Family Dynamics and Your Current Relationships… Unrelated? Think Again.
Don’t you love light bulb moments? They don’t happen often (at least for me…) but when they do, I am almost astonished at how enlightened I feel. This may sound dumb, but I honestly love when all the pieces come together, all the dots connect, and I realize something new that I had never realized before. The crazier thing is that this realization has always been there; it just took me 26 years to realize it. One of my favorite lightbulb moments was when I was sitting with one of my therapists talking about my anxiety, and what makes it worse. The therapist started to ask me about my childhood, which I was confused about because we were discussing my current anxieties as an adult. “Can you remember a time when you were younger and you might have found yourself in a small place? Like stuck under the bed? Or maybe a slide at the park?” she asked me. Interestingly enough, I immediately responded as if she read my mind, “ YES. I locked myself in a closet when I was four and it was traumatizing.” Immediately the light bulb went off and I realized why I’m claustrophobic as an adult – why the thought of airplane seats and tunnels make me want to pass out – because of that closet when I was four. It was in that moment that 100 thoughts and memories came to my mind. I started asking myself what else happened during my childhood that has made me who I am today. What other events and experiences could have happened that shaped me into the person I am?
“Even where there is little or no present contact with family, a young person will have been influenced by dynamics in earlier years. Family dynamics often have a strong influence on the way young people see themselves, others and the world, and influence their relationships, behaviors and their wellbeing,” according to one article about family dynamics.
Additionally, “Our parents, who are our primary attachment figures, play an important role in how we experience the world because they lay the foundation of what the world is going to look like for us. Childhood experiences lay the groundwork for what will be our general attachment style throughout our lives, how we bond with another person, as well as how we respond emotionally when that person is separated from us.
Based on those articles, it’s evident that not only our experiences as children, but what we experience when it comes to our family dynamics as children greatly affects how we interact as adults. Different aspects and scenarios within the family can affect a child into adulthood. One variable is the way children learn about conflict and how to handle it. Conflict is something we run into everyday: discussing who will take the dog out for a walk, discussing weekend plans with a coworker, or providing customer service at work. Notice I used the word “discuss” instead of “argue”. Those words shouldn’t be interchangeable, but in this situation, I think sometimes they are. My husband asks me to take the dog out in the morning because he is running late for work. What I think my response sounds like: “Sure, Brian. I’m not running late, so I understand.” What I actually sound like: “Sure. I’m not running late now, but I will be if I take the dog out. Plus you never take the dog out in the morning.” My idea of “discussion” suddenly escalates to an argument – an argument that did not need to be had, and that started for no reason.
Many times, we don’t even realize we are causing or reacting to a conflict because it is a subconscious action and reaction. However, I think it is super important to take a step back and evaluate just how communication is going between you and your best friend or you and your significant other. Your current go-to for communication/ conflict style might date back to what you witnessed as a child. There are different types of conflict styles such as power assertive, endless disputing with no resolution, and conflict avoidance. These refer to styles where families or specific family members take on certain roles when conflict arises. A power assertive family member will be the one who has the final say, whether they listen to the rest of the members or not – what that person decides is the final decision. Endless disputing refers to families that have arguments that run in circles; there is never a resolution. This usually leads to repetition of the same issues. Conflict avoidance can be a result sometimes of the two previous conflict styles. Families or family members that avoid conflict altogether do so because they want to avoid arguments, or the way conflicts are handled – or not handled. Avoiding conflict, again, repeats conflict. Avoiding to discuss issues just allows the same issues to arise until discussed and resolved.
“Years of participation in the conflict style allow the child to learn the intricacies of using the style to protect or extend their interests,” according to an article on the role of parents in young adults’ relationships (). Therefore, our learned behavior in conflict style starts with our observations of our family members when we are young. We tend to carry these styles into our adulthood and apply it to our relationships with friends and with our significant other.
Additionally, the way our family members raised us as kids can also affect our relationships as adults. Having a strict parent can lead a child to not trust themselves and not trust their own judgements, as the decisions and judgments were made by the parent. Children that come from a strict upbringing might also avoid communication or discussions in fear of disappointing their parents. As adults, it still is difficult for them to express themselves in fear of disappointing the loved ones around them. Alternatively, coming from a lackadaisical family can lead a child to grow up without boundaries and without control of their behavior and emotions. Children that feel like they came from families that didn’t listen to them, or were inconsistent with their responses to the child’s needs, can lead the child to have feelings of anxiety, can sometimes lead the child to be too clingy or too distant, or can lead the child to pull away altogether to protect their emotions. Anxiety and clinginess can happen when children receive inconsistent support. When a family member offers support sometimes, but at other times does not, the child learns to anticipate the inconsistency and starts to fear they might not receive support the next time or the time after that. Being distant or removing themselves altogether in childhood can be a result of family members not giving the child what he or she needs. The child learns to pull away to protect themselves because of the constant rejection they seem to experience.
All of these factors from childhood affect us as children, but can carry through to adulthood, as well. I’m sure there are also many other factors, and not every family is the same, so not everyone might fall into the variables I listed.
Our learned behaviors to protect ourselves in conflict and to protect ourselves emotionally cannot always change on their own – we have to actively recognize these styles and actively want to make a change. As I mentioned before, finding that lightbulb moment, recognizing how we handle problems, where does our style stem from – can help us move forward and communicate in a more healthy manner. This awareness shouldn’t be a finger to point. This awareness can be a slow and difficult process because it requires vulnerability, deep thought, self-reflection, and action. The first step is being willing to admit and recognize that you can improve your communication and your conflict styles. Conflicts usually involve multiple people, so as one of multiple people within the conflict, you have to take X% responsibility to offer your best self to the issue. Easier said than done, I know. But hopefully, this article sparked your lightbulb moment.