3.30.2008

The war at home

If the conflict in the Middle East sometimes resembles a bickering family, that's because of our frame of reference: Most of us have more experience with bickering families than we do with international diplomacy and suicide bombers.

Every family has its emotional ups and downs, its times of tension or outright war or uneasy d├ętente. Skirmishes flare between siblings. Generational warfare erupts. Relations grow tense between busy spouses, requiring third-party mediation and eventual property settlements.

Even happy families have moments when the stars are crossed or the biorhythms are off or everybody just gets fed up with everybody else. Sharp words are exchanged. Voices rise. Feelings are hurt. The survivors are forced to draw up a new clause for the ongoing treaty negotiation that is Family Life, one more item for the list: "Stuff We Shouldn't Have Said in the First Place and Will Never Bring Up Again."

Resentment over such exchanges can grow with passing years until family members become like international neighbors -- suspicious and fractious and quick to react. Family life can become a "cold war" with long periods of silence interrupted by sudden fighting in which all old wounds are avenged.

It's hard to be analytical during such periods of stress and pain, so why not take a moment now, while presumably you're not in the middle of an argument, to take an objective look at your family's emotional health:

How would you rate the overall happiness of your family? Do you often find yourself blindsided by your spouse's mood swings, especially those that occur during playoff games? Do your neighbors complain about all the screaming at your house? Are there one or more sullen teen-agers on the premises?

If you answered "huh?" to any of the above questions, then you should pay better attention. Your family relations already may be so strained that it's too late to salvage a workable peace.
First, examine the causes of strife. You'll find they resemble the issues that lead nations to square off against each other.

--Territorial encroachment. Part of being the American nuclear family is that we're all stuck under the same roof. We claim certain territory as our own and defend it against all intrusion. Does the phrase "stay out of my room" ring a bell?

--Outside agitators. In-laws. Need we say more?

--History. If they can still fight reruns of the Crusades in the Middle East after nearly a thousand years, then why should you expect everyone to forget the way you acted like a jerk at Uncle Joe's wedding?

--Inattention. As happens with stewing international feuds, Americans can be taken off-guard by flare-ups of emotional upheaval. Family members can get so caught up in domestic issues, such as playoff games, that they ignore the simmering tensions until it is too late for anything but all-out war.

We propose, then, that families adopt a warning system similar to one developed by the Homeland Security Advisory System to alert Americans to terrorist threats. Different colors -- green, blue, yellow, orange, red -- could be posted around the house to indicate the overall mood and the risk of firefights.

(This is not to make light of the terrorism threat or of the important work of the Homeland Security Office, which consists of scaring the bejeebers out of us every few days. But let's face it: Most of us are in far less danger from terrorists than we are from our own spouses, particularly if we can't remember to put the cap back on the toothpaste.)

A color-coded warning system could make sure the whole family is at the same stage of readiness. Say the wife in a particular household posted an orange alert. The kids would know to tiptoe around until the warning lifted, and the husband could say to himself, "I don't know what I've done, but this appears to be a credible threat. Maybe it's time to turn off the TV and go sit at the negotiating table."

This way, evasive action can be taken before the household goes to full red alert. This is an advisable course of action. Those red alerts can scare the bejeebers out of you.

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