Resolving Family Conflicts

By Emmanuel V. John

Last month we considered several techniques to aid in resolving family conflicts using the “REL” in the word “RELATIONSHIP.” As a reminder, the acrostic is shown below. This month we continue by beginning with the letter “A.” 

RRespect the person, recognize the conflict and draw resources from God.
EEvaluate the situation and establish new principles for marital and family relationships.
LLet go of resentment, initiate love and clarify roles.
AApproach the situation with a positive attitude and be accessible to one another.
TTackle the problems and put on virtues.
IImprove communication skills.
OOvercome criticism and negativism by intellectual and spiritual intervention.
NName the problem and nurture the family relationships.
SStart again to build the relationship.
HHelp each other in a humble manner.
IIntervene early in the conflict to begin positive changes.
PPromote problem solving skills.

Approach The Situation With A Positive Attitude And Be Accessible To One Another
One’s approach, attitude and accessibility to another are very important in resolving relationship conflicts. Knowledge without love may cause one to say the right thing but in a wrong manner. This is not communication! We live in a world where everyone has something to say but no one has time to listen. As a result, the family has difficulty in resolving conflicts. It is important for the husband to be available and accessible to the wife and children, and vice versa. The heart cry of so many is not for loved ones to give presents to compensate for their lack of availability, but it is for their presence in order that communication and sharing of emotions can take place.

Many husbands are busy with their jobs to such an extent that the family is given the leftovers. The situation is like a husband going to a restaurant, enjoying a delicious meal and then asking the server to put his remaining food in a bag to take home as a gift to his wife. Such husbands spend most of their time immersed in their jobs and hobbies and then have no time for their wives and children.

In order to resolve conflicts, husbands and wives should be available and accessible to each other and to the children. This accessibility can promote enjoyment between family members. If the husband is home he is available to demonstrate spiritual leadership, can listen to and show respect for his wife and children, and is able to properly discipline the children. When conflicts are resolved in a calm, cooperative and prayerful manner, a healthy relationship is maintained.

Tackle The Problems And Put On Virtues 
Deal with conflict as soon as possible by attacking the problem, not the person! It is often “the little foxes that spoil the vines” (Song 2:15 NKJV). When small, seemingly unimportant incidents are left unresolved, they accumulate and result in an explosion which can lead to a breakdown in the family’s relationships.

Tackling conflicts in an early stage can slow or even prevent worse things from developing. Instead, there can be a continued development and display of virtues – things that are good and profitable – in the relationship. When we turn our wills and lives over to God, He gives us the power to work through the conflicts and overcome the old patterns of dysfunctional behavior. We then are encouraged to tackle and eliminate the emotional disturbances in our own lives and thus promote harmony. “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another” (Col. 3:8-9). This means that God insists that we recognize our own weaknesses, renounce and release them by receiving God’s forgiveness, forgiving each other and ourselves. We may not forget the hurt experienced from past conflicts, but in fulfilling these verses we will not dwell on the past failures or repeatedly remind each other of them.

Therefore bad behaviors and practices can be replaced by virtues to promote family relationships, and these virtues should be implemented as soon as possible. Put on the following virtues:

  • Compassion – displaying mercy or tenderness instead of being judgmental or rigid.
  • Kindness – the opposite of selfishness.
  • Humility – as opposed to pride.
  • Gentleness – in contrast to self-assertiveness.
  • Patience – not overreacting to conflicts, but reflecting love in action in conflict resolution.
  • Forbearance – demonstrating tolerance in working through conflicts.
  • Forgiveness – not holding any charges against the person who has confessed his or her faults. Remember, this is not optional – it is God’s command.
  • Love – looking beyond faults while recognizing needs and initiating the necessary sacrifices to improve the relationship.

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (vv.12-14).

Improve Communication Skills 
Communication is vital in all family relationships. We are always communicating, whether with spoken or body language. The important thing, however, is what and how we communicate. The breakdown in communication continues to be the major underlying conflict in relationships, and gossip should always be avoided. Four simple ways of effective communication are:

  • To say what we mean and mean what we say,
  • To attack the problem and not the person,
  • To agree to disagree so there is no power struggle, and
  • To communicate in love.

As human beings we need to communicate our feelings, objectives, expectations, goals and the like. Hence, a breakdown in communication has significant consequences. Such a breakdown can occur in a number of ways. Sometimes family members verbalize their negative feelings in the wrong manner which then triggers more conflicts. At other times they express positive feelings but with the wrong attitude, arousing defense mechanisms or anger. Further, two family members may be so occupied with negative actions that they are not tuned in to hear what the other person is saying. In his book, Speaking From The Heart, Ken Durham presents five suggestions for conflict resolution that show the importance of communication:

  • Focus on one issue at a time.
  • Deal with conflict before things reach the boiling point.
  • Open up and talk about it.
  • Don’t exaggerate.
  • No cheap shots.1

In my own work with families, I have discovered four patterns of communication:

  1. Confrontational communication occurs when one family member attacks another instead of attacking the problem. This is typically seen when the husband stands face to face with his wife and threatens her. Remember that Cain was angry and envious of Abel his brother because Abel’s gift was accepted by God: “Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and … Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him” (Gen. 4:8).
  2. Conflicting communication is when, for example, the father says one thing with words while the mother gives the opposite message by her posture. The conflict may be heard and seen in one person as well, as shown in the communication of Lot with his family. He tried to convince his sons-in-law concerning the pending judgment of Sodom. “So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who had married his daughters, and said, ‘Get up, get out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city!’ But to his sons-in-law he seemed to be joking” (19:14). Lot’s behavior at that time did not match his words. Moreover, while Lot was escaping and looking ahead, his wife looked backward, resulting in her immediate death (v.26).
  3. Conspiring communication is manifested when, for example, the wife and children agree to attack the father. We are reminded of Miriam and Aaron who conspired against Moses, their brother, because he chose a wife who was from a different ethnic background. As a result of the conspiracy, they suffered significant consequences: “Suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper” (Num. 12:10).
  4. Cooperative communication takes place when the family attacks the problem together. This means that the husband takes the leadership role and the wife stands by his side, being very supportive of what is right. Both the husband and wife remain side by side, looking at the same problem and verbalizing their ideas of how the conflict should be resolved. They are able to listen to each other, accept differences of opinion and agree on the best solution. This reminds me of Eve who was taken from Adam’s side to facilitate togetherness as displayed in side by side communication.

The most effective ingredient in communication is love. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). One of the great experts in communication, Howard G. Hendricks, said that communication must not be faked, but it should be done in love. He concluded, “You cannot communicate in depth to a person until you love him. And the more you love him, the more you will communicate.” 2 Thus, one of the powerful techniques in conflict resolution is being able to communicate one’s feelings when necessary, in truth and love.

Overcome Criticism And Negativism Through Intellectual And Spiritual Intervention 
Many family members focus on each other’s negatives or weaknesses rather than on the strengths. Society focuses on negativism. In the family, constant criticism leads to feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, inadequacy and fear of rejection. However, criticism can be eliminated by restructuring one’s cognitive, or thinking process, to respect others – highly valuing the family and giving approval, acceptance and encouragement.

It is possible to overcome criticism by the power of the Holy Spirit. One does not ignore his or her weaknesses, but he focuses on strengths to overcome them. Hence, instead of worrying about things that are not done, one appreciates the good that is done. By doing this, one can maintain a positive attitude and compliment rather than criticize. Josh McDowell concluded “that relationship with God is the starting point to find love, for I will never be separated from God’s love.” 3 Thus, criticism and negativism can be overcome by accepting God’s healing love and by proper thinking.

Name The Problem And Nurture The Family Relationships 
Because of the complexities of family relationships and the constant changes of life, conflict resolution is a continual process. Therefore, instead of using the defense mechanisms of denial and avoidance, one should name the problem, confront each situation calmly and provide moral support for each other. This means sharing the various aspects of family life between husband and wife. H. Norman Wright stresses that “the presence of Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and intense effort and work dedicated to the application of Scripture can bring stability, growth and mutual satisfaction into a marital relationship.” 4 This technique identifies the problem and reassures continued support to help speed conflict resolution without any fear of rejection or abandonment.

Start Again To Build The Relationship 
Starting over requires both spouses to work through the “pain of holding on” to past conflicts and “the panic of letting go” of them. It may be difficult for a wife and husband to forgive each other. However, once the process of forgiveness has begun, it is important not to bury a dead dog with its tail hanging out, as the old saying goes. Although it takes time for damaged emotions to heal, one should be willing to commit to the Lord the entire painful situation that has been resolved and not dwell or hold on to it. Some family members are afraid to let go of their painful experiences because retaining them seems to justify their present negative reactions. Letting go does not simply mean forgetting the hurt (which is essentially impossible), but laying hold on God’s promises and “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).

Starting over also implies a reflection on the family’s past joys and pleasant experiences. It recognizes the time and conditions when the relationship began to weaken and conflicts were left unresolved. But one begins where one currently is in the relationship, knowing that he or she cannot change the past. A person can only prevent the past conflicts from affecting the present.

