Here comes June, a gentle month full of flowers and the promise of summer. And here comes June, a month full of graduations, First Communions, engagement parties, weddings, and Bar and Bas Mitzvahs. Family members who haven’t seen each other at least since the winter holidays (and maybe since last year’s series of family ceremonies) are invited — indeed, commanded in some families — to show up for a family event.
I wish the family dynamics I see in my office were as gentle as the month. Instead, I often find myself mediating conflicts, soothing hurt feelings, calming anxieties, and helping people decide which fights are worth fighting and which ones aren’t.
What is it that seems to bring out the worst in people on just the occasions that most people would want to be the warmest, closest, and most joyous of family events? I think it’s that somehow a series of myths have developed in American culture that set up family members to be disappointed and angry.
- Things in families should be fair. Now why should family life differ from life outside the family? Whatever perceived unfairness went on when you were growing up is still probably going on now. Some of it may even have a rational but unexplained reason. If you can get past your hurt and anger and be genuinely curious about the situation, you might get some surprising new information.
Every time Fred went home to visit his aging parents, he found himself once again feeling like his brother got more (money, attention, pride) than he did. Encouraged by his wife, he finally said something to his mother. Imagine his surprise when she told him that she had always assumed that he knew that they made more of a fuss over his brother because they felt that he didn’t have anywhere near the talents or the ability to make his way in life as Fred. Fred’s parents just took it for granted that Fred understood that the real unfairness in the two brother’s lives was that Fred had so much more going for him than his younger brother.
Then again, things might truly be unfair. Your sister might inherit more from Grandma. Your brother might get more financial help from your parents. Your mother may continue to give your siblings more slack than she gives you. You can sulk. You can let it dominate your life. Or you can try to understand it and change it through some careful talk. If even that doesn’t do it, you can work on accepting the family unfairness and turn to good friends, your own spouse, and your in-laws to find people who treat you as you want to be treated.
- You don’t have to be on your best behavior with the family. Family members are the people who are bound to us by love and caring and history. Nonetheless, what family members say to one another matters. Criticisms have extra bite. Praise feels extra good. Having closeness in a family means exercising at least as much care and consideration as we would with our most important customer or client.
A neighbor of mine once said, “I have to dress up and be polite to people all week at the office. At home, I should be able to let my hair down and say and do what I want.” The result of this philosophy is that his wife and kids never see him out of grubby jeans on weekends and his remarks to family members are often tactless and devastating. Not surprisingly, the family feels that they don’t mean as much to him as his business associates and his adult kids have started distancing themselves from him to spare their own feelings.
- Important events should be “perfect.” This one makes lots of trouble, mainly because people’s expectations for perfection simply can’t hold up in the messiness of imperfect life. A baby might cry during the wedding ceremony. Uncle Harold might just tell the same tasteless joke at the Bar Mitzvah that he has told at every event since anyone can remember. Someone might just wear a dress that doesn’t fit in with everyone else’s in the pictures. Your aunt might drink too much. Your brother may be too loud. The cousin who always hogs the attention might just do it again.
The only things that are perfect are artificial — and then they are artificially perfect. Real life includes babies crying and cooing, people saying and doing things that other people wish they wouldn’t, and people having their own ideas about what is and isn’t appropriate to say, wear, or do. Families that can manage these things with a sense of humor and a philosophical shrug are generally much closer and warmer than families where every slip from imagined perfection is taken as a personal affront.
- People in our families should know how we feel and what we need. A subsection of this myth is that if we have to tell family members, whatever they do in response is less valuable than if they had figured it out for themselves. Guess what? Just because someone is married to you or is related to you doesn’t mean they are mind readers. Part of loving is taking the time to explain ourselves to each other so that we get to know each other better. Real love is about understanding and being understood. That level of understanding only comes about with lots and lots of good communication.
Martha periodically stops talking to her husband. The man is usually mystified. He repeatedly asks her, “What’s wrong?” She always says, “If you really loved me, you’d know.” He feels like he’s living in a bad sitcom. She feels terribly lonely and angry. These periods always end with a fight. That does clear the air and get them talking again, but they don’t really understand each other any better than before.
- Family members have to put up with each other. No, they don’t. In fact, doing so may make things worse. There really is a point beyond which putting up with someone’s bad behavior is to allow oneself to be abused. Although families can and should be expected to give people some extra understanding during stressful times and room to make mistakes, they don’t have to continually take abuse from a family member who is controlling, boorish, manipulative, selfish, addicted or chronically unpleasant. Family life is difficult enough when everyone is trying to get along. It can become dysfunctional and destructive when people deny or ignore that something is seriously wrong with one or more of its members.
Since I do believe in the counseling work that I do, I think that families with troubled and troubling members should get out of denial and into a therapist’s office to try to save their families. But if people can’t or won’t engage in therapy (or some other approach that acknowledges reality and changes behavior), then it’s not doing problem relatives any favors to go along with their abuse. Protect the young and the aged, distance from the offensive relatives, and let them “hit bottom” so maybe they’ll finally get the help that they need.
The Benefits of Bearing Witness
Attending June events, indeed all family celebrations, is important. Close families witness each other’s lives. The presence of family members is a statement that the event marks a passage that the family takes very seriously. Ceremonies for family milestones like weddings, namings, and graduations mean far more when people who have known us, loved us, and helped us are there to congratulate us and wish us well. Being aware of family myths and doing our part to keep them in check can help our families grow closer and enjoy the warmth and celebration of family life that these events provide.