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How To Handle Unresolved Conflict in Your Family

You Don't Have To Stress At Family Gatherings

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Updated November 15, 2011

How To Handle Unresolved Conflict in Your Family

Unresolved conflict can be most stressful around the holiday season. Here's how to ease the tension.

Photo from iStockPhoto.com
While family relationships can bring support, joy, and other wonderful benefits into our lives, these relationships can also bring stress, particularly when there's unresolved conflict. Because it's more difficult to let go of conflicted relationships with family than it would be if these relationships were mere friendships, unresolved conflicts with family members can bring additional stress at family gatherings. And this sense of strain can usually be felt among other members of the family as well.

Without an apology or other form of resolution, the trust on both sides is compromised, and may not know what to expect from this person in the future. (For example, that one time your mother-in-law criticized your cooking may come up in your mind every time she comes for a visit, and others may sense your tension.) Also, references or reminders of past conflicts can sting and create new pain.

Once a conflict has gone on awhile, even if both parties move on and remain polite, the feelings of pain and mistrust are usually lingering under the surface, and are difficult to resolve: bringing up old hurts in an effort to resolve them can often backfire, as the other party may feel attacked; avoiding the issue altogether but holding onto resentment can poison feelings in the present. So what do you do at a family gathering when there's someone there with whom you've had an unresolved conflict? Just be polite. A family gathering is not the time to rehash old conflicts, as such conversations often get messy before they get resolved--if they get resolved. In future dealings with this person, you can take one of three paths:

  1. Try To Resolve The Conflict: At a time when all the family isn't gathered, ask the person if they'd like to discuss and resolve what happened in the past. If (and only if) you and the other person seem to want to resolve things and are open to seeing one another's point of view, this could be a constructive idea. Seeing where each of you may have misunderstood the other or behaved in a way you would change if you could, offering sincere apologies, and in other ways resolving the conflict can heal the relationship for the future.
    Try These Healthy Communication Skills.

  2. Forgive and Forget: If it looks like such a civil meeting of the minds is unlikely, don't push it. It's probably a good idea to try to forgive the other person and let it go. Forgiving doesn't mean opening yourself up to feel wronged again; it only means that you let go of your feelings of resentment and anger. You can be careful in what you expect from this person in the future without actively harboring resentment, and you'll be the one to benefit the most.
    See These Strategies on How To Forgive

  3. Cut The Person Out of Your Life: If what the other person did was abusive and there's absolutely no remorse or reason to expect things to be different in the future, you can severely limit your dealings with this person, or cut off contact altogether. This is normally a last-resort choice, but in cases of abuse, it's sometimes a necessary one to make for your own emotional health.
    Here's How To Let Go Of A Toxic Relationship

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