Extended families are supposed to be jolly conglomerations of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, but often there is more conflict than camaraderie. And when there is conflict, women are often the major players.
Family conflict is difficult to study and analyze, because it comes in some many varieties. When it is extreme enough to cause estrangement, it is often cloaked in secrecy. Estranged family members may hide their status, out of shame or embarrassment.
But message boards, chat rooms and other spaces where people can discuss their situations anonymously are dominated by women. Partly that is because women are more likely to take to such spaces. Partly it is because they are more enmeshed in family drama than their male counterparts.
When grandparents feud with their adult children, the grandmother is the one most frequently blamed by the younger parties. When grandparents point their fingers, they most often target daughters or daughters-in-law.
The Female Response
Experts aren't sure why female family relationships engender such intense struggles, but some researchers believe that men and women respond to stress differently. Men tend to employ the "fight or flight" pattern, which means that they often withdraw from family conflict.
Women under stress often turn to nurturing, displaying a "tend and befriend" pattern. They give their children extra attention and also bond with other women.
The withdrawing technique practiced by men effectively removes them from the field of battle. But typically women, instead of leaving the area of conflict, simply rearrange their alliances, which makes them vulnerable to further conflict.
Women sometimes complain that their husbands or male partners don't support them, meaning that the men refuse to take sides. The man who is asked to choose between a mother and a wife most often simply refuses to choose. The wife usually wins by default, but that's not a position that brings her much satisfaction.
The Territorial Instinct
Also, territoriality may come into play in woman-woman relationships. Although men treasure their homes as places to rest and relax, women regard their homes as their domains. They tend to be very invested in their homes and families and to resent any criticism of their roles. In addition, they will fiercely resist what they see as another woman's attempt to take over their "turf."
The Fear of Ostracism
One of the things that women fear most is being ostracized or left out. This means that every woman in a family has a potent weapon to use against the other female family members. Researchers have found that women who are rejected experience a heightened need to belong that does not appear to the same degree among men. Thus, if a woman is rejected by one female relative, she may move quickly to form a stronger relationship with a different female relative.
This phenomenon can lead to a constant shifting and re-forming of alliances within a family, a process that baffles many men but that many women have an unerring instinct for deciphering.
Researchers have posited that there is an evolutionary reason why rejection hurts so much. Human beings are social creatures who thrive best in a group setting. In ancient times, women needed to work together to be successful in farming, food-gathering and child care. That biological urge for female connection could survive even in the modern era.
Building Better Relationships
Regardless of which gender is involved, the tools for avoiding family conflict are mostly the same. All family members should be able to step away from a potential conflict rather than engaging. They should be aware of the vulnerabilities of their family members and avoid attacking those weak spots.
They should be able to use humor to defuse ticklish situations. And they should be able to sit down and calmly discuss differences, if not at the moment of conflict, at least after some time has passed.
None of these techniques are gender-specific. But both genders can profit by understanding exactly what is at stake when women in a family disagree.