolution many of us carry beyond our birth families and into our own later lives.

Another thing to note about this power-play inherent to family conflicts is that it stems from a fundamental, two-pronged fear:

1. Those with more power than us can harm or control us, leaving us unable to defend ourselves.
2. Those with less power than us are just waiting to pounce on us at the first sign of weakness, making us more likely to fail.

Even in intimate and family situations, this fear-induced power-play is often hidden. As a society, we are also conditioned to value honesty, strength and courage, so anyone feeling these insecurities will naturally try to hide it. However, such covert insecurities can lead us further into destructive patterns of conflict resolution when everyone involved denies the problem, or worse, refuses to accept their role in creating the conflict, blaming others instead. This creates a vicious cycle of conflict, lack of  ownership and a deep, festering mistrust.

So what would you do to bridge conflicts and set the stage for positive resolution?

Two things are essential in order to answer this question:

1. Building solid alliances with your family mediators
2. Finding common interests

Forging strong relationships with the peace-keepers in your family will help you thwart conflicts and redirect the family’s focus on positive things early, often, even before the conflict starts. Also, finding common goals can help you survive a difficult family gathering by uniting you to solve a mutual problem rather than dispersing alliances and pushing everyone apart. For people you know you will have to repeatedly interact with, you can choose whether you want to make things even more miserable –  or find a way to co-exist.

And this choice will make all the difference between making your family gatherings a source of joy, or a source of heartache.

In our soon to be published e-book you will find tools to help you build alliances with your family members and find common interests which may help you ward off difficult situations. Stay tuned!

 

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The One Thing that Separates Loved Ones From Strangers

 

A few years ago I frequently took the GO train to downtown Toronto for work. It was mostly a pleasant ride. However, this one lady would push everyone in her frenzy to disembark every time the train pulled into Union Station. Mostly I stayed out of it but one day, she pushed me. I decided to call her out on it. Right there, on the platform, she started screaming out threats about pushing me down the stairs. A security guard caught my eye and came over. We explained the situation to him with several other passengers confirming that this lady had been very aggressive for the past few weeks. The security guard let her go with a warning. That lady was a total stranger. My only concern in this situation was to speak out against her aggression and do what I thought was “right” in defending myself. I did not care at all about whether our relationship would suffer as a result of my speaking out.

In contrast, when I moved to a new country, I saw a lot of things that were not “right”. Living with five other people, conflict was both healthy and inevitable. The difference was that I actually cared about my relationship with these people. So I had to force myself to look past huge hurdles like emotional extremes, power imbalances and a starkly different worldview and find a way to get along with them. I learned an important lesson – from siblings to parents to spouses to kids, our closest relationships are the trickiest to handle.

Strangers VS Loved Ones

When it comes to our closest relationships, unresolved conflicts can lead to an ongoing skirmishes and resentment. When this everyday stress becomes pervasive, it not only damages your relationship and self-esteem but also robs you of a potentially powerful support system (your loved ones). Conflict with people you care about is very different form conflict with people who are transient in your life like the cashier at your local drugstore or the rude lady pushing you on your commute to work.

Conflict with loved ones is trickier to handle because we usually DO care about our relationship enough to want to make it last. It is also likely that your affection for your loved one(s) compels you to keep their best interests in mind. So mutual trust and affection are essential to establishing and maintaining healthy long term relationships. However, in times of conflict, mutual understanding is the first facet of your relationship to be dismissed.

Impact of Different Conflict Management Styles

In a conflict situation with a loved one, your relationship will take the brunt of the damage especially if one of both of you are constantly minimizing the other person’s feelings. We have all fallen into patterns of aggression, lack of sensitivity or lack of courtesy in a domestic argument at one point or another. Unconsciously or even on purpose, we all tend to do it. However, not many of us are aware that these toxic patterns of interaction set up a dangerous power play dynamic – the effects of which can linger for a long time after the conflict has been resolved.

While displays of insensitivity, aggression and power struggles are damaging to your relationships with loved ones, avoidance of conflict is also equally, if not more damaging to your relationship. Always striving to smooth things over and please the other person inevitably breeds resentment if you are always bending over backwards for your loved one. Ironically, the family member you are trying to accommodate is simultaneously being conditioned to be selfish and insensitive to your preferences because you are always putting their needs ahead of yours. When this happens, the trust in your relationship is damaged as well as your own personal sense of self-worth. Rather than engaging in patterns of aggression or accommodation, an honest, respectful (both to yourself and to the other person) and non-manipulative approach can strengthen your relationship even in times of conflict.

However, in order to reach a respectful, honest and non-manipulative relationship dynamic, both parties need to do certain internal work first. Experts of often talk about open communication, negotiation and compromise but in order to act on these peace-keeping values, you need to create the emotional and mental space for them first. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of overcoming conflict with your loved ones:

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