How do we talk about problems that keep popping up when no one is willing to address the issues and navigate the conflict?
Your siblings haven’t spoken to each other in months because of a fight ages ago, but they don’t want to address it. “We don’t want to fight,” they say, so they leave it alone and don’t engage at all. Your parents don’t like the way you do something in your life and passive-aggressively mention it sideways, but when you bring it up to talk about it directly, they surreptitiously change the subject. You can tell your spouse is upset about something but when you ask them directly, they answer with a “It’s fine,” though you know from how they act, it is in fact, not fine. Your friend has a disproportionately large reaction to a small thing, and when you ask them about what’s really going on, they shut you down, tell you it’s nothing and to stop overreacting.
You see the conflict and the tension in yourself, in them, and between you. You want to address it, seeking to resolve the cyclical conflicts that keep haunting your family, but it’s hard to do when the other parties actively avoid them. What do you do?
A family system or a culture that is conflict-avoidant can benefit from figuring out the origins of the avoidance. Where was that anxiety fostered? How was it taught that conflict was bad and addressing it was not acceptable?
It may be from somewhere deep and old and rooted. The dysfunctional behavior may be rooted in the trauma of a patriarch or matriarch which has trickled down through the generations until avoidance was so normalized it was called ‘culture’ or ‘the way our family is’.
Conflict is neutral. How we respond determines if it’s negative or positive.
A wise counseling professor once taught me that “Conflict is human. If you put two people together in a space, conflict is inevitable. It’s how we respond to conflict that then determines whether it is ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ in impact. But conflict itself is neutral.”
When there’s unaddressed tension between people, it can build up into resentment or enmity. From Cain and Abel to Sarah and Hagar to Joseph and his brothers, the Old Testament biblical narratives are rife with stories of people handling conflict poorly, sometimes with deadly consequences. Hopefully, you won’t be causing any physical harm or mental distress to those with whom you have conflict.
When we experience conflict (remember, it’s neutral), it is often accompanied by discomfort, and our responses may be to flee, avoid, minimize, deny, or fight.
James reminds us “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
It’s an encouragement to monitor and be aware of our reactions, particularly in conflict situations.
Remember and remind yourself that conflict will not kill you. It may feel like it will end you because the discomfort of finding ourselves in discord with another is not pleasant.
But, coming out of the other side of naming conflict, addressing concerns, and seeking a resolution feels SO MUCH BETTER than sitting with the discomfort and ache of a unaddressed anger and unresolved anxiety. The pain of not doing is worse than the pain of doing. May we be quick to listen and slow to anger (James 1:19).
When a family refuses to address conflict, it may mean that, somewhere up the line and generations back, conflict was addressed poorly. Maybe bad things came from trying to address conflict. Maybe they were punished for naming something that bothered them. Maybe they saw a relationship disintegrate at a failed attempt at resolution. Maybe they were on the weak end of a power imbalance. Maybe they associate conflict with destruction, so pretending away conflict became the norm.
The belief and practice that conflict is bad and addressing it is dangerous can become so deeply imbedded in a culture the anxiety feels impossible to change. It can be difficult to change culture, but it is not impossible. It is actually very possible.
A culture changes, including family culture, when one person refuses to carry on with business as usual with dysfunctional behavior. When one person in the system resists and does not conform to the status quo, things have to shift. You have died to old ways of being that dealt death and harm to self and others and been invited into a newness of life (Romans 6:2-4).
This person who has found newness of life and a different way of being, bless their soul, will come up against all kinds of opposition, resistance, attack, and even ostracization from their very own family. When they recognize and name the truth of what is going on and dare to call it out, dare to live differently, this upsets the system. They will be seen as a trouble-maker, a pot-stirrer, and a disruptor. And it will be hurtful. It will be isolating. But remember that you’ve been given a vision for newness of life, one that is abundant. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Living in fear of conflict is not abundant living.
This takes us to boundary-setting and enacting and practicing your own values and holding those boundaries.
You may come from a system that normalizes sweeping conflict under the rug, pretending problems aren’t there, or being unable to address difficult things. Addressing the conflicts you experience is a way of enacting your values and holding onto your boundaries.
If the other parties won’t address the conflict or gaslight you for trying to do so, holding your boundaries may require expressing to them why you are addressing the conflict. Then, maintain that your experience is valid (they cannot gaslight you with lies about what you experienced), and describe how moving forward in relationship with them might look like for you so you can be well.
Clearly, gently, and firmly name the conflicts as you see them.
Be aware of the responses it will elicit, stay present and mindful of how your words will impact others. You’re not here to attack or accuse, but to address a problem that is happening and seek a way forward toward a healthy resolution (Matthew 18:15).
Keep being willing to show up to address problems when they involve you. You have to discern and decide what ways you can continue with family or people who don’t want to address difficult things. When something involves you and is within your realm of influence, you can bring your whole, calm, assertive self. You can share where you see a problem and how you hope to be able to move forward together toward a resolution.
Be open. Someone might join you. If you feel the discomfort and pain of all the pretending and avoiding, it’s likely someone else in your family or the system feels it too. You addressing things might be the catalyst others need to step up and name things as they are, too.
You have to keep showing up to do your own work of addressing conflicts, no matter the discomfort you feel. Healing and working toward resolution, and living as a whole human being, not disintegrated by avoidance and denial of difficult things is important and good.
Respect where people are at if they cannot or are not yet ready to address conflicts. But do not allow others to gaslight you or make you feel crazy for wanting to move toward wholeness and health. You are not crazy. Maintain your boundaries. And encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Have hope there is a way forward, even if it seems unclear at the moment.
Take your concerns about your family’s conflict-avoidance into the presence of God in prayer and contemplation. Ask for God’s guidance and wisdom in how to approach your loved ones stuck in a cycle of avoiding problematic or painful things. Ask for wisdom in knowing which conflicts to address in which season.
Talk with a wise person outside of your family system who is not involved about your experience. It helps to articulate our experience to another person, and someone who is not embroiled in the situation like we are. Seek their counsel. A wise person or professional counselor can assist you in responding well to conflicts and guide you in practicing healthy conflict-resolution.
Choose where you want to go in to address something, if something is worth it, and if it will help. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t - be wise in discerning which is which.
God walks with us as we face challenging situations. God equips us with wisdom and strength to face the difficulties in life. Conflict can provide us with opportunities to grow and cultivate richer and deeper relationships. Take a step of faith and move toward healing your relationships.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster