Writer Leo Tolstoy once observed that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This may be true in the sense that families are complex units made up of complex individuals, and the ways in which they relate to each other and the circumstances in which they find themselves are unique. One family’s issues may be completely distinct from another’s.
That said, however, there’s a set of broad patterns that tend to cause conflict across many families—whether biological or chosen. To compound the issue, many lack the tools to handle these challenges in a healthy way. Read on for eight of the most common sources of conflict in families, along with steps you can take to try and address or cope with them.
Signs Of Unhealthy Family Conflict
Every family will inevitably face conflict from time to time. However, those that go unresolved or that are dealt with in unhealthy ways can take a toll on members and their relationships with each other. They can lead to chronic stress levels (which can lead to health problems), mental health challenges, and even estrangement.
Some signs of ongoing family conflict that’s not being handled in a healthy way can include:
Sweeping issues ‘under the rug’
Frequent bickering and/or fighting
Disagreements frequently escalating to yelling/screaming
Frequent periods where some members aren’t speaking to others
A lack of trust between members
Abuse of any kind
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.
8 Common Causes Of Family Conflict
If you’ve recognized that your family is experiencing conflict, identifying the root cause can be the next step toward managing it. Although many people are already aware of what’s causing the core conflict within their family, it can be helpful to see some of the most common ones listed out—both to provide insight into how multiple issues can overlap and interact, and to take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone in your experience. See below for some of the most common causes of family stress or discord.
Parental Relationship Problems
Parents who are constantly fighting—whether they're still together or separated or divorced—can cause tension for all members. One parent who is in an unhealthy relationship with someone can also be distressing for the other members to observe.
Many families face serious challenges in meeting the basic needs of all members. Whether it’s because of systemic issues, job loss, inability to work, uncontrolled spending, gambling problems, or another reason, stress and conflict related to money and bills is common.
When one or more family members is experiencing a health challenge—from a chronic physical condition to a mental illness to a disability—it can affect the others. Stress and worry as well as providing care and paying medical bills can sometimes result in tension.
Sometimes, stress or dysfunction in a family can be traced primarily to the toxic behaviors of one member. For example, someone who frequently engages in manipulation tactics, dishonesty, scapegoating, or similar behaviors can be extremely difficult or even dangerous to live with. These can be personality traits or signs of certain personality disorders.
In most cases, trauma that has not been effectively and healthily recognized, processed, and healed will cause issues in a person’s life in some way. A family unit that experiences trauma together—such as war, a natural disaster, or the sudden death of a loved one—or vicariously through one member may experience conflict that arises as a result of this unaddressed pain. This can be especially true for various forms of intergenerational trauma.
Family members who feel pressure to conform to unhealthy and/or impossible standards may experience negative effects as a result. For example, a household where everyone is expected to perform perfectly in school or work, never express negative emotions, or never bring up conflict can eventually cause members to disengage or lash out.
Too Much Or Too Little Time Together
Families that have to live in close quarters and spend most or all of their time together are liable to face conflict, as many learned during the COVID-19 lockdown. On the other hand, families that are so busy or live so far apart that they rarely get to spend quality time together could also end up experiencing conflict.
Poor Or Nonexistent Communication
Healthy, honest, frequent communication is widely considered to be the foundation of healthy relationships of all types. Families without it are likely to experience recurrent conflict as issues that arise may not be properly addressed and members may not feel heard.
Addressing Family Conflict
After you’ve uncovered the root of the conflict your family is experiencing, the next recommended course of action is usually to engage in open communication about it with your family members. If you’re wondering how to resolve family conflict, setting aside a time when you can calmly and reasonably bring up the issue(s) without being aggressive or accusatory can be effective in some cases. Although you may not be able to solve all the issues with one conversation, it can represent a first step toward collaborating to create a happier, healthier family dynamic together over time.
However, sometimes it’s not feasible or not safe for one person to communicate something that’s been bothering them to the others. Some family members may be resistant to even speaking openly about it, much less working toward solutions. Others may engage in extreme reactions that make it difficult to ever get to the root of the problem. In cases like these, therapy could be a next step to consider.
How Therapy Can Help
Families that are willing to engage in therapy can rely on a family therapist to guide the discussion and the handling of conflict. This type of healthcare professional can equip members with techniques to help with things like communication, problem solving, and stress management that they can use in the present conflict and in the future. They can also identify and address any mental health challenges that could be affecting any member and, in turn, their family. If you’re interested in locating a family therapist in your area, you can find directories of licensed providers online or ask your physician, friends, or community members for a recommendation.
However, if some or all of your family is unwilling to attend family therapy, you may find it useful to attend individual sessions on your own. While this won’t change the behavior of your family members, it can offer you a safe, nonjudgmental space to express your feelings and get advice on healthy, constructive strategies to try when engaging with them.
If in-person therapy is inaccessible or unaffordable for you, you might consider an online therapy platform like BetterHelp instead where you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with from home or anywhere else you have an internet connection. Plus, session costs are less than the average in-person visit and comparable to most insurance co-pays. Research suggests that there is likely “no difference in effectiveness” between in-person therapy and online therapy, so you can typically feel confident in whichever format you may choose. See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from clients who have faced similar challenges.
“Nicole is great! I’ve been seeing her for both couples counseling and individual therapy. She is kind and sympathetic while still being straightforward and practical. She always helps me find ways to overcome obstacles or look at things from another perspective. Also, she has a ton of helpful resources that she has given through the BetterHelp app. It is very convenient and just what I needed to get through a difficult year!”
“Danielle is amazing! She’s helping me grapple with incredibly difficult challenges in one of my most important relationships. She listens well, synthesizes my scattered thoughts & feelings, and offers helpful tools, activities & resources to work on outside of our sessions. Danielle provides honest feedback and creates a safe space. I can feel that she genuinely cares.
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