Inexplicable tensions in family life

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Have you noticed how family life can sometimes appear irrationally conflicted? What I mean by this is a recurrence of largely inexplicable tensions between particular members of the clan that remain an enigma even to close observers. Experiences within my own family once led me to ponder this awkwardness, yet the problem’s ubiquity is indisputable. Within other families I’ve known in the past, there’s frequently been some seemingly unresolvable conflict gnawing away through the years and which seldom appeared reducible to any clearly justifiable cause.

The realisation of a natural harmony within family life appears widely elusive; naïve received notions and childhood conditionings perhaps having led us to err in our assumptions. We invariably pursue this chimera of familial amity in the early years of partnerships, believing that harmony will surely prevail amongst our projected future family. Any other approach would be odd in any case, leading to frictions between procreative urges and any realistic appraisal of our future emotional disturbances. But what’s the rationale for this leap of faith?

We might say that it’s no more than the same biological impulsion that serves as our surrogate reasoning – a natural ordering of priorities in which our psychological well-being is subordinated to the overriding procreative desire. This then, is a satisfactory enough explanation for later tensions between partners – maybe we weren’t as compatible with our beloved as we once convinced ourselves we were. The stress of proximity now creates conflict where once there was none; we’ve laid bare the painful truth, no longer able to deny the loosening ties of love.

Yet what of those situations that seem not at all uncommon, in which non-spousal family pairings appear irrationally conflicted? We needn’t presuppose any particular harmony between say, mother and son, or between siblings – there could instead simply be an indifference. And yet time and again we see an inexplicable tension between such pairings, one which rarely finds a resolution. Whilst both involved express their justifications for the conflict with a passion (and often an inconsistency), they invariably appear illogical to any witness – it just doesn’t stack up.

These irrational displays of conflict often have their genesis in childhood rivalries, when attempts are made to assert individuality, and hence particular needs. There’s an aggressive effort to establish the significance of our personal identity, to impose our unique (and needy), self-construct. Elder siblings typically initiate aggressive postures with new arrivals, a pattern which endures for decades once established. These attention-seeking strategies adopted in childhood continue to be used in maturity yet purely as the egocentric validations of the elder siblings.

These same strategies can also spill out into the wider family dynamics as the first born in particular continues to assert their needs. Not content with establishing their dominance over younger sister(s) and/or brother(s), the eldest offspring may also impose their self-centredness by asserting superiority over the parents too. They may for example claim to occupy ground not held by them – a broader intellectual terrain, a variety of life experience never accessible to the parents, or the moral high ground. This all creates suppressed tensions and conflict of course.

So whilst these problems arise from childhood conditioning, the sense of self is equally causal. The attention-seeking child develops a strong sense of their autonomy in which later they come to disregard their familial inter-dependence. They see the world and those who occupy it, including their own families, as resources whose worth or relevance requires calculation. Because of this, they may then unwittingly accommodate an insensitive judgementalism towards other family members, having deemed them largely superfluous to their needs.

Unsurprisingly, any family member acting in such a self-centred way will subject the rest to unwelcome stresses, and inevitably this leads to conflict. The aggression borne of childhood rivalries turns full circle and rebounds on itself. The self-centred adult, who first imposed their aggressions on family in childhood, now reaps the consequences in maturity. The effect is that everyone feels uncertain about the psychological terrain of the family; there’s an absence of trust that even mundane differences won’t give rise to suppressed or overt tensions.

As these subtle and hidden dynamics play out through the family over time, accommodations are often made so as to limit the frequency of the conflict. If not this, then the entire situation implodes and the chief culprit is largely exiled – tolerated at a distance but no more than that. The accommodations, when made, are largely suffered in silence by those making them – they tolerate the self-centred attention-seeker up to a point. This appeasing approach is useful only in that it maintains a superficial harmony; as an alternative, we can engage in open dialogue.

