Real Life: When Your Family Doesn’t Get Along


Whether you live near or far from them, family is important. Beyond being your persona foundation, relationships with your family can be formative for your children. So what do you do when your family has conflict and doesn’t get along?

Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with extended conflict with both my own family and my in-laws; it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And yet the process of addressing the issues (and it is very much an on-going process to this day) has led me to a deeper understanding of myself and my family members. Turning conflict into a tool rather than a ticking time bomb has dramatically changed the way I approach my marriage and my family life. Here are some things I’ve learned:

Everyone brings their own context – they may not be responding to you

I’ve had the horrifying experience of showing up for family pictures wearing the wrong color (long story). And I responded poorly in the moment not only because it was embarrassing and entirely avoidable, but because I was immediately reminded of a mortifying moment in first grade when I forgot my costume for the school play (longer story) and everyone became painfully aware of my mistake when I missed my entrance.

Understanding your own context is important, but being willing and ready to enter into someone else’s is vital. Instead of reacting with judgment or dismissal, be willing to listen and to ask what’s really behind the tears or frustration. Although not true for everyone, I’ve found my awareness and capacity to do this has only grown with being a parent.

You can only control one thing: How you respond

Know your triggers and situations for when you’ll likely have a short fuse. My husband is the king of hangry. When I’m overtired, I’m also overly sensitive. We know this about each other, and we’ve learned to anticipate and talk through situations where one of us may need help. Create a game plan. Have a code word so your spouse knows when to intervene or change the topic of conversation. (This was hugely helpful when I realized my voting preferences would put me in the minority during a large family gathering – and my husband had the magical sense to recommend a nap or walk before discussion turned to politics. Bless him.)

Be clear with expectations, and encourage them to do the same

Both of our families live over 1,000 miles away, leading to some exhausting travel days. Long before I had kids, I knew that it took me a full day to recover – my son seems to have a delayed response, getting much worse the second day. Communicating our needs with my family has been transformative and came after a very difficult trip where each day was filled with activities and gatherings with others, instead of our immediate family.

Now I simply make it a point to have the discussion of our emotional and rest requirements as we plan out physical needs like pack-n-plays and night lights. And my family knows to give us a few days before encouraging others to come over to visit.

Learn how to love them well, and share how to be loved in return

If you haven’t heard of the Five Love Languages, this is something to explore immediately. Pastor and author Gary Chapman developed the idea that everyone expresses and receives love in specific ways (you can take an online assessment here). The way you show love to others may be different than the way you best feel loved by others, too.

One of my family members is a planner – she is always on the go. Because that’s the way she and her family operate, when we come into town she’ll have plans for us each day, often times for events that require tickets and preparation. My husband and I generally prefer to stay home and hang out – our idea of quality time looks vastly different from hers. But for the health of the relationship, we’ve tried to make compromises, opting into some plans and staying home for others. It is a work in progress, but I’ve found that encouraging her to take the Five Love Languages assessment also gave us a neutral vocabulary to talk about our frustrations with each other and move forward in intentional ways together.

In the end, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that in most cases, I’d rather have the relationship than have my way. Personalities rarely change, and time is precious. I believe some conflict is necessary and healthy to move you into a better place in your relationships. And to be clear, some of my relationships still aren’t there, but I’m trusting that we will all get there eventually.

How about you? What are your methods for dealing with conflict in your family?