On dealing with conflict within a family

I have had my fair share of problems and conflict within my family, especially with my parents.  I have probably made every mistake there is to make.  What follows are the lessons I have learned from these mistakes.  I share them in the hope that others do not make the same mistakes I have.  All of us have parents and all of us have families.  Even those who have no family have Sangha, and Sangha is our spiritual family.  Everything presented below is equally applicable to our spiritual families as to our biological families

As a parent I don’t help my kids if I shelter them from the reality of the world as it is, including conflicts within the family.  Rather I should view the inevitable problems that arise as a “teaching moment” to explain how one deals with such problems when they do arise.  Our job as parents is to prepare our kids to operate in the world (professionally and emotionally) on their own.  If they never learn how to deal with things as a kid, it will be even harder for them to deal with conflict as an adult.  If we do not prepare our kid now, they will lack the emotional maturity necessary to deal with life.  It is true, nobody wants problems and all of us wish no problems ever occured, but running away from problems or pretending they are not there does not make them go away.  Problems are like cancer, if we don’t treat them, they will fester, spread and become even worse.

The central lesson I think I have learned so far in life is this:  “when you see qualities in others, emulate them; when you see faults in others, learn from their mistakes.”  If one adopts such an outlook, then it doesn’t matter what other people are doing, we grow as a person regardless.  As we go through life and observe other people doing all sorts of different things, our job is to do exactly this.

We should take the time to consider how fortunate we are to have many good examples of people in our family with many good qualities.  It is wrong to let our anger about perceived harm blind us to seeing the many good qualities others possess.  Sure, none of the people in our family are perfect and all of them have their own little foibles.  None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes.  But we shouldn’t let people’s mistakes blind us to their many good qualities.  Rather, we should take the time to appreciate their good qualities and resolve to emulate their good qualities ourselves.

But despite all of this, the reality is conflict will sometimes occur, even within the best families.  Our job is to learn how to deal with it and respond to it in a constructive way.

So what are some of the main causes of conflict within a family?

First is childhood rebellion taken too far.  Every child’s identity is shaped in part by a rejection or rebellion against the perceived failings and mistakes of their parents. This is entirely normal and there is nothing wrong with it.  Parents may not like it because they don’t like to admit their mistakes, but one of the first things we realize when we become a parent ourself is just how hard it is to be a good parent.  Nothing in life prepares us for it.  So yes, our parents will make mistakes – many mistakes.  And our job as kids is to learn from their mistakes and to not repeat them when you become parents ourselves.  If we all do this, generation after generation, there is hope that our family will grow stronger and stronger and we will become a great family.  But as children (even as adult children) we need to be careful to not take this rebellion too far where we also reject all of the good qualities our parents embody.  It is true, we need to develop our own opinion and views about life, but our views cannot just be a rejection of everything our parents think.  If it is, then we actually haven’t developed our own views at all, rather we are still allowing our parents to define our views in our rejection of them.  Our parents do get some things right, in fact, they generally get most things right.  Our job as kids is to take the good, learn from their mistakes and keep an open mind that we might just be wrong in thinking what they have done is mistaken.  Some things that were seen to be mistakes when we were a kid are not seen that way when we ourselves become a parent.  Same is no doubt true when we make the transition to being grandparents.  But some other things do continue to be seen as mistakes and when we are parents (or grandparents), we should try to not repeat those same mistakes ourselves.

Second, we should be grateful for what those in our family do do for us, not be resentful about what they don’t do.  Virtually all family conflicts stem from projecting expectations onto the other person about what they should be doing, then getting upset at them when they fail to live up to our expectations.  Only problems come from approaching family relations in this way.  We need to accept others for who they are, not judge them for all of the different ways we feel they fall short.  When we are not grateful for what people do give, then they come to resent their giving and they give less.  If we get upset at them for not living up to our expectations, then even if they start doing so they will not be doing so from their own side because they want to, but will instead be doing so out of some feeling of obligation, guilt or to avoid us getting angry at them.  So their extra action never leaves us feeling satisfied.  If truth be told, it is much better to expect absolutely nothing from others.  If we expect a lot and they give a little, we will feel disappointed.  If we expect nothing and they give a little, we will be extremely grateful.  It all depends on our expectations.  Nobody owes us anything.  We should be grateful for everything.

Third is exaggeration and inappropriate attention.  Every problem between any two people involves lots and lots of exaggeration.  There might be some small problem, but our mind quickly exaggerates the perceived harm completely out of proportion until it becomes this giant and awful thing which bears no resemblance to what actually happened.  We do this towards others, others do this towards us.  Until we stop exaggerating, we will never deal with the problem as it is.  Likewise, we need to be careful to not have inappropriate attention.  If we focus 99% of our attention on 1% of the problem, it will seem like there are 99% problems between us.  Our inappropriate attention will crowd out seeing all of the good, and we will quickly lose it.  We need to keep things in perspective, otherwise we risk losing it all over insignificant problems.

Fourth, don’t accept something from somebody who is not happy to give that thing.  Doing so just breeds resentment.  Sometimes people give not because they want to, but because they feel like they have to (for whatever reason).  Externally, they might not show the slightest trace that they are unhappy to give, but internally they are bitter about the fact they are having to do so and then they become resentful against those they perceive to be mooching off of them.  If somebody perceives us as mooching off of them for taking what they offer, they will grow increasingly bitter about it over time and it introduces all sorts of problems in the relationship.  That is why it is much better to not accept something from somebody who is not happy to give that thing.  In such a case, if w have the financial means of affording the thing ourself, we should provide it for ourself.  If we can’t afford to provide it for ourself, then we quite simply go without that thing.  My grandfather said, “if you can’t afford it, you don’t need it.”  I fully agree.

Fifth, we shouldn’t be jealous of our siblings for what we perceive to be a better relationship with the parent.  If truth be told, I have spent my whole life jealous of the relationship my father has with my brother.  It has always been better than the one I have had with him.  There is no end to how much I have resented my and brother for this.  Even now, I see the investment my father puts into his relationship with my brother’s children compared to what he invests in his relationship with my children, and I likewise become jealous.  This was/is 100% wrong of me.  The correct reaction is to be happy for others and for the relationship they are able to forge together.  Being jealous always makes things worse and leaves us miserable.  It is the most useless emotion there is.

So how should we deal with the mistakes of people within the family?  First, it must be said that unlike friends, family is forever.  Permanent breakdown of the relationship is not an option.  Even in the biggest fights, we should always work towards a resolution, but it has to be an honest one.  We can’t shove things under the carpet (more on that below).  We should always try keep the door open, but we shouldn’t do other people’s work for them.  If they don’t do their own work from their own side, there won’t be any real resolution of the issues, there will just be everyone pretending they are not there.  If the other person chooses to not do their work to love us despite our mistakes, at least from our side we do our work to love them despite their mistakes.  But loving them despite their mistakes and cooperating with their dysfunction are two different things.  We can love them and not cooperate with their dysfunction.  This is the fundamental lesson Ghandi taught in this world.

When dealing with people who make mistakes, we need to make a distinction between those who are trying to change and those who are not.  There is a fundamental difference between somebody who refuses to admit their mistakes and always blames others and somebody who admits their mistakes, apologizes for them and tries to do better.  The first person will never change.  With such a person, if their faults are minor, we should overlook them in order to preserve the good.  With such a person, if the dynamic between us and them has become poisonous, it is better to walk away and pray.  Continuing to try engage in an unhealthy dynamic just feeds it and makes it harder to get out of it later.  If somebody is not interested in making peace, but instead will just use every exchange as another opportunity to express their anger and say hurtful things, it is better to walk away, pray and hope time heals all wounds.  Oftentimes, our only choice with such people is to redefine the parameters of the relationship, usually making it confined to those areas where problems are unlikely to occur.  If they are not capable of doing so, but insist on allowing the problems to spill over into the good parts of the relationship, then there is nothing we can do but walk away and pray.  It goes without saying, if the situation is abusive, such as my cousin whose ex-husband beat her, then the only solution is to get out.  We do not help other people by allowing them to abuse us.  But we also shouldn’t cry abuse when it is not actually abusive.  Doing so cheapens the term.  It is like when people compare current behavior to Nazi Germany.  The Nazis were singularly evil and their acts unmatched in their awfulness.  We don’t make such claims unless they are warranted.

The second type of person is someone who is trying to change.  With them, we should show patience and acceptance.  When their faults are minor, we should overlook them as before with the person unwilling to change.  When their faults or mistakes are major, we shouldn’t cooperate with the dysfunction (for example giving into threats or shoving things under the carpet just to pretend everything is OK), but we should say despite their mistakes we love them anyways.  If somebody is genuinely trying to get better, they apologize when they do make mistakes, they honestly admit their mistakes, etc., then we should give such people the time to get better.  We cannot change others, only they can change themselves.  But we shouldn’t expect others to be perfect and we should give them the space to get better.  It takes time.  Changing ourself is hard.