This is a risky strategy, yet one which occasionally may have to be made. It’s best done forcefully and unambiguously, as the main protagonist will deny any complicity in the problem. Following the denial, they may then progressively take the message on board, yet only sub-consciously. On the surface, the denial is sustained, with an over-weaning and disingenuous reasonableness being displayed in attempts to assure others of innocence. Yet all the while a slow absorption of the message occurs, and to which any truly mature adult must eventually respond.

25 thoughts on “Inexplicable tensions in family life

  1. Lots of red in this beautiful artwork by Clarissa accompanying a post tagged ‘conflict’. Is red, and black, a colour connected with conflict for you, for most people? I am interested in the colour associations that people make. Are they universal? Or cultural? I suppose they are part of the nature/nurture debate.

    Difficult (for me), and quite challenging post about familial and relationship conflicts. Will come back to read it again and again when my moods vary.

    Thank you, as always, for hitting a (the?) spot. ♥

    • When I searched for suitable images for this article, it felt that the first two of Clarissa’s paintings had something akin to the imagery of a circular saw; an unthinking machine which slices through everything that comes its way. This seemed to chime with the intractable tensions that I was discussing Liz.

      And yes, I do associate the colour red with high levels of negative emotional energy – conflict, stress, anxiety and so forth. I don’t know the science, but I think these associations are to do with the frequency of the light waves are they not? Red is a fast-frequency and blue is a slow-frequency waveform. People tend to paint their bedrooms blue rather than red for example; the slower waveforms are more calming to the brain and this is noticed subliminally.

      Blue and yellow together to me is a pleasing, very open and welcoming combination, and interestingly, are the colours used on the International Maritime Signal flag ‘K = Kilo’ to signal ‘I wish to communicate with you’. [I think I mentioned this before on your site Liz] I used a painting of Clarissa’s with a yellowy/gold colouring to set against the final two paragraphs which are about communication.

      I like orange though I don’t really know why; perhaps it is its association with autumnal colours, and that is a time of year I particularly like. It could as well be that I associate autumnal orangey browns with Cubist paintings, of which I have a few and obviously like. Or perhaps it is because it is the colour of the monastic robes of Theravadin Buddhists, for whom I feel a deep affinity.

      Coming back to your observations about the article, then yes, some aspects of family life can be rather fraught can’t they? I’ve tried to give my own take on things here, though I know we will all have different perspectives based on particular, and inevitably unique, experiences. Still, I think there are some universals in the text that may possibly speak to us all as we try to deal with such situations.

      All best wishes to you Liz.

      Hariod. ❤

      • Thank you.

        I think orange is a vibrant, energy giving colour too, close to the lovely saffron of some other robes I think. Red, though, seems to me to be a lovely colour in small doses, an accent, a contrast. And also a Buddhist robe colour in some traditions.

        Blue, the colour of sky reflected in water is indeed calming, and seems to me, along with green, to be the colour of voice and communication. And then there’s the historical and religious association of blue with Mary, supposedly a colour indicating innocence and virginity.

        And purple, indigo, violet – sensitive, spiritual colours perhaps.

        Oh well, I digress from the subject of conflict; but an aside, a digression, a diversion, a tangent, is the way it works for me. To look askance, rather than directly at the root or heart. 🙂

        • As you are someone who travels to far-flung regions of the earth to take part in intensive silent Vipassana retreats, then I can hardly accept that you are one who habitually distracts from ‘the root or heart’ Liz – pull the other one. 😉

          Hariod. ❤

          • Ah, but I recognise that it is a habit that needs help with correction; and it is when I am not dealing with conflict very well that it is at its worst; and then I see. . .

            So thanks again.

            With love.

            L. ♥

    • Oh dear Sarah, please forgive me. I really ought to have placed a warning sign on this article: ‘eldest siblings – read this at your peril’ 😉 I rather suspect that in your case though, you are more than sufficiently self-aware for there to be no such issue. Your ‘gulp’ is therefore taken as an ironic one! 😄

      With metta.

