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

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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!