In Part I of Family Conflict I presented the idea conflicts often involve looking at the present through our history. There is an amazing similarity in the type of conflicts created by a health crisis and during family gatherings at holidays. As a counselor and coach for caregivers, I found what ties the two together are different world views butting up against each other. In this second part of the three-part series, I’ll discuss why notions of “universal” or “enduring” truths are myths–especially when it comes to understanding family conflict.

Rashomon’s Lessons for Understanding Family Conflict 

We would like to believe what we see and experience is firm–what I think happened is the same as you do, since you were next to me when it occurred.  

In the 1950’s, Akira Kurosawa wrote and directed the movie Rashomon, the story of a samurai’s gruesome death. In court, the event is described by four people who witnessed it: a woodcutter, a priest, the deceased samurai’s wife and the bandit who killed the samurai. Although the four witnessed the same event, each gave a different description of what happened. The scenes created by Kurosawa from their testimonies could have been taken from four different events. 

Many people would reject the possibility all four told the truth. After all, they all were involved in the same event and heard, touched, smelled, and saw the same things. What Rashomon portrayed is truth becomes a bit fuzzy when information is crunched through a person’s individual’s values, needs, and experiences.

I believe the discrepancy between what happens and what we think happened becomes distorted at least twice. The first when it occurs and the second when we remember it. 

When an Event Happened

It’s not difficult for everyone to look at a round black rock and agree on how to describe it the following week. But few family interactions are as simple as describing an inanimate object. Every interaction requires an interpretation. What did he mean by that comment? Yes, she said ‘thank you’, but I know it means something else.

Most interpretations are based on our unique past with that individual. “Thank you,” said by sweet Aunt Mary may be interpreted differently than “Thank you” said by hated Uncle George.

Family Conflict and Memory

When computers were first hailed as saviors (yes, I’m old enough to remember), there was a popular phrase often cited, “garbage in, garbage out.” It meant don’t expect your computer to provide anything more useful (or truthful) than what you feed it. It’s a useful adage for understanding how our memories play an important role in family conflicts.

We don’t store a “terrible” event in our memory as an objective occurrence. Just as Kurosawa’s characters did, we store them through perceptual filters. And when we retrieve them, we don’t even bring forth a clear distortion. According to current research on memory, whatever is stored, is again changed; parts drop out, new distortions are added, etc. The garbage we put into our brain now smells even worse than it did originally. So the disingenuous remark from cousin Ralph becomes words for starting WWIII

In the third part of this series on family conflict, I’ll offer suggestions on how to reduce or avoid the type of problems often associated with “happy” family gatherings.

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