As the kids have gotten older in my family, found partners, introduced them to the parents, and formed families of their own, there has been moments of great togetherness. There has also been moments of great tension as I am sure many of you can attest to. Family isn’t meant to be easy all the time it appears. But over the years, as I got older I realised my father’s strategy of staying clear of family arguments was probably quite a clever approach. It certainly isn’t easy to do if you are unpracticed or love a bit of drama in your life.
My dad is a master at it. When he smells a problem brewing in a room, a dispute over the dinner table or a bigger than normal debate hotting up, he simply turns to the grandkids and asks them to show him something, take him for a swim or go outside and look at the garden. I used to think he was avoiding getting on with the process of confronting a situation, today I realise he’s just worked out that many fights simply aren’t worth having when family are involved. “Life is better when it’s peaceful” he says followed by “does it really matter if hers is bigger?”. And that’s usually what it comes back to competitiveness, attention, demand, or need for an outcome to go someone’s way. I think he’s right a lot of the time… it’s not really worth it to fight just to win.
But the fact is, you can’t always avoid challenges. Goodness knows I try my hardest. Late last year my mother and my brother fell out rather horribly. I am not sure that either of them really know why looking back, but both are still holding the grudge against each other, and only calling each other for Christmas. I love both of them and was definitive in their dispute that I was simply not getting involved. When any of them rang up and started talking about the situation, I would stop the discussion and say “sorry, but I simply refuse to get involved in this, you should both be big people and talk to each other about it.”
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Both wanted to tell “their side of the story”, but I knew, if I heard them that I would be swayed by their emotive version and would then get stuck empathising and take sides. And frankly, I think that is the worst thing anyone can do in a family dispute.
There’s been many arguments over the years. Wives and sisters that didn’t like girlfriends entering the family, daughters, sons and girlfriends that didn’t like grandchildren getting the way of their parental attention, and inlaws having their fair or unfair say. Common problems I think for most families really and when looking back, none of the catastrophes were so large that they were insurmountable, but none simply resolvable either, especially when stubborn, self-willed people are involved, and most of our family fit that definition.
The people who usually struggle the most in my family to stay clear of family arguments seem to be the people who quite enjoy melodrama and talking about people, often those with more time on their hands to discuss the merits of a situation than others. But there is a few simple, if hard to apply rules I now follow to try my hardest to stay clear of family arguments. Have you learned a few tactics over the years?
1) Listen and nod, but think before you offer your opinion if it is heinously different and you know that the family member across from you loves to win rather than listen and reflect on your differences in a healthy way. Many of my family like to win. (I love them for it, but it does mean sadly that we can’t have two way debates because they are not engaged listeners too)
2) Don’t be afraid to take an exit. Like my dad, I have learned that “you gotta know when to walk away and know when to run”… And I more readily hop up and gently leave when a discussion is turning uncomfortable rather than cop it for being nearby.
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3) Stay out of a dispute between two family members that isn’t your own. My younger brothers are the worst for this… In my mum’s dispute with my older brother they listened to her side of the story, decided they would “take her side” and ceased all contact with their other brother. Sadly, they stuck themselves right in the middle of a fight that was not their own.
4) Never ever criticise someone’s family member or partner. It’s not your job. They choose their loved one, not you. They have to live with them, not you.
5) Don’t take bait. I am not sure whether your siblings are as clever at “laying bait” as mine are, looking for a fight or a bit of drama, but I try desperately these days to avoid the bait whenever I can see it in front of me.
6) Don’t respond to melodramatic phone calls or hang-ups mid dispute. And certainly don’t feed conversation.
7) If you have done wrong be a big enough person to apologise.
Tell us about your family dispute experiences today and what you’ve learned about managing yourself to stay clear of them.