A conflict between two family members frequently entangles others (triangling). Strong emotional ties and investment in the outcome make it difficult for the others to stay out of the skirmish. A triangle is formed when
noninvolved family members are brought into a conflict to help one member gain power. This side-taking complicates the situation since the matter of the third party’s loyalty now intensifies the relationship dispute.
A Destructive Approach to Conflict: Denial While conflict is neither good nor bad, the way in which it is handled can
be destructive or constructive. Denying or failing to deal with conflict is invariably destructive to family relationships. Denial of conflict is like sweeping dirt under a rug. It only appears to eliminate the problem; it does nothing about the behavior that brought about the conflict in the first place. The problem, like the addictive use of drugs, intensifies because the conflict- producing behavior never changes. Denial is destructive on not only the relational level but also the personal level, since those who deny the conflict are also forced to deny their feelings of hurt, disappointment, and anger.
Family members can deny conflict in several ways. One common method is displacement: a family member angered or disturbed by another conveniently vents frustrations on a third member. Powerful family members use displacement to take out their frustrations on the less powerful. The younger members on the receiving end often come to the mistaken belief that they are bad and deserve punishment.
Another common form of denial in the family is disengagement. In this case, family members avoid conflict by sidestepping sensitive and controversial issues. Disengagement might be initiated by a burst of anger followed by withdrawal, such as when a husband gets mad at his wife, storms out of the house, and drives away in the car, only to return two hours later as if nothing had happened. The husband and the wife never talk about what caused the blowup, and together they collude in the cover-up. Disengagement serves as a barrier to growth in the relationship, and the unresolved conflict may well lead to a severe crisis later.
A more subtle form of denial is disqualification, a quick discounting of one’s angry reaction. A mother may get mad at her children only to disqualify the legitimacy of her angry feelings by reasoning that she would not have gotten mad if she had slept better the night before. Disqualifiers tend to cover up angry emotions rather than admit them. Like the other forms of denial, disqualification is a barrier to growth and destructive to family relationships.
Constructive Approaches The first step in dealing constructively with conflict is to admit that the
conflict exists. The second step is to decide how to handle the conflict. We will present some basic rules and then discuss conflict resolution and conflict management.
IDENTIFY THE ISSUE
The first rule of dealing constructively with conflict is to identify the real issue. This can be a very difficult task because most family conflicts involve more than a single issue. It is also likely that family members will differ as to what the central issue really is. Little progress can be made until each person involved knows how the others define the conflict. When there are multiple issues, the first tasks are to agree on which one to tackle first and to try to understand how they are all interrelated.
STICK TO THE ISSUE
Once conversation has begun, it is essential to stick to the issue. This may be hard to do, especially when someone brings up a related point that distracts. Tangential issues serve to sidetrack the major issues and only muddy the water, forestalling resolution of the problem.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE
When the family gathers to work out a conflict, it is important that everyone is given the opportunity to participate. The group has come together to listen to each member and to try to understand one another’s involvement in the conflict. Each person needs to ask how he or she is contributing to the problem and what can be done individually and collectively to solve it.
If time is available and if emotional intensity is low, some conflicts can be constructively resolved when they arise. In most cases, however, family members need a period for cooling off and must schedule a time for talking that is mutually convenient for everyone involved. If a sixteen-year-old arrives home at midnight, one hour past curfew, the parents would be well advised to wait to deal with the issue until the next day, for they will be tired and angry. This plan accounts for emotional overload and how individuals process emotions, allowing for purposeful and honest communication without
the need for defensiveness or disrespect. Then, choose a neutral place, free of interruptions, to resolve the issues. It should be a place where all members feel safe and on an equal footing. Every effort needs to be made to take each family member seriously. Everyone has a valid point and should be given a space to express their point of view, even young children. Parents need to be in charge to see that these rules are followed.
AFFIRM THE POSITIVES
The discussion will proceed much more smoothly if one begins by offering positive affirmation. For example, Manuel has become forgetful about clearing his plate after dinner. However, he has been very good recently about doing his homework without parental prompting. Manuel’s parents could directly confront his failure to complete his after-dinner chore: “Manuel, you have not done you dinner chore for the past three days.” This is usually where parents give a short lecture on how hard mom works to prepare the meal and how much the parents sacrifice to give Manuel and his sisters a good home. Approaching Manuel in a confrontational manner like this increases anger and blame. But if Manuel’s parents begin with a positive affirmation about how they have appreciated his responsibility with his homework, this can help him hear the feedback about his after-dinner chore. There is no need to berate him for the infraction of the rule, and the positive stroke may well elicit a positive feeling and response.
