All of us have redefined life in one way or another in the past 12 months thanks to school closings, layoffs and public health mandates prompted by the global pandemic. Each cancelled event or restriction created a sense of loss in our inability to connect in relationships, complete important work or pursue the things we enjoy. Each disappointment built increasingly exaggerated energy until we were surprised by a surge of emotional intensity (frustration, sadness, hyperactivity) that was often unexpectedly directed at those closest to us.
Feelings arise spontaneously and considerably faster than thoughts, limiting our understanding of ourselves or our struggle until we have had time to reflect. Those closest to us often observe our emotions before we ourselves even realize the feelings motivating our downturned expression, frown or sheepish smile. Better understanding of ourselves and others offers an undeniable advantage to supporting the family relationships in our lives, relationships in which we often filter less and feel more freedom to let comments fly.
Our complicated bond with family comes in part from our lack of choice. We are bound to these people imprinted on our DNA, creating loyalty and security unlike any other relationship. In the movie Uncle Buck, neighbor Marcie alludes to this bond when she comments on Uncle Buck’s agreement to babysit his brother’s children: “You need a relative for an imposition of this size.” The movie also illustrates the dynamics of diverse personalities in each family that both enrich our relationships and provide a source of conflict.
Having shared in the most formative years of our life, our families know us better than anyone else. These truths inspire the clichés “blood is thicker” as well as “friends are the family you choose.” There are no guarantees that family members will have similar perspectives or communication styles or even approach their beliefs in the same way. At some level we all want to belong somewhere, or at the very least not be left out. But how do we inspire relationship growth or successfully navigate conflict?
A goal we’ll never master
The most direct answer will involve unconditional acceptance of ourselves and others as well as managing our words and actions to make sure we are not simply reacting with emotion. But this answer is more of a goal and a process that takes our whole lives to develop—and never truly master.
In the best of times, we can get along with almost anyone and find something to enjoy together. But under prolonged stress with dynamics of fear and pain—like a quarantine—we struggle to manage even ourselves and get pulled into conflict that neither of us could see coming.
These moments of unintended conflict grow like a fire through mutual misunderstandings and when left unresolved, resentment can follow. Much has been written over this past year about the impact of the pandemic on relationships, from increased divorce rates to tragic instances of abuse and domestic violence. These are the extremes that make the headlines, but there is much to be said about the nuances of our interactions that become amplified during times of stress.
We can see this in the irritability that most of us can relate to on some level. We see it in frustrations that make disappointments feel unbearable or prompt us to respond gruffly to the person that has the nerve to sit there, breathing in and out right next to us. They’re not doing anything wrong, but our frustration often attacks or blames the closest targets. This irritability usually signals we are “out of gas” and in need of either something simple like food or sleep or, in some cases, something more complicated like time alone, connection with loved ones or a sense of meaningful accomplishment.
There are also positive stories—examples of family game nights resurrected out of the lack of other options or more meaningful conversations during time spent together. The unique challenges brought by the pandemic have highlighted and amplified the dynamics in all of our families, spotlighting differences that lead to conflict as well as inspiring new commitments to one another. We have been forced to come to terms with our needs and to puzzle over conflicted motivations when one need competes with the other. One energetic, gregarious family member may want to play games until late at night while another family member who is quiet and reflective wonders why everyone is asking him so many questions.
Picture yourself several days into an extended visit with your family—the point at which you start to crave some alone time despite the fact that you love the people around you. Simple differences in preference take on a life all their own in debates over what game to play, which movie to watch, or what to eat, and in the best situations these conflicts end in compromise. More complicated examples involve heated discussions of politics, religion or recent public health decisions and make compromise far more difficult.
While some of us look forward to family gatherings as a chance to relax and feel appreciated by those closest to us, other family members are focused on protecting those they love and see the gathering as an opportunity to warn against threats in flawed political policies or impending doom of public health policies. And some of us just like to watch as others mix it up or have fun with the debates and get reactions out of others.
Like an elaborate meal with multiple courses, the diversity of our approach can add to the enjoyment, giving us each something to appreciate. But in times of distress our exaggerated emotional energy can lead us to demand the behavior we need most, essentially insisting that everyone eat our favorite course (imagine a table filled with platters of broccoli).
All of these behaviors are exaggerated expressions of our honest, unconscious needs, and we don’t need to apologize for these needs. Unfortunately, we sometimes need to apologize for our exaggerated behaviors that attempt to overtly or passively pressure others to act in the way we prefer, which usually sounds like “why won’t you just….” Dynamics of control are one of the most common sources of relationship conflict, and relationship conflict is one of the most commonly reported sources of psychological distress. This might be one of the reasons the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend has sold millions of copies with multiple versions for different family dynamics.
Family relationships present a moving target as we progress through life, almost like changing a tire while we are still driving. We see this when we try to parent our adolescent like we did when they were 8 years old or the awkward negotiation of house rules when our college student moves home after months of managing their own life.
We are free to experience the joy of these transitions when we accept the natural progression of our changing role and embrace the unique perspectives and motivations of those around us. My profession and my faith are probably most in sync when offering unconditional acceptance to those I meet. The few examples in which Jesus used force or harsh words were reserved for those who already claimed righteousness. To the rest of the world, he offered compassion and grace. We are faithful in showing his love when we do the same.
Matthew Gallagher is a licensed clinical professional counselor at Restoration Counseling & Consultation, P.A. in Wichita, Kan. He and his wife, Lori, attend First MB Church with their two daughters, Maddie and Gracie.