Dealing with Generational Family Conflicts – resolving and finding peace

Dealing with Generational Family Conflicts – resolving and finding peace

Sumita Banerjea

Educator, Counsellor & Author

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Pain travels through family lines until someone is ready to heal it in themselves. By going through the agony of healing you no longer pass the poison chalice onto the generations that follow……….”

I read and re-read these lines that I came across (attributed on Google to different sources) and they resonated deeply.

Family legacies come in different packages. Amongst many happy and inspirational stories, lurk some family conflicts that are painful, destructive and caused the great divide. It even becomes a question of family honour to abide by; for a stand taken by family members way, way back, who had crossed swords, literally or otherwise.

Generations later, the individuals may not even know the details of the family conflicts; or hear only the version propagated in a particular line of the family. Often versions curried and garnished with spicy details with the passage of time and fertile imagination.

Analyzing this a little deeper, we might notice other biases too that we subconsciously harbour inside us. Biases based on what we may have absorbed from our environment – racial bias, caste bias, religious bias, biases based on superstitions and blind belief….. the list goes on.

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Man is born free – unfettered by any prejudices. Socialization is the process through which we form opinions. We always have the power of choice – to observe, process and decide for ourselves what action we can take.

What is family conflict?

In this article we will look at discord and strife with the extended family; and also families without blood ties. Family conflicts – between cousins, with aunts and uncles and their families or between two families that had once been close. It could be a situation where, over generations there has been tension, no contact or protracted legal battles.

Take this case of four siblings from a well to do family.

It was a time before partition when the migration of the younger generation to more attractive pastures in the west was not as prevalent. 

The father had visions of his sons and sons-in-law working together in a firm that he had set up. Each had his own expertise and the initial years went well. The business prospered and the coffers expanded. Till one son decided that he wanted more.

Trust was compromised and the family conflict started; when realisation dawned that things were anything but transparent. With proof in hand, one brother walked out of the business and the family home with a suitcase; and ventured off on his own.

Matters were not taken to court since the family reputation was at stake, but the ties amongst the family members had been guillotined due to the family conflict.

Of course word got around that something was amiss, but there was never any public declaration of it. The two brothers would not attend social or family functions together and their children never met. The ‘poison chalice’ was passed on to the next generation.

The cold war continued for several years. Then something interesting happened. At a certain point, the families lived in the same city and the social circle they moved in, overlapped. The child of the brother who had walked out, heard from a friend, that he had an older cousin who was a heartthrob with the girls in the college. Curiosity overcame him and he asked his parents why he had not met the cousin.

And so began the dilemma for his parents. Should they disclose the details to their child? Just because the father of the cousin had wronged his siblings should the children suffer?

What probably helped in taking a decision was that, the concerned brother had no interest in the family money and had built his own life. He had cut the umbilical chord cleanly. The cousins met without baggage and built a relationship.

Years later the child of the cousin, who had heard whispers of the family rift, wanted to verify what he had been told and visited his uncles’s father to hear his story. All sides could put their versions on the table, but the matter remained where it was; a part of the family lore with no real bearing on the present.

When the opportunity presented itself, a call had been taken by the wronged brother to let history remain where it was meant to bein the past; and he had allowed the living and relevant present to breathe and grow healthily. In the process, he possibly healed himself and stopped the chasm from deepening further.

What are the usual causes of these family conflicts?

History is witness to innumerable famous family feuds. The causes are often repetitive.

  • Physical or mental abuse; over controlling behaviour
  • Strong feelings of betrayal, jealousy, unfair treatment
  • Property disputes; Sibling rivalry
  • Uneven division of responsibilities whether it be in business or looking after the elderly, chronically ill family member;
  • Misunderstandings which could be through unclear or inappropriate communication; breach of trust
  • Unacceptable romantic or sexual liaisons; conflicts over differing values and beliefs

How does one handle these family conflicts?

1.To begin with one must want to try and end the conflict because closing it genuinely means something to us.

The sustained bitterness can be corrosive; and especially, if we are trapped into taking a stand on a matter not of our making. Then, we almost become slaves to it, since we are not exercising our free will.

By doing a debit – credit assessment of the situation, we can make a judgement about what to do. Of course, we do realize that a strife implies two sides; and that both parties must be on the same page for the attempt at a resolution.

2.It helps if we mentally break the mindset of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and move towards ‘we are a family’ or ‘we can be on the same side’.

Coming from this faith and spirit, it will translate into our behaviour too and make our attempt at reconciliation more genuine.

3.Generational malady is like a still stagnant pond where the water is getting putrid.

To move on and refresh the water, we need to gather facts about the cause of the family conflict and be convinced about the expected outcome being worth the effort.

Once convinced, we could make the first move at reconciliation, instead of waiting for the other person.

4.The idea is not to try and change the other person’s beliefs.

The focus is to move on despite the past animosity. If the goal is to convince the other person about your side of the story, chances are that the meeting will be a non-starter.

5.In case the past trigger question does come up, consciously decide to allow the person free space to speak. Listen and, if you have a different perspective, agree to disagree; and reiterate gently that the idea is to move ahead.

Be mindful about not getting provoked and allowing feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, revenge or control to distract you. It is not about taking the matter personally. The method in which you communicate –  choice of words, tone, volume will also have an impact.

6.Detachment and observation are two important tools in this endeavour to resolve family conflicts.

Be like a detective, objectively examining what is happening between the families concerned; the unhealthy and maladjusted characteristics in relationships. Simultaneously, observe helpful interaction techniques in families with healthy and buoyant relationships.

7.Holding age old grudges amongst families, which often have nothing to do directly with the current generation, perpetuating hate and conflict, seems like such a waste of precious energy and valuable mind space.

Today we are the custodians of upholding our larger family peace and goodwill; and also with families with whom we share ties over generations.

“Seeing unhealthy patterns in your family and deciding that those patterns end with you and will not be passed down to future generations, is an extremely brave and powerful decision”. Tiny Tot | The MindsJournal

Please do leave your comments at the bottom and do share with others if you like this article.

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Joy Singh
Joy Singh

Thank you. This is such a helpful piece of writing. Having seen this happen within my family, it is great to have tools to navigate difficult waters. Thanks, Sunita. Each article of yours is a gem.

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Indira Rao

Great points that could be applied in a broader framework as we celebrate India’s Independence Day – how about each of us vow to address the prejudices against “them”?

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