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Family Dynamics

Every Dispute (Among Family or State) Has Clashing Reasons

For every hostile argument, there is a resolution, even for open-ended wars. How far should they go?

Key points

  • As it is with wars, disputes have reasons that could be argued to unfold resolutions.
  • Disputes are part of the natural growth of human advancement. Mediation feeds the progress of improved behavior.
  • Deciding to avoid a dispute does not justify estrangement.
Paolo Veronese, Art of Being Right. public domain
Source: Paolo Veronese, Art of Being Right. public domain

All wars have reasons; there are even rationales for invasions. Generally, they start with geopolitical disputes over resources, civil conflicts, or territorial disputes and end in resolutions. Unfortunately, too many disputes involve hawkish leaders seeking armed conflict for political, ethnocentric, imperialistic, liberational, and religious reasons—we all know the names of those wars and have all lived in times of one sovereignty or another’s suffering through them.

For some perspective on that last sentence, we know that at this moment, there are 40 wars and so-called “armed conflicts” on four continents happening at the expense of an average of (166,000) deaths per year and 3,287,478 cumulatively for just six of the 40 ongoing wars.

Can wars be prevented? As with any tricky question, the answer is yes and no. After WWII, when I was a young boy, my father told me that some wars must be fought and that that particular war certainly had to be. Now in my wise old age—ha—I keep thinking about war as a parallel level of family rivalry, jealousy, or political variance that moves from disputes to hostilities beyond reason. The closest comparisons are the civil wars that pit brother against brother over clashing regime policies.

Those disputes are part of the human DNA that replicated quadrillions of times our primate ancestries as far back as the late Upper Paleolithic era, some 13,000 years ago, when nomadic hunting in scarceness of big game called for combat under competition from others.

But wars are not competitive games. Chess is an agreed-upon match, and football is a conjoint sport. Both are played under strict rules. One either wins or loses according to the regulations. They move forward with opponent respect. Break the rules, and you are out. Family and community behavior is neither a game nor a sport, but, like chess and football, there are common notions and rules of behavior.

Friend and family disputes are not wars; both stem from the same root.

Family development is a complex business that sometimes involves imbalanced members avoiding medication. (Disputes in my family have taught me that.) But in examining the history of warfare, we understand that war comes from a primordial fear that some intruding wanderer encroaching on one’s territorial space must be understood to be a threat to the tribe or family; therefore, for safety, humans justifiably build shields for protection.

Moving on from that valid protection, they also shape weapons, and by those arms, become confident enough to make not necessarily war but rather violent acts of aggression. When we go far enough back to those very early humans with primitive languages who were justifiably protective of their clans, we find that there were no means of diplomacy. Curiously, human aggressions in those millennia were mostly hostile skirmishes, not what we would call “wars.”

By the Mesolithic age that ended the glacial period permitting the domestication of plants, warfare declined to shift from nomadic hunting of large game to domesticated life of hunting small game and harvesting wild plants. Gardening required grouping for communal seasonal replantings benefited by less fear of the other so tribal communities could develop without fear or need for weapons of war.

That brings me back to family disputes. They are no different from the seeds of wars. Family disputes are so frequent they seem to us as being natural behaviors. In some fashion they are, for they bring amendments to the communal behavior constitution through rational and irrational arguments. Think of all the current arguments that are going on around the world at family conversations on LGBTQ+ rights, for and against. Politics can divide families and friends. Teenagers who feel controlled at the age when they naturally see the cliff of independence approaching understandably argue their case against their adult guardians. Pushed back by the powers of parenthood, they declare war.

By that understanding, we should agree that arguments are healthy. On the other hand, breaking away from troublesome quarrals might just be the ticket to reduced anxiety and the possibility that unexpected calm will eventually come around.

How should we deal with conflict?

I am reminded of a Psychology Today post far back a few years ago, titled, “Sorting Out Long-Simmering Family Conflicts” by Fredric Neuman that said, “Do not argue with those you know well enough to know they will never consider that they may be wrong. Determining who was rude to the other first in an incident that happened many years ago is a waste of time.”

Not arguing does not mean walking away or calling for estrangement, however. Tracy Hutchinson argues in her Psychology Today post, “To Estrange or Not to Estrange: Toxic Family Dynamics” that estrangements have consequences. She tells us that there are times of regret when holidays and emergencies come around with the need for friendship. It is well known that regrets can become lifelong when the hostilities involve a person who dies before minimal scraps of reconciliation happen.

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When arguments go too far, they lead to ruptures. How far should we let estrangement go? And estrangement can, unfortunately, end in self-harming life-long regrets. As with all sorrowful behavior, wars too often end with regrets. I can point to many histories of WWI (Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August is one example) and many other wars that pointedly list military generals expressing regrets when their battles ended.


Keith F. Otterbein, How Wars Began (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M, 2004)……

Stacy L. YoungView all authors and affiliations, Volume 21, Issue 3.

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