“Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.” — Michael J. Fox
Since the beginnings of human history, the family has always been our most vital social unit. Across all times and civilizations, people have always developed rules and customs for how to act within a family, which indicates the universal importance of this closest form on human connection. As Cummins therapist Melanie Gibbs puts it, “Our culture is really based on family systems. I don’t know of any culture where families are not the basis of what holds that culture together and drives it.”
Because families are our most fundamental social groups, it’s extremely important for our mental and emotional health that our family unit is cohesive. Generally speaking, a cohesive family is one in which the members live together harmoniously and each person is free to grow and express themselves as individuals. However, some amount of conflict within a family is virtually unavoidable.
Conflict can occur between two people anytime their needs or desires interfere with each other’s. Within families, this may be especially likely during periods of change and transition, such as when children are born or begin schooling, when a parent loses a job or begins a new one, when the family moves to a new geographic location, or when the parents become separated or divorced. When conflict arises, it is in everyone’s best interest to find a resolution that maintains or restores family cohesion as fully as possible.
Sometimes families need help working through conflict and returning to cohesive functioning. This is both understandable and normal; in fact, more than half of the work we do at Cummins Behavioral Health involves children and families. Melanie Gibbs, LCSW, has been a provider of behavioral health therapy for over 20 years, and she has helped many families heal from conflict during that time. In this blog post, Melanie explains how therapy can help a family overcome internal conflicts using the key principles of validation and compromise.
Mistrust: The Result of Communication Breakdown
As we said above, conflict usually arises between two people when the things one person wants interfere with the things the other person wants. It’s often possible for the two parties to resolve their conflict if they listen to each other’s perspectives and agree on a mutually acceptable compromise. When a conflict escalates, it’s typically due to a breakdown of respectful communication between the individuals in dispute.
This is usually the stage of conflict a family has reached when they choose to begin therapy. “Typically, feelings are very hurt, and people have been dealing with that hurt by either withdrawing or attacking back, typically with words,” Melanie explains. “Over time, that starts to erode feelings of trust and safety within the family. Trust diminishes, trust diminishes, trust diminishes, until there’s really no communication and no trust.”
If it is not addressed, this lack of trust will ultimately drive a family apart. The goal of therapy is to rebuild trust within the family, and the first step toward rebuilding trust is reestablishing constructive communication. “My job is to get people to hear each other—and to keep hearing each other until the message sent is the message received,” Melanie says.
In therapy, this is primarily achieved by validating the feelings and desires of each family member, as Melanie explains:
“I want each person in the room to tell me their perception of the story that brought them to therapy. What do they think is going on? How do they see it? I’ve been doing therapy for 20 years, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a conversation with anyone where I could not find some validity in what they were saying and how they were seeing it. A person’s backstory influences how they see things and what they need, so if you have four people in a room and everyone tells their story one by one, it’s easy to say, ‘Yes, I understand you because of this and this. This is the way this feels to you, and this is what’s going on in your mind.’ Everyone can feel heard and respected, and they can still come together to solve the problem.”
Dismantling the Fallacy of “Right and Wrong”
When two people are engaged in a conflict, it’s only natural for each person to believe that they are right and the other person is wrong. However, taking the time to listen to each person’s perspective helps us realize that this is not true. “People often anticipate that there’s going to be a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong,’ and they worry they’re going to be in the wrong and their feelings are going to be invalidated. But that’s not what family work is,” Melanie says. “It’s not my job to call out right and wrong. There is no right and wrong.”
To accept that neither person is right or wrong means two things: first, that each person has behaved reasonably given their point of view, and second, that each person may have unintentionally contributed to the problem. As Melanie explains, this is easier for people to do if they believe their own perspective is being taken into consideration:
“Until someone feels heard, they can’t be open to hearing anyone else. Their mind is full of everything they need to say. So before you can ask people to change, and before you can ask them how they think they’ve contributed to the problem, you have to hear their feelings, their perceptions, their experience, their hopes, and you have to say, ‘OK, I hear you. I see that these particular things are very important to you, and I understand why they’re important to you, and we’re going to remember that.’ It’s called ‘creating safety.’ You have to create emotional safety so people can begin to relax and be more open to hearing other people.“
In the case of family therapy, everyone must ultimately must work together to find an acceptable compromise that will keep the family together. “One of the premises that I promote in couples or families work is: instead of solving a problem in terms of who’s right and who’s wrong, how do you solve a problem in a way that everyone can most live with?” Melanie says. “What’s the solution that everyone can genuinely be the most on-board with? That’s the solution you want to go with, because in the end, holding the family system together in a way that people can feel seen, honored, respected and safe is much more important than the particular decision you make.”
Some amount of conflict within a family is normal, but conflict that escalates and goes unresolved can seriously threaten family cohesion. Family therapy can help to restore harmony by validating the thoughts and feelings of each person and working to find a compromise that everyone in the family can live with.
At Cummins Behavioral Health, we are committed to promoting healthy families and family resiliency among our consumers. If you are experiencing dysfunction in your family and think that family therapy might be right for you, please give us a call at (888) 714-1927 to discuss your options and schedule an appointment!
Looking for more services and interventions that can help strengthen family functioning? You might like our blog posts on wraparound services and Conscious Discipline below!