What is the correct way of dealing with others when they are expressing their anger at us?  This is not easy to deal with, but it is also part of life.  If we can learn how to deal constructively with it, then we will save ourselves no end of grief and suffering in the future.  Here are eleven things we can do:

  1. Don’t allow people’s words said out of anger hurt us. It is their anger talking, not them. What they say when they have love and understanding in their hearts is what they really think. This is critical to understand and deeply internalize, otherwise we will never be able to let go of the hurtful things they have said.
  2. If we have made mistakes, we should admit them and apologize for them at the earliest possible opportunity. Otherwise the anger of the other person quickly turns to resentment which is much harder to uproot.
  3. Don’t give in to threats and blackmail. If we do, the threats and blackmail will never stop and we will always live in fear. The only way to stop a bully is to not give in anymore. Yes, they will impose their consequences on us, but when we show we are not afraid and we will not give in, they lose all power over us and we break free.
  4. Don’t retaliate to the harm we receive.  The more angry and unreasonable they are, the more calm and reasonable we need to be.  Retaliation (responding with anger and harm to their anger and harm) creates a vicious cycle that gets worse and worse.  Non-retaliation, however, provides an opening for things to de-escalate and get better.  And even if the other person continues to be upset, at a minimum we retain the high ground because we have not retaliated in kind.
  5. Don’t sacrifice inner peace on the altar of outer peace.  Nobody likes conflict in the family and the immediate reaction of everyone is to shove things under the carpet and pretend that nothing is wrong as quickly as possible to try get back to normal.  Shoving things under the carpet may temporarily create some outer peace, but inwardly it leads to resentment and the anger festers like a cancer until it blows in some dramatic fashion. When people repress their anger (as opposed to genuinely let go of it), the anger builds and builds like a volcano in their mind, and then the slightest thing causes it to blow.
  6. Once things have come to the surface, we should use our love and wisdom to work through the differences in a calm, reasonable, and fair way.  95% of the time in any dispute, both sides are making theexact same mistake just in different ways.  For example, usually both people are upset at the other person not living up to their expectations.  To find a solution, we should apply equal standards to both sides. Only that will lead to a fair and lasting resolution.  Both sides should appreciate the other person for what they do do, not be upset about what they don’t.
  7. Accept that some things are details and should be set aside.  Usually what happens when a fight starts is both sides bring out all of their past grievances against the other person – revisiting every harm that has ever occurred and bringing up many small issues.  We should not become distracted by this.  Instead, we should focus on the core of the dispute.  If we can resolve the core issue, usually the smaller things will resolve themselves.
  8. Don’t fight about fighting.  Once a conflict starts, people will usually spend most of their time fighting about fighting and all the hurtful things said during the fight.  Instead, we should see past this and strive to resolve the fundamental issue. Even if the other person doesn’t apologize for the hurtful things they say, we should apologize for the hurtful things we said.
  9. When we have been attacked,we shouldn’t respond until we are calm.  We shouldn’t respond out of anger.  We should wait until calm and reason have returned to our own mind.  We should be careful to not say or do anything that will make the conflict worse and that we will later regret.  It is better to do nothing than something that makes everything worse.  Sometimes we should also give the other person the time they need to calm down before we respond.  Even if we are calm, if the other person hasn’t calmed down yet, then they will reply to our peaceful overtures with further venom.  We should almost always wait at least 24 hours to respond.  If after 24 hours we are not calm, then we should tell the other person that we are waiting until we calm down before we reply.  Tell them we will reply, but we want to do so once we are calm and are ready to respond in a constructive way.  They will respect us for that, and it prevents their anger transforming into resentment because they think we are ignoring them.
  10. The reality is most people have no idea how to actually resolve conflicts. All they know how to do is bury their head in the sand and pretend it’s not there. While we don’t deal with things that way, forcing people to confront things they are not capable of confronting usually just makes things worse. So we also need to accept that different people will deal with conflict in different ways, and we shouldn’t impose our way of resolving conflict onto others.  But internally, even if we have no contact with the other person, we should do the internal work necessary to get to the point where we forgive the other person (even if they never apologize); we accept the other person as they are, warts and all; and we feel nothing but love, gratitude and compassion for them.  Even if the other person doesn’t do the same, we do this because it is the right thing to do.
  11. When the other person does apologize, we should accept it sincerely and apologize ourself.  Yes, its true, when we apologize people sometimes then lash out at us.  Fine, let them.  Apologize again.  But when they apologize to us, we accept it.  Trust is not reestablished overnight, some wounds are very deep and will take a long time to heal.  We should strive to build on the positive, work towards a constructive resolution of the rest. But we should resist the temptation to shove things back under the carpet. If we are to have reconciliation with others, it has to be an honest one where both sides genuinely let go.  If the other person isn’t able or willing to let go, we let go ourselves anyways because again, that is the right thing to do.

