The family appears to be an institution in crisis. Speculation abounds as to why divorce hovers around 50% in developed countries and something like two-thirds of women in the U.S. experience domestic abuse. Some blame Hollywood, the waning influence of religion, feminism, sexual deviance or a breakdown in “family values.” And that’s just the West. In many developing countries, women aren’t allowed to drive, get an education or even be seen—though that’s certainly nothing new. I’ll spare you my personal sentiments, but I will say that perhaps we aren’t quite viewing the family for what it really is—a political unit.

To accept that assertion, we’ll have to look at what features constitute “politics.” It’s safe to say that much about politics is power. Of course in families, power is expressed differently but the principles are similar enough.

Some examples: I imagine my little four year-old daughter as a Napoleon of sorts (because she’s quite short, naturally). She sweeps through with her endless appeals and limitless requests, leaving the landscapes and villages of our nerves in tatters. I’ve heard that the average toddler will appeal to their parents in some way or another somewhere in the vicinity of 400 times per day and I believe it. It works, too. We very often submit to her demands, offering a piece of candy or a half hour with her favorite TV show for tiny moments of peace.

My wife and often go to battle over resources. We compete and haggle for time: “I’ll give you Wednesday night with your friends for poker, but I need Saturday morning for a haircut.” My wife is a master of the filibuster. She’ll wear me down over some family initiative until I relent. I tend to handily appeal to ultimate values like fairness and equality, or I’ll make some backroom deal with our daughter, employing her considerable skills of persuasion to my benefit. Or, at last resort, I’ll invoke the ideals of democracy: “Two against one!”

It may seem like all in good fun, but just like in politics, things can become rather sticky in the family. Someone may feel slighted, overly dominated or taken advantage of. In the worst cases, this can result in the familial version of a coup d’etat: infidelity, domestic abuse or a complete breakdown.

How do we manage family power struggles?

They are, at once, easier and more difficult to manage than power struggles in society. For one, things are quite a bit more immediate. As opposed to addressing some grand social problem—which requires the will of many people and organizations, enormous sums of money, social movements, shifts in values and more—the family is right there in front of us and seemingly much more receptive to our efforts, yet obviously resistant to them at the same time. Furthermore, tensions and frustrations are also more immediate and often require our attention and care, even when we’re not prepared or in the mood for problems. (Who’s ever in the mood for problems, right? At least with politics, you can just switch off the TV or put the newspaper down.) Also realize that families are the most fundamental political unit dedicated to the survival of a group. There is enormous pressure to makes sure people’s vital needs are met and to maintain group cohesion. Disagreements quickly arise regarding how to go approach these endeavors.

Acknowledgement is the first step. Yes, there will be power struggles. Managing them is often a matter of proper communication, boundary setting and awareness. In a political setting, we would parallel this by communication with the power structures via voting, demonstrations, letter writing, proper journalism and rule of law. Every family is unique, but generally rules must be set for the children and spouses and children should reasonably know and honestly communicate each other’s wishes, needs, limits, thoughts and feelings. We don’t have to look far to see these methods failing in the political system, and if politicians were children, (far too accurate a comparison, by the way) they don’t know their limits, tell too many lies to cover their mistakes or simply hide their wrongdoings from us.

On every level, families and the individuals within them are faced with choices. Do we mow the lawn or slink off to the basement for a beer, knowing full well that a conflict will ensue? Do we express our concerns or seethe in secret until, when the wife commandeers the TV remote, we flip out? If someone disagrees with us or defies the family, do we fly into a rage, sulk or alienate them? Or, do we attempt to understand them and rationally choose to support them or leave them to their own devices? Change some of the wording and societies and their governments face similar questions. And in both cases, the paths we take have very real consequences. And in both cases, social and familial, all anyone wants is peace, love and acceptance.

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