Although present since the nineteenth century, particularly in Marxist thinking (more specifically in Engels’s work), interest in family conflict within the sociology of family only really developed as a theme during the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1950s the dominant functionalist perspective tended to analyze the family in terms of internal equilibrium and its complementarity to the global society. Parsons’s point of view (notably, Parsons & Bales 1955) is that the values of competition, achievement, and rationality in relation to the workings of the economic, educational, and political systems find a necessary counterweight in the family. This privileges affective expression, emphasizing ‘‘being’’ over ‘‘having,’’ and the totality of the person over his or her division into functions. In addition, the division of work between the man and the woman ensures good management of the expressive group dimension (by the woman) and the instrumental group dimension (by the man), and assures adequate socialization of the children. Through this process of socialization on the one hand, and the stabilization of the adult personality on the other, the family was seen to provide society with motivated and well oriented ‘‘normal’’ people, and at the same time procure the resources and abilities necessary for the family to function.
Important socio demographic changes started intervening in the western world during the 1960s, including rapid growth in divorce rates, falls in marriage, significant declines in fecundity, increases in cohabitation, and higher levels of employment of married women (Roussel 1985). Somewhat paradoxically, research attention was drawn at this time to concerns about overloading the family system; the reproduction of the inequalities in marriage and the family; the effect of cultural tensions on domestic intimacy; and the lack of resources available to some families.
As much in conservative theories as in radical ones, conflict has consequently been viewed as an intrinsic component of family dynamics, with its nature and causes being investigated along with its management.
Models of Family Conflict
In examining the nature of family conflict, we need to be clear about some commonsense assumptions. First, separation and divorce are not valid indicators of family conflict overall: a frequent observation is that many marriages are very stable, although unhappy or conflicting. Second, family conflict is not limited to open fights: quite often, tensions in the couple or the family remain silent; quite often also, they are not perceived as such by the entire family. And third, reciprocated differences of opinion or taste do not necessarily entail family conflict. More constructively, family conflict can be understood as relational tensions – overt or latent – arising out of the difficulty the family group has in defining its objectives, in finding the resources and the organizational structure suitable for reaching its goals, or in safeguarding sufficiently its members’ individual interests. In broad terms, five distinct models for explaining the reasons for such family conflict have been produced.
This model highlights the role of socialization, arguing that inadequacies in people’s socialization experiences contribute to family conflict. For example, those who marry at a young age tend to be relatively immature psychologically and socially. This is liable to compromise how well they adapt to marriage and family life, a factor linked to high rates of separation and divorce. Similarly, growing up in a disunited or conflictual family not only increases the probability of maladjustment but is also likely to limit opportunities for learning suitable modes of relating. Poverty and economic insecurity of the family during one’s childhood are seen as undermining processes of childhood socialization and increasing the risk of conjugal conflict in adulthood. Low levels of educational achievement are also seen as compromising the development of aptitudes for negotiation and communication, both of which are judged as essential for success in contemporary marriage. Above all, the deficit model stresses the lack of resources available in particular families (Cherlin 1999: 365–422). In these, the gap between the family’s objectives and the means at its disposal becomes too great, resulting in high levels of frustration (Webster et al. 1995). From the same point of view, such families may also be deprived of support because they lack the social integration and/or links with kin which can help prevent conflict (Shelton 1987).
This model takes a more historical perspective and stresses the extent to which the progressive weakening of public participation has led to individuals placing too great an emphasis on the private sphere of home, family, and children (Aries 1978). Under these conditions, the individual is led to expect the family to compensate for the failings of the wider society by meeting all his or her needs. Some, such as Sennett (1974), see this as the product of the disappearance of the ‘‘public man.’’ Others, like Donzelot (1977), see it as the consequence of specific family policies designed to undermine class consciousness and solidarity. Either way, the family as a refuge is transformed into the family as a ghetto. The growth of family conflict as expressed through increasing levels of divorce is thus interpreted, by Berger and Kellner (1964) for instance, not as a loss of family functions, but as the expression of this excessive investment in these very important expectations of family and conjugal life (Roussel 1985).
