The Conflict and Triumph of Living in a Family

Most think of a family as a place of safety. Think again. Not always.

At its best, surely it is a place of love. Yet humans interact there, with their potential for a fractious collision of moving parts. Conflict is always possible and sometimes essential, as in all groups.

Even within the nest, the big and little birds are looking for something from the other: dominance, protection, recognition, support, encouragement, gratitude, and guidance. Let’s take this apart a bit, focusing on the issue of dominance and transcendence. By transcendence I mean the individual’s desire to test himself in the peopled world: flourish, make something of himself, strive to “overcome” and take pride in his overcoming. No one wants to be last in line.

Ego and self-assertion are essential for all of us. Without a sense of our “self,” we amount to nothing, get rolled over and pushed around.

Start with the mom and dad. Cooperation is necessary between the parents, but 100% agreement isn’t possible. Definitions of fairness and equity are found in the eye of the beholder. Sexual stereotypes regarding a man or woman’s role interfere. People change over the course of a long marriage. Some of the alteration is a matter of aging, some learning, some of finding oneself. The marriage contract must be revised to accommodate transformation of even one of the mates.

I always asked a new marital therapy couple what drew them together. The answer became predictable: “He/she was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Of course, in twenty-years-time the instant heat has usually diminished a bit and the fun always has, otherwise the team would not be in for a tune-up.

We seek ourselves through others. They reflect our image back to us in work, friendship, and affection. In conflict, too. How we negotiate disagreement in a marriage leads to many possible outcomes: mutual growth, increased or diminished intimacy, and more or less security. Our well-being is affected. Does the couple triumph together, apart, or not at all?

The children, too, are impacted. A first-born can be recognized, loved, and lauded simply for his existence. He needs to test himself, nonetheless. Such challenges come first in getting the parents’ attention and care. Later, the same people will play the role of obstacle on the long road to his self-rule. Siblings (who threaten to take his spot on center stage) represent another hurdle. Outside the home, he seeks the kind of image he wants in the world of strangers.

The child (as he grows) doesn’t need approval for everything, but encouragement in his striving. He must find a place for himself without becoming a doormat at the foot of the staircase of life: someone invisible who may crave self-effacement in a misguided search for safety. Self-aware or not, he requires respect and freedom, striving to create an impact on at least a sliver of humanity, rather than existing as a mistreated and passive instrument for the fulfillment of ambitions in those around him; tossed aside when the user has no more use of him.

If the parents can manage the task, the battles within the family lead to learning and growth. Everyone wins, though bruises are inevitable. For the child to learn to bounce back, he must have someone to bounce off of. Everyone in a well-functioning home gets enough of what they need to take on the world with growing confidence. Toxic parents might enable some children to thrive, while others — those who serve as family punching bags — don’t receive adequate tools to achieve satisfaction and a measure of triumph outside of it: a victory characterized by making a mark worthy of an admiring look and respect; and the confidence to become a productive member of the human community: secure enough, happy enough most of the time, sufficiently persistent and resilient to manage the challenges that come to us all.

Looking at your family, both family of origin and the one you made, helps you to be grateful for what you did get, know what you yet must find, and recognize your part in raising your children to ensure their rising.

We are never free of the need to strive for something — to experience the sense of producing a positive effect in the world of man and nature. All goals will not be achieved by anyone, but we are so arranged that not everything one wishes for is required to make a satisfying life.

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The top image is The Painter’s Family by Grigorio de Cherico. The second is The Appearance of the Artist’s Family by Marc Chagall. Both are sourced from Wikiart.org/

8 thoughts on “The Conflict and Triumph of Living in a Family

  1. ‘For the child to learn to bounce back, he must have someone to bounce off of.’ Love this! If the family environment isn’t the best place to thrive in, a mentor of some kind is important. I missed that growing up. Knowing my many faults, especially in raising my children, I really encourage them to confide in others (aunty, teacher, pastor etc). I’m also very quick to get my kids to talk to a psychologist if they have certain anxieties that pop up….that is, if it persists and they can’t overcome their worries/depression. The earlier they know it’s okay to get help and talk to a professional, the better (especially when mental health illness runs in the family) – being 35 and finally seeking out help is daunting and working on all those maladaptive schemas that have crept in over the years is hard work. Anyway, going off topic…..yes, families, they break you or make you, and yet you love them no matter what!
    Thanks for your words, dr G.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Suzuki. Sounds like you’ve learned lots. “They break you or they make you.” Wish I thought of that phrase.

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  2. Your first line struck me as I have never considered family to be a place of safety but rather one of anxiety, danger and strife. I can see though that a safe family would be a great thing.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Mel. So many institutions are fixed in our minds, but subject to a different look. Family is one such and never just one thing.

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  3. I was reading this while overhearing my neighbor scream at his 7 year old about being selfish…talk about on topic of toxic parenting…

    This post has brought up some interesting questions I had for myself Dr. Stein, so thank you.

    Have you ever written anything on inherited family trauma? I’d be interested to give it a read.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I don’t buy the notion that trauma is inherited in a literal, that is, biologically or genetically transmitted sense. It is, however, a very real thing with respect to something more commonly called “second generation effects.” A ground-breaking book on the latter was written by Helen Epstein, called “Children of the Holocaust.” She was speaking as the offspring of Holocaust survivors. Similarly, one can grow up with the long shadow of an economic depression, something many of those on the leading edge of the postwar “Baby Boom” had to deal with re: their parents’ continuing economic insecurity and what they learned from those parents about financial disaster. I’ve written about second generation effects and you can probably find a post or two of you search my blog using that phrase. Thanks for your interest, jblondie.

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  4. As you make clear, Dr. Stein, so much can go wrong within the [nuclear] family. It’s a wonder that we can survive and prosper when we reach adulthood. Within an extended family, common in other cultures, a child has more possibilities in finding “someone to bounce off of.”

    In our modern urban societies, where the influence of “village elders” in dealing with family disputes no longer exists, we need an education system that also prepares us for parenthood.

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