This is a question that is so often asked, and I’m afraid there isn’t any straightforward response, but there is some thinking in this article to ponder before leaping into the fire!
Let’s assume a family dynamic involves one troublesome member, perhaps in this case a parent, and everything or most things need to be on their terms. Perhaps they are directive or dismissive or perfectionistic or they are just plain rude and crude. Maybe they rule with an iron fist. And let’s assume their’s an historic tyranny of abuse.
It’s probably the case that others within the family have found their own roles in allowing this person to operate the way they have. It could be more than one person who is narcissistic, but let’s just assume it’s just one for the moment.
Some situations are safe to confront, and some situations just aren’t. If you are at mortal danger, I wouldn’t recommend you evoke their rage and be blamed for provoking violence. Yet it’s also a relationship you ought not to be in. ‘Violent relationship’ is kind of an oxymoron. Those two words don’t coalesce.
But if a confrontation might involve some angst, and definitely a conflict, but without violence, such a confrontation should be prayerfully considered.
Living as a peacemaker is not about pacifying people and sweeping things under the rug, but it is having the courage to respectfully challenge a situation that isn’t right.
Peacemaking isn’t peacekeeping. Very far from it.
In many ways we won’t know what we are dealing with until we have confronted it.
We just need to know we are safe, that’s all.
TWO SITUATIONS IN DECIDING THE WAY FORWARD
In a very simplistic way, we can imagine there are two scenarios.
The first involves a situation where it isn’t safe to challenge the dysfunction. In this case boundaries are in order, but having said that, if it isn’t safe to challenge the situation, boundaries are also fraught with some element of risk, even if they are very often necessary for our own safety. In this situation, the instituting of boundaries has likely led to the circumstance of some constituent of trauma already.
The second situation comes about when we have agreed with ourselves that we do need to confront something of a toxic dynamic.
We pray beforehand. In fact, we will have been praying right up to the point leading up to this, so when we have decided we will confront this:
Þ we keep praying for guidance on the method of the confrontation
Þ the words we will use, asking God for the supply of wisdom that we lack (James 1:5)
Þ getting God to prepare our hearts to be both firm though gentle — a difficult balance to strike that demands prayer — and
Þ to not set our expectation too high that it will easily be dashed.
In holding the conversation, itself, we wisely consider having another person with us who isn’t biased and can be trusted to be present, simply listen and to provided prayerful care. A wise peacemaker who won’t exacerbate the situation.
The other person should be allowed a support person as well. We just need to be sure their support person is as unbiased as ours is.
We need level heads and calm hearts if we are to achieve anything. Reconciliation, wherever it’s possible, is more important than parties ‘winning’. Actually, reconciliation IS the win!
WHEN CONFLICT INEVITABLY ARISES
It is best to move slowly, and where there is any sign of conflict, even slower.
In these kinds of discussions, people do get emotional. It is best to gain clarity when one person gets upset, because it is an opportunity to know them better, and to understand what it is they need. Understanding is the basis of peace in conflict. We want to know WHY they want what they want. Everyone has a legitimate ‘why’ when you look at it from their viewpoint.
Only when we understand what they need can we assess whether it is a reasonable request or not. Too often we assume that requests aren’t reasonable before we even bother to hear them out. Understanding begets empathy.
In peacemaking circles, we call prejudging the attitudes of others, committing assumicide.
We may too often assume that the antagonist is unreasonable. It is always wise to confirm whether or not they’re being unreasonable, being careful of course not to slip into confirmation bias — which is the bias that we only see what confirms our original view.
Even if they are being unreasonable, it’s worth the brief amount of time it takes to endeavour to understand why. There could be a very valid reason why they are being unreasonable.
Whenever it is our aim to have proactive, working relationships, we will need to seek to be committed to confronting conflicts as they arise. Of course, this is risky business.
It takes courage and humility and a great deal of wisdom to do this well; we need a huge portion of reliance on God’s provision. Nothing ever gets fixed unless we are prepared to have difficult conversations. But nothing gets fixed if we don’t plan well and then end up leading to prejudiced conclusions without true regard for how people are being treated. Only more hurt, more perception of betrayal, more dis-ease, more confusion, less peace.
In terms of the present question, we need to establish whether we are safe or not. If there is little or no risk of physical, mental, emotional, verbal, or spiritual abuse or neglect, there is no reason why we shouldn’t respectfully challenge dysfunctional family dynamics, though again, the dysfunctional dynamic indicates that challenge will probably spark fireworks.
At the very least, what this affords us is clarity about where we stand. We do have a choice as to who we will relate with and how.
Before God, it is up to us, as far as it depends on us, to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).