‘‘Cultural Tensions’’ Model
In this model the emphasis is placed on the gap that exists between the commitments required by and implicated in family life and the importance attached to the individual in contemporary culture. For authors such as Bellah et al. (1986), the individual today is seen above all as having a moral responsibility to search for personal identity and authenticity of the self. That is, they have a ‘‘duty’’ of ‘‘self-discovery’’ and ‘‘self-fulfillment.’’ This endless quest for the self translates into a weakening of family commitments and responsibilities. It is this same critique of the growth of individualism within contemporary social life that makes Popenoe (1988) state that the family is functioning increasingly less effectively as a mediator between the individual and society.
‘‘Conflict of Interest’’ Model
In this model the drive for equality in contemporary family relationships is seen as in opposition to broader structural inequalities affecting both employment and the domestic sphere. More specifically, the growth of dual career families has not translated into conjugal equality, as most wives continue to carry a far greater responsibility than their husbands for domestic labor and household management. Moreover, in spite of increasing educational achievements, women are generally the ones who adapt their employment commitments to family needs, thereby often compromising their promotion prospects. In contrast, husbands are more often able to use the family resources as a spring board for their occupational mobility. Of course, this tension between equality and inequality frequently leads to feelings of injustice which are sometimes expressed in divorce, sometimes in psychological distress, and sometimes in violence towards the children. However, as equity theory would suggest, feelings of injustice are not directly proportional to the degree of inequality: different cognitive processes often lead to both the husband and wife tolerating this for the sake of higher interests judged to be more important. From this point of view, the concept of power acquires great importance. The first empirical studies on this theme notably showed that decision making powers in the family are strongly correlated with the gap in the respective socioeconomic resources of the spouses (Blood & Wolfe 1960). Moreover, later studies drawing on resource theory also show that family negotiation depends heavily on the resources available to each spouse outside the nuclear family. While these gender divisions may benefit the family collectively, they also increase the social distance between the husband and wife.
This model focuses on the degree to which contemporary couples are required to negotiate the organization of their relationship individually because traditional models of marriage are no longer considered appropriate or legitimate. Among other things, this involves defining family priorities; organizing the division of work inside and outside the home; defining the areas of intimacy and privacy; agreeing on the sharing of material resources; and defining the extent and intensity of contacts with the world outside. Yet these constructions are often rendered conflictual by (1) subjective uncertainty toward the duration of the union; (2) incompatibilities between individualist aspirations and fusional models of conjugal relationships; and (3) tension between the equalitarian aspirations and the unequal status of the husband and wife. This situation can generate very high levels of stress, particularly when children are young (Kellerhals et al. 2004).
Management of Conflict
Various sociologists have been concerned with investigating ways in which family conflict can be resolved. Many recognize that ideologies of love often result in the husband and wife feeling guilty about any conflicts they have, with the result that any potentially positive consequences of these conflicts tend to be masked. Not only can this compound the conflict, but it may also lead to a more serious crisis (Eshleman 1997; Olson & DeFrain 1997).
Different approaches have been developed to facilitate conflict resolution. Some, such as Kilmann and Thomas (1975), focus on the degree of aggression and cooperation within the relationship, and on this basis define different strategies for conflict resolution – collaborative, competitive, compromise, avoidance, accommodating. Other approaches oppose ‘‘task oriented’’ strategies with ‘‘relation oriented’’ strategies (Keller hals et al. 2004), with conflict resolution being dependent on the equilibrium established between these two. A synthesis of studies on this theme lead Olson and DeFrain (1997) to identify six basic steps in conflict resolution: (1) clarifying the issue; (2) finding out what each person wants; (3) identifying various alternatives; (4) deciding how to negotiate; (5) solidifying the agreements; and (6) reviewing and renegotiating. Other approaches suggest that there are three principal dimensions to the resolution process: the degree of activity (decision taking, investment of ad hoc resources, evaluation of the effects); cognitive elaboration (definition of the stressor, communicating its purpose, gathering pertinent information); and the extent of relational concern (attention given to cohesion, to mutual support, and to relational re equilibrium) (Widmer et al. 2003). These authors show that a propensity to over invest in one of the terms (action, cognition, or relation) is a frequent reaction to the anxiety engendered by the conflict. Equilibrium between the three dimensions can be expected more commonly in families with good levels of cohesion and flexibility.
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- Widmer, E., Kellerhals, J., & Levy, R. (2003) Couples contemporains: cohesion, regulation et conflit. Seismo, Zurich.