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.