Relationships, You & Your Family

Surmounting differences with love

Surmounting differences with love

A scenario I sometimes use when training counsellors is one of a family in conflict over a daughter’s wish to live with her boyfriend. After a year of living at home after returning from three years of study abroad, the daughter says her boyfriend from overseas is moving to Singapore to work and they plan to live together. Her parents are taken aback as she had not shared much about the young man, or about moving in with him. The church-going family holds conservative views about co-habitation before marriage. To complicate matters, I add that the boyfriend is of African descent and has no professed faith.

My trainee counsellors are asked how they plan to work with such a family, following which they engage in role play as the counsellor and various family members.

I find it interesting to see how my trainees interpret and respond to the scenario. Many themes emerge through this exercise. For instance, the daughter’s right for independence and recognition of the time for cutting the apron strings versus the need for her to listen to her parents’ advice and importance of showing gratitude. Themes around racial prejudice and suspicions of foreigners also come up.

Sometimes, the “arguments” amongst trainees playing the family members become so intense that there are threats of disowning the daughter should she choose her boyfriend over her parents’ wishes. This is often met with criticisms of bigotry, of old-fashioned and closed mindsets and even of the parents being poor Christian role models who care only about saving face and not their daughter’s happiness.

There is no one correct resolution which the trainee counsellors are expected to arrive at, but a mutually acceptable resolution usually involves a strategy of compromise. It could take the form of the father agreeing to meet and get to know the daughter’s boyfriend. Or the young man being prepared to visit the family’s church and learn about the faith that means so much to them. Or the daughter being open to delaying moving in with her boyfriend whilst deepening their relationship. With time, small steps in compromising can lead to a narrowing of differences.

As we all know, not every family conflict ends in such a fairy tale-like manner. The critical ingredient is whether parties in conflict have an all-or-nothing or a win-win approach to their situation. Are they determined to have their own way at all costs, or do they believe that there is something deeper and more valuable in their relationship than the positions they each take?

The need to bridge and to live peacefully with differences is even more crucial in our world today. The East-West and North-South divides, and gender and culture wars are but some of the differences at a transnational level. Within our own communities, how do we embrace diversity presented by various ethnic groups, by old and new, and by people of different gender orientation? I believe one starting point is to look for what we have in common. Then to appreciate what we value over and above our personal views, values and dreams. We also need to listen deeply and communicate clearly to deepen our understanding and affirm the bonds that we share. These are expressions of love for one another, a love that can help bridge differences.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.