How to understand and manage conflict within rigid, avoidant family systems
Family systems are a major component of family therapy, treatment, and recovery for individuals struggling with mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders (SUD). Each family is a complex network of individual wants and needs, external social or work pressures, and habitual roles and relationships between and among family members.
Each family system has its own style, equilibrium, and balance. For some families, it is easy to open up about problems, deal with conflict between individuals, and manage the pressures of the outside world through communication and emotional expression. For other families, however, open communication is not common practice, and family roles and expectations dictate that conflict must be avoided at all costs.
These are what we might call avoidant family systems: families where individuals avoid their own issues and ignore the issues of their family members in order to preserve a greater sense of stability and peace or to present a united, “happy” front to the world.
How do we, as therapists, coaches, or counselors, help these avoidant families deal with the conflicts they face? How, too, can we help them unpack the complex habits and systems that have kept them avoidant for so long? Opening up lines of communication in these family systems can be very challenging, as can calling into question the roles and expectations that each member has come to know and understand in their day-to-day life.
In this blog I’ll explore some of the ways we can begin to unpack and dismantle conflict within avoidant families and how new expectations and patterns of communication can be constructed over time to open up these closed family systems.
When we refer to avoidant family systems, what exactly do we mean? To better explain, it is useful to turn to research around avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) and the traits which characterize it. According to data published in the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management, avoidance at the individual level is characterized by obsessively avoiding social interaction, intense fear of rejection, and feelings of personal inadequacy. 
Applying these individual traits to a family system, we can understand how avoidant families work to avoid communicating in order to protect themselves from conflicts which might lead to pain, negativity, or other undesirable outcomes. As in individual cases of AVPD, avoidant families long to connect but are always anticipating humiliation or rejection. This fear outweighs the desire to connect, and family members learn to withdraw from any communication that might lead to conflict.
Wherever the fear started—perhaps with the past trauma of a grandparent or great-grandparent or the coping mechanisms developed by a father as a young boy—it is transmitted generationally to newer family members through socialization from a very early age. In this way, the entire family system learns to avoid conflict.
Understanding the fears at the root of this avoidant family behavior is a good first step in managing conflict in family systems that are communicatively closed. Tapping into the desire for connection rather than forcing family members to talk about their feelings—something they likely will not know how to do—is the best way to begin unpacking conflict within this type of system.
Look Closely at Lines of Communication
One of the biggest challenges facing avoidant families is the personal inability to express the collective inability to communicate. It is not common for individuals to say, “our family doesn’t talk about things and certainly not in front of other family members.” More often, there is an implicit understanding that family members shouldn’t speak about things, because there is no room for conflict in the broader family system.
As a therapist, looking at patterns of communication in these family systems is therefore crucial to understanding how and where conflict is happening. I have written before about triangulated communication in families, where information is not transmitted directly between family members but indirectly across various family members. Again, this is a generational habit developed by families to avoid conflict and is therefore commonly seen in avoidant family systems.
But other types of family communication are also common in and indicative of avoidant family systems: the protective style of family communication (also referred to as “family shared social reality”) emphasizes conformity to protect a single authority figure. That is, each member of the family will stick to a single, very sparse version of events in order to maintain the same overall story, or social reality, across the entire system.
Looking out for these communicative styles, as a therapist, is very helpful in addressing conflict in avoidant family systems. Rather than pushing for immediate change, it can be productive to try and understand the social reality projected or constructed by protective families.
In the same vein, carefully following the systems of triangulation which govern communication among family members in a closed system, rather than calling out individuals who triangulate their messages, can better illustrate the nature of the conflict and the emotions and events at its root.
Families are complex systems, and therapists and counselors have a responsibility to provide them with thoughtful treatment that accounts for this complexity. Understanding how a family communicates – or, in some cases, why they don’t communicate and how that is affecting their conflicts and relationships – is a crucial part of being able to provide therapeutic resources which will enable individuals and families to thrive.
 Lampe, L. and Malhi, G.S. (2018) Avoidant personality disorder: current insights. Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management. 11: 55–66. doi: 10.2147/PRBM.S121073.
 Miller-Day, M. (2017) Family Communication. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. 25 Jan. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.177
 Shorey, J. and Muscato, C. (2022) Family Communications Patterns Theory. https://study.com/learn/lesson/family-communication-patterns-overview-theory-styles.html