How to prevent family conflict from spreading like wildfire


How to prevent family conflict from spreading like wildfireHave you ever experienced a family conflict that starts with an argument between two people but soon spreads like a wildfire, drawing in siblings, parents and even cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents? These flash conflicts take a terrible toll on family members and relationships.

Just as fire rangers work to contain a forest fire, preventing its spread and limiting its damage to the woods, you can take action by building a firebreak to help your family and yourself limit the spread of the family conflict and safely contain it.

To manage a conflict wildfire, you first need to understand one of the key dynamics of how these wildfire family conflicts spread from person to person. Wildfire family conflicts spread through a process called triangulation.

How does triangulation work?

Let’s imagine a scenario between you and your sibling. Let’s call him John for the purposes of this article. So, you and John have a serious argument and cannot reach a resolution. In frustration, you turn to another family member like your mother and tell her all about the argument, but she only gets your side of the story. Even though turning to your mother provides a sense of relief, you have added fuel to the fire by painting an unfair picture of the situation and placing John in a bad light. Nevertheless, your mother gets emotionally invested, takes your side, and agrees that John is the source of the problem. Now, we have three people involved in the argument, which creates a dysfunctional conflict triangle.

As a result your mother feels angry at John for being so unfair and might reproach him and choose to involve another family member, like your father, again adding fuel to the fire. In the meantime, you might decide to involve even more family members, fueled by your anger and the support you’ve received from your mother and father.

In the meantime, John has been busy seeking the same relief you did and has turned to your cousin, Fred, who takes his side and views yourself as the source of the problem. Fred then decides to involve his mother, your aunt, creating even more conflict triangles and increasing the emotional temperature of the family conflict. Before long, the wildfire spreads to many other family members and you have a wildfire of conflict on your hands.

How can you protect yourself from this experience and minimize this type of conflict?

The first and best strategy is – don’t initiate or get involved in triangulated communication and relationships. 

The do’s and don’ts of preventing family conflict

If a family member approaches you about an issue they are having with another family member:

  • Do listen, do show caring and support and offer suggestions for solutions if asked.
  • Do suggest to the family member that they go back to the party they have an issue with and continue to try to resolve it with them directly. Decline to talk to the other party, if the person with the issue asks you.
  • Do not take on the issue as your own, and do not emotionally join one side or the other. Remain neutral, as hard as that might feel sometimes.
  • Do not tell this family member’s story to other family members.

If you have an issue with a family member:

  • Do attempt to work it out with the person you have the issue with directly.
  • Do recognize that the problem is between you and the other person, and does not belong to other family members.
  • Don’t expect other family members to take your side.
  • Do seek objective counsel and support from a professional through your Employee and Family Assistance Program.
  • Do seek support through a trusted friend, someone outside of the family circle.

By staying out of triangulated relationships and communications, you will help contain conflict wildfires in your family, and in so doing, improve their lives and yours.


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