If we are in a dispute, how should you relate to other people who are not party to your dispute, but who are nonetheless affected by it.  For example, imagine a big conflict between yourself and your parents, what should we do with our siblings, kids and so forth?

First and foremost, we should not put other people in the middle.  We put other people in the middle when we force them to take sides.  We put people in the middle when we get upset at them for liking the other person.  For example, my mother would make us feel like we were betraying her if we loved my father.  Many divorced couples make the same mistake with their kids.  This is completely wrong.   Instead, we should tell everyone that we don’t want our conflict with the one person in any way to interfere with their relationship with the person we are in conflict with.  We say we want everyone to continue to have a good relationship with everyone else.  We don’t just say this, we actively defend this as a principle and do what we can to make sure others do not suffer adverse consequences for the problems in our relationship.

Second, we do, however, need to keep others informed of what is going on if the fallout of the conflict affects them.  If it is small dispute or the outcome of that dispute doesn’t affect anybody else, there is no reason to inform them what is going on.  But if the fallout of the dispute does affect others, then it is a different story.  In such a situation, we have two choices:  we either try make up some lie as to why these changes are happening or we tell the truth.  Since we don’t lie, we tell the truth.  We have no choice but to inform people what is going on because the fallout impacts them. But when we do so, we need to be 100% clear with them that the conflict we are having with the other person has NOTHING to do with them, and that we do NOT want them to feel like they have to take sides, in fact we are asking them to NOT get involved.  But we are informing them because they are affected by the conflict and we don’t believe in lying to them.  When we inform other people of our dispute, there is a natural tendency to want them to take our side, even if we tell them we don’t want them to take sides.  There are all sorts of reasons why we would want this, some valid, some not, but we should resist this within ourselves.  People don’t want to get in the middle.  Sometimes they also simply don’t know what to say.  We should not get upset at others if they do not respond in the way we would want them to.  Likewise we should not internally sit in expectation that they take our side and then feel betrayed or let down when they don’t.  If we do, we just cause the problem with one relationship to spill over into our other relationships.  That turns a problem into a tragedy.  In sum, we shouldn’t let our problem with one person spill over into problems with other people who are also connected to that person.  We should instead try keep the problem isolated to the person we are in a dispute with and reassure everyone else that we have no problem with them.

If we ourselves are not party to a dispute between two people we love, for example we observe a conflict between our sibling and our parent, what should we do?  We should stay 100% out of it.   In a situation like this, there are no winners, only losers.  But if we put ourselves in the middle, we put ourselves in a no-win situation.  If we take one person’s side, we ruin our relationship with the other.  Therefore, it is almost always best to not take sides at all and stay out of it.  The only exception to this is if both sides are asking us to mediate the dispute for them because they both respect us.  But if they are not asking us to mediate their dispute, we should not get involved.  I have made this mistake many times in life, viewing myself as the hero who comes to save the day and resolve everyone’s conflicts.  The result of all such attempts has been to make things worse – sometimes much worse.  Since we love both people and it hurts us to see them fighting, its normal for us to want to do something to try make it better.  But almost always, the best thing we can do is stay out of it and let the other people work it out.  When we put ourselves in the middle, we often just make it harder to resolve the dispute.

Likewise, we should also not let other people’s problem become our problem.  For example, the fact that there is a problem between two people in our family is NOT your problem.  Just because they have a problem with each other does not mean we should have a problem with either of them.  We should take the position that we love everyone and refuse to be put in a position where we have to make a false choice between the two sides.  This is very important.

In summary, when we are in a dispute with others we should admit our own mistakes, apologize for whatever harm we may have done, not retaliate, not put other people in the middle nor make them feel they have to choose sides.  We should work towards an honest, reasonable and fair solution that doesn’t shove the core issues under the carpet while letting the details and minor issues fall away.  When observing others behavior, we should stop exaggerating the supposed harm, not let our anger or pride blind us to the other persons good qualities, we should emulate the good we see in them and learn from their mistakes so we don’t repeat them ourselves.

Dealing with conflict is not easy, but it is part of life.  It is important for us to learn how to deal with it so we have the emotional maturity necessary to navigate through the inevitable conflicts we will face as we go through life.

I don’t claim to have done myself all of the above perfectly.  I have made many mistakes and I will no doubt continue to make many mistakes.  But I am trying to honestly examine my behavior and do better.  What is described above are the ideals I am striving, however imperfectly, to put into practice.


May all conflict within all families be peaceably resolved, and may all such conflict become a powerful teacher of the truth of Dharma.


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