When driving a car it is important to glance in the mirror to see the past – the traffic behind. But to be preoccupied with looking in the mirror could result in a crash. Glancing at the speedometer to see the present speed is also important, but to simply focus on the speedometer also can be dangerous. One has to spend most of the time looking where one is going. So, like driving a car, a spouse needs to glance at the mirror to see the past and at the speedometer to see the present, but he or she needs to spend most of the time looking ahead in the direction the family situation is going.

One should not use today’s energy to regret the past or be overly concerned about tomorrow, but use it to solve today’s conflicts. Charles Swindoll concluded that if one knows the Lord Jesus, then “fix your eyes on Him and refuse to give up or turn back. If not, STOP! Give Him your struggles and receive Him as Lord and Savior by faith. He has all the strength you need to keep you on your road.” 5

Help Each Other In A Humble Manner 
Many families are too proud to face the reality of their problems. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Hence, humility is vitally important in conflict resolution. Ego needs to be deflated and a person feel powerless before there is full dependence on God. The center letter of “pride” is “I,” whereas with “humility,” the letter “U” comes before “I.” Helping each other in the problem-solving process encourages trust and a strong support system. Members are able to share all their joys, sorrows and expectations together.

Intervene Early In The Conflict To Begin Positive Changes 
Many spouses have conflicts that result from problems earlier in their lives. A husband or wife might have been brought up in a miserable family setting that abounded with resentment, explosive anger, abuse, addiction and abandonment. That person may struggle with low self-esteem, sensitivity to rejection, fear of abandonment and repressed feelings of anger. No matter if one was brought up in a miserable or a happy family, internal changes are needed because of the sinful nature of all humans.

When one turns his or her life and will over to God, He produces changes within the heart which are manifested in behavior. These changes create a feeling of intimacy with God and the family. As a result, the negative emotions which were experienced in the early family system are not transferred into the present relationship with the same intensity. When negative emotions still surface, the individual is able to take control of them with God’s help. The family therefore experiences a transformation which produces intimacy, openness, honesty and love.

Many families attempt to resolve conflicts superficially, but it is vital to work through the cause of conflicts and not just the symptoms. One needs to face the reality of his or her internal life, identify the problems and seek God’s help in making positive changes.

Promote Problem Solving Skills 
The things which break our bodies and crush our spirits are not necessarily our daily tasks, but our tensions and worries about our future. I have found that prayer, devotion and Christian counseling can play a vital role in resolving tensions within the family system. Be encouraged to pray to God! “Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn. 16:24).

It is said that “the family that prays together stays together.” It is truly therapeutic to pray sincerely to God at any time, anywhere, under any circumstance and in any position, whether verbally or silently. Prayer diminishes despair. In addition to personal prayer, family prayer and devotions help resolve conflicts and maintain a healthy family relationship. Regardless of the conflicts, the Lord Jesus Christ understands and cares. “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).

Remember that God also uses others to help us resolve our conflicts. When one stands close to a tall building the top seems almost insurmountable, but when the building is viewed from a distance, it doesn’t seem as tall because the perception changes. Similarly, when one is close to a family problem, it seems overwhelming. Therefore, when the family is unable to resolve the conflict they should seek out a Christian counselor who is able to help them work through the problem from an objective, biblical perspective.

It is not our action but our reaction to problems that is important, and conflict resolution demands time, energy, sacrifice and some pain. But the end result is always worth it because of the restored joy in the family.

Our society is swamped with information on the family yet starved for wisdom in resolving conflicts. Knowledge may be acquired from books but wisdom comes from God. Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge properly. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (Jas. 1:5). We need help from above to deal with the problems below. As we draw resources from God we are able to break down long-standing barriers in our lives.

Concluding Thoughts 
The family remains the foundation of our society. If the family is weak then the whole nation is weak. Factors which cause conflicts date back to the fall of man, and that seed of deception has been the dominant force in the destruction of the family. Our problems have their roots in sin and our sinful nature (Rom. 5:12-21), but there is hope.

Perhaps, with all of a family’s problems identified, one might say, “God can’t really resolve all the conflicts in the relationship.” But, God can! How? The answer is found in this same word “HOW.” Be …

  • H-onest with God, with yourself and with each other,
  • O-pen to God’s will, and
  • W-illing to initiate changes in the relationship.

These techniques, when put into operation, will maintain and move the family along in the right direction on the highway to a happier relationship – and one that pleases God.