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Changing Family Relationships Blog Series

Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension & Caregiver


Reasons for Family Conflict

This is the second article in a four-part series on changing family relationships of families who are caring for someone with cancer. All families have conflict and caregiving is a situation that has plenty of opportunities for conflict. Understanding what underlines the conflict or potential areas of conflict can help in resolving and/or understanding the conflict better. In today’s blog we are going to focus on 4 out of 7 possible reasons for family conflict. Next week we will continue with part II, “Reasons for Family Conflict,” and provide you with the final possible motives for family conflict while providing care. To review the entire “Changing Family Relationships Blog Series” check out the following articles:

Membership changes within the family.

Who is in and out of the family changes as family members die, marry, divorce, separate and have children. At times families include non-biological individuals because of long term relationships or other reasons. These individuals contribute to family dynamics. How it causes conflict:

  • New family members or non-biological family members are not liked or accepted and cause problems.
  • Family members struggle with losses of family members and the role they had within the family. Conflict could arise as the family adjusts to changes made to fill in the gaps left when the family member died or left.

Family dynamics.

How the family has functioned in the past and the various roles each individual has with each other adds to the family dynamics. Past wounds are reopened, and childhood rivalries reemerge. It is not unusual for family members to take on the historical family roles they have had in the past, for old dynamics, competitions and resentments to come alive again as the family provides care to each other. Family dynamics are shaped by each individual’s past history with each other and the family as a whole. This is especially true for the caregiver and care receiver. How it causes conflict:

  • Past family conflicts and/or rivalries surface.
  • New family conflicts emerge over caregiving.
  • Family members are not aware of past family histories and how they impact existing family relationships.

Family rules.

The rules a family has contributes to family dynamics and how the rules are played out in various situations. Typically, family rules are not written down but become known as family members interact with each other and observe how the family functions. Family rules guide how individuals treat each other, how they communicate, their values and how they function as a family. Things like we don’t talk about money, sex or death, we don’t share our business with others, or we take care of our own are just a few examples of family rules. What family rules does your family have? If you’re uncertain think about past family situations and family interactions during that situation. You can also ask other family members if they are aware of family rules. Basically, the rules highlight what’s acceptable or not within a family and contributes to an individual’s expectation, beliefs and values. An individual’s beliefs, expectation and values can be passed down from generation to generation and can be different for each family member. Sometimes family members decide they will not adhere to family rules and/change their own expectations, beliefs, and values. How it causes conflict:

  • Family members aren’t aware of family rules and how they impact the family.
  • Family members don’t accept or value family rules.
  • Family rules are broken.

Denial or acceptance of the care receiver’s condition.

Family members who are in denial over the care receiver’s condition may choose not to be involved in providing care. This is a way of protecting themselves from facing the care receiver’s death and its impact on them. Other family members may react negatively with bitterness and anger toward the uninvolved family member. Every family member will deal differently with caregiving responsibilities and will experience different emotions. How it causes conflict:

  • Family member, especially the caregiver is in denial of the care receiver’s condition and what the cancer victim’s need.
  • Different reactions of caregiver and care receiver to the care receiver’s medical condition.