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When I first read the title of this book I thought, "Everyone has to relate to this!" The funny thing is, you might not. After all, I never really thought I had issues with my family until my parents became ill, and we siblings had to ban together to help them. At that point in time, I was 35 years old. The reality of family issues was a rude awakening at that age. At the time, I remember wishing that it didn't catch me off guard.
As a family member we each have a position we hold, or a role we play within the group. To your parents, no matter how old you are -- you will always be their baby. To your siblings, you will be something else, probably many different things. As it is well stated on the back cover of this book, "…walking through the door to our parents' home is like stepping back in time. We leave our independent adult lives out on the sidewalk and resume our old roles with all the emotional baggage that goes with them."
Depending upon your performance in your role as a family member, the time you spend with your family can take on the semblance of a comedy, a tragedy, or anything in between. Even if you enjoy being with your family, the fact is, even the best of families fight sometimes. The problem is not that we fight; it's how we fight. Healthy conflict solves problems and allows everyone to move on with dignity. Unhealthy conflict leaves problems unresolved and family members are left to fester, only to have the same monster rear its ugly head at some other gathering.
Hence the author, Andrea Medea has pooled her expertise on the subject of conflict management and applied it to "that small group of blood relations who are best equipped to drive you crazy" (p. 2). Andrea Medea has taught conflict management at the University of Chicago, DePaul, and Northwestern University. In addition, she designs conflict management programs, and gives seminars and lectures to organizations that need a better way to handle conflict. Alone the same line of working with groups, the author has applied her conflict management knowledge and skills to "the family."
The book is designed to show you how to recognize conflicts and offers you choices for how you might solve those conflicts. The author focuses on hidden patterns of conflict and places it along a conflict continuum model that ranges from normal to abnormal. She focuses on behavior, rather than asking you to delve deeply into your past. And, she suggests ways to manage your actions and to get results in the here and now. Hence it is a very practical read, in that, you can use what you learn and get results right away. In fact, it could be used as a workbook if you like - because it has lists, and surveys, and charts for you to catalogue your progress throughout the book.
The book is separated into three basic sections. In the first section, the author introduces you to "your brain under stress" and the concept of "flooding" which is a physical response to stress that she describes as "overdosing on adrenaline." It's the worst-case scenario -- you know, that point when you are so upset that you can't think, can't speak, and can't defend yourself. The author suggests that flooding essentially "shorts out" the brain's ability for language, logic, and problem solving. One danger is that, while flooding people become highly suggestible -- a condition that might be good for them, but not so good for you if you are the one that's drowning.
Given some examples that aim to help you identify various types of flooding in yourself and others, the author presents ideas for controlling, heading off, or neutralizing the response. For example, to prevent flooding in your self, the author introduces you to some basic autogenic, isometric, and deep breathing techniques. She even brings you through an exercise in which you deliberately initiate the response in order to practice controlling it. The idea is teach your body to disconnect the triggers and leave you better able to fend of flooding.
In the second section, the author goes into detail about the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. In this, everyday conflict (e.g., miscommunication), which is considered normal, is separated from abnormal conflict (e.g., bigotry). Then, healthy conflict, and unhealthy conflict are looked at in terms of what they each produce. All along the way the author provides practical suggestions, rules and techniques, for how you might move from unhealthy conflict toward healthy conflict. In this section, however, a good deal of explication is given to the workings of what unhealthy conflict is all about. In the end, we consequently take a close look at each kind of conflict along the conflict continuum model.
In the last section, the author discusses pitfalls to avoid. In this, she cites a variety of signals that we are to become aware of, including, "authority," "belligerence," and "submissive" signals (i.e., behaviors). Then, she applies these three behaviors to the roles of "villains," "victims," and "heroes" within the family. And, you know what? It works!
The last chapter "Family Aikido" brings it all together. For those who are not familiar with Aikido, it is a martial art that uses your opponent's momentum to your advantage. In the case of family Aikido, instead of opposing the power of the opponent and trying to stop what can't be stopped, you work with their momentum in an unexpected fashion. The focus here is on the common interests, outcomes, and future you plan to share with your family, and thus, you work with them exactly as they are.
They may never change, but you can. You can, at least change your behavior so their problems don't have a painful effect on you. Here, the author gives you the everyday practical skills to do just that. Beyond its use for self-knowledge and personal development, this book would be a worthy (and light hearted) addition to any recovery group dealing with family issues.
© 2007 Rosemary Cook
Rosemary Cook is a Therapeutic Counselor in private practice living on Long Island, NY.