LEAVE PAST ISSUES IN THE PAST
In the heat of an argument, it is tempting to dredge up past hurts and complaints. Some people have a habit of storing up anger and frustrations, and they are ready to dump them out when conflict occurs. The experience of being dumped on is devastating and will, in fact, negate any progress toward conflict resolution.
AVOID ATTACKING BEHAVIORS
Name-calling is a sure way to antagonize another person and destroy any chance of reasonable discussion. Examples include calling another person stupid, ignorant, silly, dumb, square, childish, spoiled, compulsive, conceited, or some other derogatory adjective. Using such labels traps
people in categories from which they cannot escape. It is disrespectful and prohibits any serious efforts to deal with conflict.
Blaming or accusing others is off-putting. Pointing the finger at others is often a way to avoid personal involvement. Even asking others to vindicate themselves is counterproductive because more often than not, asking “Why did you do it?” is really an attempt to place blame. Verbal attacks on areas of personal sensitivity are never warranted. Each of us has emotionally vulnerable areas, and family members generally know one another’s sensitive areas. For example, referring to someone’s weight or stinginess is a personal attack. Ridiculing or laughing at another family member sends the message that the other’s opinion is not worth considering.
AVOID PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS
Passive-aggressive behavior, which aims at getting back at another person in indirect, devious ways, is one of the more effective methods of sabotaging a relationship. Picture a Sunday morning, as Mom and Dad are trying to hurry family members so they won’t be late for church. Dad has managed to herd everyone to the car except Greg, who happens to be mad at his parents. In response to Dad’s call, “Hurry up or you will make all of us late!,” Greg very slowly walks to the car, placing one foot in front of the other as if they were made of lead. This is an example of passive aggressiveness—denying one’s anger while acting it out in an indirect manner.
Another form of passive-aggressive behavior is feigning weakness, inability, or neediness in order to have an advantage over others. It is a maneuver to play the “poor me” position to get sympathy rather than to take a responsible stance in an argument. If one cannot express anger openly, no resolution is possible, and the anger continues to be acted out in passive ways. The person who behaves in this manner wields a great deal of control in the family.
Suppose thirteen-year-old Kathy and fifteen-year-old Chad are arguing at the supper table. Kathy turns to her mother for support: “Isn’t that so, Mom?” She has just attempted to entangle her mother in the argument she is having with her brother. If the mother is wise, she will not allow herself to be drawn into the argument. It is a common practice for two people who are fighting to
attempt to bring in a third party to gain an advantage in the argument. In some homes, this has developed into a fine art that thoroughly disrupts the family.
A Biblical Perspective on Anger It is important to remember that the Bible does not say that anger is a sin.
Ephesians 4:26 reads, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” There are two ways, however, in which our anger can become sin. First, if we deny our anger or hold it in, never expressing it, the anger will smolder and build within us. This allows the anger to become sin. Unexpressed anger can lead to resentment, hate, and revenge. Second, anger becomes sin when expressed in abusive ways, either verbally or physically. Physical abuse is, without doubt, sinful behavior. But verbal abuse is also psychologically damaging and sinful. The familiar saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is clearly not true, for abusive words certainly do hurt. The book of James warns that although the tongue is small, its offenses can have disastrous consequences (James 3:1– 12).
When anger twists into sin, it is a corruption of the heart. In the Ten Commandments, we read, “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). Jesus transforms this command from a behavioral matter to one of the heart when he teaches about anger: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:21–22). The emphasis here is on acting out of hatred or spite and disrespecting another who is made in God’s image (DeYoung 2018).
In our differentiation in Christ (DifC) model, authentically living out one’s identity is a core feature of our relationships. Conflict is going to occur. However, having one’s identity based in one’s relationship with God through Christ forms the basis of values-based engagement. Assertiveness and awareness of one’s needs, one’s sins, and one’s motivation to act in a Christlike manner inform how relationships function. This reflects the conflict-management literature, which emphasizes assertiveness and concern with individual well-being. Having accepted Christ’s forgiveness of our sin, we relate to others in grace and forgiveness. This notion of grace is reflected in the role of empathy and understanding the other in conflict-management
literature. DifC facilitates working together based on the desire to live authentic, gracious, Christ-centered relationships. Finally, DifC allows us to know and be known in more and more intimate ways as conflict management reveals our desires (good and bad) and teaches us about the other. Respectful collaboration and learning more about the other are keys to conflict resolution and management.
Conflict Resolution Research on conflic