      Hariod. ❤

      • You’re very kind Hariod, but I do believe there are some issues that need more thought. I was more self-obsessed than self-aware during my childhood and early adulthood, and that has had it’s consequences. I’ve admitted to myself that this is so but, out of a desire to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’, I haven’t done enough to repair the damage. I will say no more, but thank you for the prod. 🙂

        Metta. ❤

        • Thank you for considering my words in this article Sarah, and also for openly sharing in the comments. Most readers remain quiet on this one; though it’s interesting to note that both you and Liz (the commenter above) are professional artists. It may be the case that ‘letting sleeping dogs lie’ is normally deemed the safest option by those involved, though perhaps the artist’s pursuit of authenticity and essence reaches far beyond their creative work.

          The healing within my own family came about very late in the day when my elder brother and mother finally reconciled; though both were extremely grateful that they did. Perhaps sometimes an intermediary can be helpful, which was myself in the instance just cited; though there, the emotions had been very highly engaged for decades, this despite their genesis remaining very much obscured to both my brother and mother.

          With metta.

          Hariod. ❤

          • Your mother and brother are fortunate to have you in the family, I think. I will hope for a similar resolution in my own family.

            By the way, I wouldn’t call myself a ‘professional artist’ as I have only ever sold one piece. 🙂 Most of my work that isn’t hanging on my own walls has been given to friends or donated to worthy causes, like the dharma wheel I did for a retreat centre.

  2. Sometimes dear Hariod, as has been my experience, the concerned parties are at different stages in their process of evolvement and one may not be open to any form of reconciliation. Just like maturity cannot be forced, this process cannot be forced either. When the desire for dialogue is put forth by one and dismissed by the other it’s a sad situation but one that must be accepted and allowed. Human relationships revolve around such an intricate web of emotions and so much comes to play in these formations. In situations such as you have described, the strange thing is that all are acting their act to somehow avoid ‘hurt’ and calling more upon themselves by not engaging in honest communication. Sometimes, there’s a repeated violation of emotional boundaries and one may seek protection with distance until all are ready to do their work of healing. Thanks for yet another wonderful post. This brought to mind some of my own writing that’s related. Often that was the only way to allow personal healing. Sharing slowly now on the blog. 🙂

    • You are perfectly correct of course Precious Rhymes, in stating that our psychological development progresses each in its own unique way and in the course of its own timeframe. Whilst it is quite futile to attempt to impose levels of understanding, there occasionally remains at least some scope for a reasonable exchange as regards feelings and their causes, I suspect you might agree. Here however, I think results are often very mixed, as it becomes impossible for one or other party to retain the necessary objectivity throughout. Where one party claims that certain words or actions of the other bring about unpleasant feelings within, the other will often assume that blame is being apportioned or that the link is irrational; in other words they may become defensive.

      I again agree that in many instances distancing is the optimum response for the time being. This can take different forms and, in the article, I refer to accommodations being made so as to limit the frequency of the conflict and which may involve this same distancing. Is it necessarily so that each party will come to a point at which the healing you refer to will obtain? And what can we do if, as is often so, it does not? Here, I think we must consider the risky strategy of forcing an open dialogue, of telling it how it is, or at least, how it appears. This will inevitably cause hurt, and one must weigh-up the potential benefits over the longer term. There can be no assurances as to the efficacy of such a course of action, though when all else is lost, perhaps it should be considered?

      It very much sounds as though you will have much insight to impart in this area; and I look forward to learning from your own experiences and reflections on the same at your site Precious Rhymes

      Hariod. ❤

      • Not sure about the insight Hariod; I do feel though that pushing things under the rug never works and dialogue is an absolute necessity; silence is not always golden. 🙂

        A forced dialogue may very well be the need when there’s not much left to lose, but even that, I feel, would call for a certain degree of openness and a desire to heal from both ends.

        An intermediary then, can certainly help with the magical work of repair.

        Many thanks for sharing your thoughts Hariod. They always inspire new reflection.

  3. Great thoughts here. I was the eldest of 5 🙂 and know that we grow up often carrying along the learned behaviours of our elders. 🙂 I hope I managed to always show love as I read stories and bathed my siblings in the weekly bath tub (full of the same bath water LOL), cleaned their school shoes, made porridge for their breakfast, laid and lit the fire; all while mum was still in bed. 🙂 LOL. You get the picture!

