Stress Management Relationship Stress How to Handle Unresolved Conflict at Family Gatherings By Elizabeth Scott, PhD Elizabeth Scott, PhD Twitter Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing. Learn about our editorial process Updated on August 22, 2020 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Carly Snyder, MD Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Rob Lewine/Creative RF/Getty Images While family relationships can bring support, joy, and other wonderful benefits into our lives, these relationships can also bring stress, particularly when there's unresolved conflict. Because it's more difficult to let go of conflicted relationships with family than it would be if these relationships were mere friendships, unresolved conflicts with family members can be particularly painful. We have certain expectations of trust and closeness toward family members. It can be more than merely disappointing to realize that this may not be possible with all family members. The Stress of Family Disputes Unresolved family conflicts bring additional stress, particularly at family gatherings. Past unresolved conflicts can become the elephant in the room, felt by everyone, but not directly addressed. This can be stressful for everyone before and during the family gatherings, sometimes leaving a lasting sense of stress afterward as well. Without a heartfelt discussion, an apology, or another form of resolution, the trust on both sides is compromised, and may not know what to expect from this person in the future. (For example, the time your mother-in-law criticized your cooking may come up in your mind every time she visits, and others may sense your tension.) This leads many people to assume the worst when they interpret each other's behavior rather than giving the benefit of the doubt like most of us do with people we trust. Also, references or reminders of past conflicts can sting and create new pain. Once a conflict has gone on a while, even if both parties move on and remain polite, the feelings of pain and mistrust usually linger under the surface, and are difficult to resolve. Bringing up old hurts in an effort to resolve them can often backfire, as the other party may feel attacked. Avoiding the issue altogether but holding onto resentment can poison feelings in the present. What to Do to Ease Conflict So what do you do at a family gathering when there's someone there with whom you've had an unresolved conflict? Just be polite. Contrary to how many people feel, a family gathering is not the time to rehash old conflicts, as such conversations often get messy before they get resolved—if they get resolved. Again, be polite, redirect conversations that get into areas that may cause conflict, and try to avoid the person as much as you politely can. Even if everyone else fails to follow this advice, if you are able to focus on handling your end of the conflict in a peaceful way, you can go a long way in minimizing battles at family gatherings and promoting peace. You may be surprised by how much of a difference this can make in the overall feel of your family get-togethers, and in your personal feelings and stress level leading up to them. In the future, you can take one of three paths. Try to Resolve the Conflict At a time when all the family isn't gathered, ask the person if they'd like to discuss and resolve what happened between you. If (and only if) you and the other person seem to want to resolve things and are open to seeing one another's point of view, this could be a constructive idea. Seeing where each of you may have misunderstood the other or behaved in a way you would change if you could, offering sincere apologies, and in other ways resolving the conflict can heal the relationship for the future. Forgive and Forget If it looks like such a civil meeting of the minds is unlikely, don't push it. It's probably a good idea to try to forgive the other person and let it go. Forgiving doesn't mean opening yourself up to feel wronged again; it only means that you let go of your feelings of resentment and anger. You can be careful in what you expect from this person in the future without actively harboring resentment, and you'll be the one to benefit the most. Minimize or Cut Off Contact If what the other person did was abusive and there's absolutely no remorse or reason to expect things to be different in the future, you can severely limit your dealings with this person or cut off contact altogether. This is normally a last-resort choice, but in cases of abuse, it's sometimes a necessary one to make for your own emotional health. By Elizabeth Scott, PhD Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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