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When families break from within – how living in a conflict-prone family environment affects your life

How family conflict trickles down through generations, and children end up carrying backpacks of divisiveness and resentment into their future relationships

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When I was about 7 or 8, I remember the endless frustration I would feel when asking my father to explain the meaning of a word I’d never heard before. “Pick up the dictionary”, he would say, EVERY SINGLE TIME. Not once did he give me the answer. This behavior taught me two things that I carried with me throughout my teenage years and adult life: that I can find the answer to anything myself, but that, also, help won’t come, when I ask for it, from the person who mattered to me the most: the male figure in my life.

What happened was that, very early in my childhood, I decided it would be safer (save me the pain and suffering of hearing “no” when I’d ask for something) to just do things on my own, make my own choices, without ever “again” asking my father for his opinion, permission of help. Because I have seen, repeatedly, how that ended up. In a “no”.

Fast forward to 2020, and I am 40 years old, a vocational counselor and a family mediator, divorced, living with my two children in Bucharest. I have, of course, replicated the dynamic of my relationship with my father, in my marriage. Psychologists can confirm our subconscious mind will do anything to re-create the exact circumstances in our adult life, which we lived in early childhood, so that WE CAN HEAL THEM.

I am not a “victim” nor did I live in a high-conflict family environment. However, my father, who recently passed away, never fulfilled his own vocation, the passion he had in his youth, for film, music and photography. I remember him, nights on end, developing film in the kitchen. I wish now, that he would have invited me to learn how to do that, to share in his passion, but I realize that that had been his world outside of the family, not a part of it. It’s funny how things turn out, because I’ve discovered the world of photography myself, at age 39, and my first thought was to start exposing my 11-year old daughter to it, too. I really would like my children to know me for the person I am, to know my talents and my passions, to see it is safe to expose them to others. Even though my daughter doesn’t seem to be interested (yet) in the poetry I write or the photos I take, you can imagine the happiness I feel when she writes something introspective and profound, when she, too, feels the need to express what she feels, and is able to bring it outside of herself.

I have now experienced living in two families where conflict would be pretty much a recurrent state, because of several factors. All of these experiences have painfully educated me and brought me to the point of understanding what causes family conflict, and how people living in families that experience constant “negative” interactions among its members, can heal themselves, and then heal the behavioral pattern of the family’s youngest members . No person in these families I have been (and still am, regardless of legal civil status) a member of, is smarter or better than the other. But each had similarities in the communication profile of its members – some were aggressive and some were passive. Some were domineering and some were submissive. It became the only way of cohabitating in lack of a harmonious communication.

And in the end, it’s the words we say and the WAY we say it, to the people in our family, that create and maintain states of conflict. A state of conflict is one where fluid communication CEASES. John Gottman, the renowned American psychologist and family therapist, identified the four elements of communication between spouses (which can be applied to the relationships between parents and children or extended family members, too) that indicate divorce or separation:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt
  4. Stonewalling

By far, constant criticism will shut down communication between family members permanently. A child or a spouse receiving constant criticism from a parent or the other spouse, will either eventually leave that environment, or become such a passive partner, that no meaningful communication will take place between those family members. When we stop communicating, we shut our hearts, too. This in itself is the number one reason for divorce.

What is Criticism, really? It’s words, sometimes accompanied by gestures and other non-verbal communication. It is a learned behavior, like any other behavior, and the person in your family who is the constant critic has, for sure, experienced this behavior himself or herself. He or she knows exactly how it feels, that it hurts, but it is also a behavior pattern that is much more known than being patient, stopping oneself before saying words which hurt another’s feelings. The critic didn’t have the chance, in his or her childhood, to fully experience the behavior of a patient, loving parent. In a nutshell, he carried this backpack of behavior throughout his or her life, and, wherever he or she went, it was right there, always readily available in interactions.

Psychologists will unanimously say that we mimic, in our adult lives, the interactions we have seen happen between our parents, especially up until age 6. We search for the partners with whom we ultimately re-create the scenarios we have lived in our childhood. We do it not because we consciously want to suffer, but because we want to heal.

So many things matter, for example, when a new family is formed. Newlyweds hardly ever have their social and cultural (and behavioral) compatibility tested before marriage. Very few would probably end up marrying . Knowing each other well is only possible through constant interaction over an extended period of time. In fact, researchers looked at couples who lived a significant time together before considering marriage, and those who decided to marry without really cohabiting for a longer time. A much larger percentage of those who actually lived together, while boyfriend and girlfriend, decided not to marry in the end. Why? Because behaviors, patterns, roles we play within the “family setting”, become only apparent with proximity. Incompatibility of values and behaviors becomes obvious, too.

An important factor that exacerbates and perpetuates family conflict is related to each family member’s vocational path. When a parent is happy with his work, fulfilled by it, and considers it meaningful according to HIS own standards, he will be able to relax at home, and also encourage his children to look for their own vocation, do the work they love. He or she will be encouraging instead of critical, curious to observe his or her child’s true gifts, rather than being preoccupied with planning their future.

In the past, family life was seen as being more related to aspects like safety, material security and hierarchy. Children must obey their parents (including in whom they marry), who, in turn, put a roof over their heads. Those times are long gone, as are the times of families where members stay for fear they will lose companionship, for fear no other one person will choose them as a lifetime companion.

American Family scholar, Andrew J. Cherlin, has written about the transformation of the social institution of marriage to an individually-fulfilling experience rather than a security-based partnership or a “guarantee” of long-term companionship.

The reality of our 21st century is all about individualized experience. Educated people won’t buy products that aren’t suited to their individual needs. Young people won’t stay in jobs or careers they don’t feel are a good “fit” for their personality. Spouses no longer stay in marriages that ultimately do not provide opportunities for each person’s self-development, where roles are not flexible enough and negotiable enough, and where communication isn’t a right of two parties that are equal, and not in a hierarchical relationship.

What does your child have in his backpack?
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