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Building Bridges by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante    

Family feuds:

Navigating conflict during the pandemic

by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante

As we all continue to adjust to the uncertainties of this pandemic, disagreements between family members are happening more and more. On the news we see every day that not everyone agrees regarding social distancing and gatherings, mask wearing and vaccinations.

And these disagreements happen within couples and families too. So much has changed from the way we celebrate occasions, go to work and school, and shop. People within the same family disagree on travel, whether to get vaccinated or see people outside of the household. There are many different factors that contribute towards these differences in opinion including:

  • Health concerns
  • Social needs
  • Job and financial reasons
  • Ability to cope and handle stress
  • Comfort level with risk-taking behaviour
  • Developmental age (e.g., kids and teens have different priorities compared to older adults)
  • Degree of concern for others
  • Importance placed on individual rights and freedoms
  • Political and religious influence

People can end up dwelling on past hurts that lead to ongoing resentment, anger and even hatred. If you think that this might be you, you may want to consider the personal cost of hanging onto grudges.

A well-known Buddhist quote captures this idea: “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” To illustrate, psychologist Elisha Goldstein (2010) asks us to try this experiment:

“Think of someone in your life right now who you are absolutely holding a grudge against right now. There is no way you are willing to forgive this person right now for their actions. Picture that person and hold onto that unwillingness to forgive. Now, just observe what emotions are there. Anger, resentment, sadness? Also notice how you are holding your body right now, is it tense anywhere or feeling heavy? Now bring awareness to your thoughts; are they hateful and spiteful thoughts?”

Experience how it feels to hold onto this grudge so tightly. Is there an effect on your body, for instance, heaviness in your chest or head? Do you avoid certain places or situations because the person might be there? Do you look for reasons to tell yourself that you are better than that person? Even worse, do you constantly ruminate about how you can get revenge? Think about the physical and mental effort that you are investing and ask yourself: “Who is really suffering here?” Can you imagine the effect this will have if you carry it over weeks, months, even years? This mental stress could be related to future physical illness.

It’s hard to know where to start the road to forgiveness, but it can help to:

Put yourself in the other’s shoes

Think about all the issues that the other must deal with. Are they stressed about work and finances due to the pandemic? Do they have health issues that amplify concerns about catching COVID-19? Also, do you really believe that the person wanted to hurt you? Perhaps they were forgetful or displayed bad judgment and did not mean to hurt others.

Talk about the problem

When appropriate, tell the other person about your feelings. In a calm voice, use “I” messages (e.g. “I felt really scared when I found out you were around people that don’t always wear masks,” rather than, “You” messages which can feel accusatory (e.g. “You were completely out of line”).

If it does not feel right to talk in person, then try it in written form. Sometimes, writing a letter can give us time to sort out our thoughts. If they read it first without you there, it can give them time to think about their response.

Set boundaries

Tell the other person what is acceptable to you, and what is not. For example, if your mother does not want to get vaccinated and wants to visit your kids and you feel uncomfortable about this, let her know. You may be worried about hurting her feelings, but if said in a kind but firm manner, she may see where you are coming from. For example, try saying, “I really respect your opinion because you are a great mother, but I will parent my kids in a way that feels right to me.”

Get support

Confide in one or two people who you trust. Avoid telling multiple people because you may be crossing the line into gossip, which is not far from the act of getting revenge. Find someone who is not judgmental, who can help you to see things in a different light. The goal is to talk through and decrease anger, sadness, and worry.

Understand what forgiveness is

Forgiveness does not mean that you condone the act or that you forgot about what happened. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that you want to go back to the way things were. In fact, forgiveness can happen within and not require that anything even be said to the other person.

What is most important is that you release feelings of anger, blame, resentment, or vengeance so that you can move on with your life and feel better physically, emotionally, and mentally. One of the most powerful quotes that truly captures the essence of forgiveness was said by Lily Tomlin:

“Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”

Looking at the act of forgiveness in this way provides us with the hope of a better present and future, and it frees us from past hurts. But it is not something that is just handed to us. We must work toward forgiveness and truly desire it in our hearts. Let’s not let long-term resentment be another outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.

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