    Just hopping over here Hariod to wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas; and hope we will have lots of interaction over the coming blogging year.

    Love and Blessings.

    Sue. xxx

    • You clearly were a very fine exemplar of an elder sibling Sue; of that I have no doubt. I am sure you appreciate well that this article deals only with inexplicable tensions in family life, and there is no attempt on my part to stereotype familial roles here more generally. If we are able to, it can be useful though, to shine a little light into what are often the darkened and mysterious corners of family life – perhaps in the hope that whatever remains obscured to our own unique situation, then it in turn may be illuminated by others; for often that is what it takes is it not?

      Family life is so often subject to hidden dynamics; and when we are participants in the whole, it can be extraordinarily hard to see the wood for the trees, so to speak. I don’t doubt that there exist in the world many families wherein no such dynamics are at play; though perhaps it is so that these are more prevalent in cultures where familial and social roles are quite rigidly, and to good effect, defined? Close to our mutual home here in England, one thinks of the beneficial effects of the more matriarchal societies of Southern Europe, just as one such example.

      More widely in our Western culture, where personal identity and individuality are so lauded, it is more commonly so that these same ideals spread perniciously into family life. This damaging dynamic can result in us failing to appreciate the development of others; we perhaps set our siblings and parents in time, much as when in the same manner, we move away from an area and revisit years later, expecting all to be the same as it ever was upon our return. We may imagine a stasis which mysteriously applies to all except for ourselves.

      These are just a few additional thoughts, and of course, the subject of family life, and the roles we adopt within, is an enormous and complex one. To the extent that it is within my capacity and sphere of experience, I hope to add a few more articles on this subject in the future; specifically within the context of how our sense of contentedness may get corrupted through familial interactions. It would be interesting to read any articles of your own as may relate to your personal experiences dear Sue; and so please do let me know if there are any of the same.

      Many thanks for your kind greetings and wishes; they are most welcome and appreciated.

      With lots of love; and much gratitude for all that you provide by way of sharing your own thinking Sue.

      Hariod. ❤

      • I agree Hariod. I have seen so many dysfunctional families within my role as a support worker. And I can also put many such traits into our own family as to how some of my siblings act as they do.

        Thank you most kindly for your excellent response; and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts in 2015.

        Happy New Year to you Hariod.

        Love, Sue. xx

  4. Sonmi is the younger of two siblings. My elder is most certainly more driven to ‘prove’ herself in a myriad of ways, but we have spoken about this, and compared our roles and present behaviour with the way we were treated by our parents – with no less love, but there was (and indeed is), a clear difference there. We get on incredibly well; communication can work wonders, and I am certainly the one who has perhaps the tact to open dialogue in a peaceful manner.

    “People tend to paint their bedrooms blue rather than red for example” – Sonmi’s bedroom has two walls in a deep raspberry red, and two walls painted in a purple that is almost cerise. And sleeps very well thank you. *laughs*

    I have never liked yellow and blue, in fact, I find the two together jarring for some odd reason. I had my lounge painted a wonderful saffron orange for a couple of years though; the woodwork, doors, walls, ceiling, the lot were covered in that beautiful hue. I’d have had the carpet the same if the cash had been there. It was a very relaxing room, but some people found it a tad too much. *laughs*

    Great post Hariod. I pop over to find those I’ve missed every now and again – or simply to re-read parts that are soothing to me. x

    – SonmiupontheorangeCloud

    • Thank you for reading this piece and tracing some steps back to your own situation Sonmi. The psychological dynamics within families can of course vary so much dependent upon circumstances: age and gender differences between siblings, the changing levels of affection between parents, individual life experiences, and so on.

      Nonetheless, there do appear to be some loosely common themes which one finds occurring at a higher frequency than mere chance might suggest. The overall circumstances in which the first born enters the world are more often than not unique; whereas the offspring that follow may do so under broadly similar circumstances.

      I think it is a mistake to infer too much from such quasi-sociological findings, despite the recognised pattern repetition; and as you so correctly say, dialogue has the power to transform relationships, to break free of the deeply worn furrows of habituation. It sounds as though you have a splendid relationship with your sister, and that the two of you stand together on secure ground, perhaps thanks largely to your guidance and innate sagacity.

      On colours: I think blue is an appalling colour to paint any bedroom, or indeed any room for that matter, with the possible exception of a lavatory, where it might just work – but only as a duck-egg blue; royal blue is an utter abomination when it comes to home décor. Personally, I prefer neutral colours in rooms, which then allows the colours of paintings to do their work. Subtle, or even creamy, ivory-whites are fine, brilliant whites a complete no-no. Solid colours I think work best in large rooms. Patterned ‘feature’ walls ought result in the execution of the interior decorator, as should the inclusion of dead twigs poking forlornly out of cheap ceramic vases of the B&Q variety. Dado rails are also a prosecutable offence, whereas picture rails tend to enhance. Never use wallpaper borders; they are disgusting. Orange is a fine colour for a kitchen; it also works wonderfully well in velvet.

      H ❤

  5. Your list of that which is permissible and that which is punishable by a terrible death so far as decoration goes has me laughing a great deal. I once has a duck-egg blue bathroom, and agree with almost every other point, though I did see a chimney breast a couple of weeks ago that was solely covered in William Morris print wallpaper; the rest of the room (picture rails in place) was cream, and it did look very good. The fact that the paintings on the walls were all Pre-raphaelite set in gold frames, and the furniture and bookcases all in beautiful aged wood made it all work well together. But for the most part, yes indeed. And who doesn’t love an orange sofa?!! Sonmi also likes big purple ones. *wags her finger in stern warning at H*.

    – SonmiupontheCloud ❤

    • The duck-egg blue bathroom gets my vote for sure Sonmi, and it was remiss of me to have limited that shade to lavatories alone in my comment above. I suspect you have a far finer, more sophisticated sense of colour and décor than I; and my fascistic proscriptions were not wholly serious in all truth, as doubtless you guessed.

      Odd that you should refer to William Morris, as I was only mentioning to a hopelessly style-conscious blogger in France the other day that I once viewed Morris’ former home in Bradford-on Avon when it was on the market. Amazingly, some of his original wallpaper still lined a partly boarded-up pantry and alcove.

      Pre-Raphaelite paintings: Of course, you are Lady Lilith (a.k.a. mistress Fanny Cornforth) in another dimension are you not? “She excels all women in the magic of her locks, and when she twines them ’round a young man’s neck she will not ever set him free again.” Good lord, pity the poor lad who comes up against your Fanny!

      Orange velvet sofas: Your copious use of exclamatory marks convinces me that we share a passion here Sonmi. I can see the two of us lolling around endlessly on one, mockingly deriding the neighbour’s white leather DFS jobbie. Still, if I were invited to frolic around on a big purple one, I would, without hesitation, leave you to it.

      – HariodlollinguponantiqueorangecrushedVelvet ❤

  6. Oh dear, the comment I just wrote seems to have disappeared for some reason. Well, all I said was that my family was rather different. I was the oldest child but my brother and I got on well. My mother’s family, on the other hand, was exactly like the one you described. The oldest brother was a tyrannical bully and was eventually exiled by the rest.

    • A number of times that has happened to me, Bun – comments disappearing. Much as I may curse WordPress at times, I have to say it is pretty solid most of the time. I am getting to grips with Flickr currently, and the experience is not good. I sometimes wonder if software is made ambiguously oblique so that once one has gone so far in learning its intricacies, one feels one simply cannot jump ship for want of squandering all of one’s efforts.

      Anyway, thankyou very much for reading this offering of mine; I appreciate it. Your mother’s family does indeed echo the situation I describe in my wider family then, and which from my readings I learn is far from rare. Sibling rivalry is of course an acknowledged phenomenon, as is the tendency of elder siblings typically to initiate aggressive psychological stances with new sibling arrivals; though many are the exceptions too, yours happily being a case in point.

      Thankyou once again for your interest, Bun.

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