Take the Bull by the Horns

In Carolyn Hax's advice column of last November 25, she addressed the problem of people who need to speak up about the way they are being treated by parents, spouses, siblings, in-laws, and other family members and lovers, but do not do so because they "don't like confrontation."

The letter writer had complained that the family of her long-term boyfriend, unlike her own family, seemed to go out of their way to exclude her from their family events.  Holidays had become a bone of contention.  The boyfriend refused to say anything about this to his family, despite her entreaties, because (cue cliche), he "doesn't like confrontations."

Ms. Hax's answer contained one of my recent favorite quotes: "People who like confrontations are outliers; the rest of us simply put up with them when the alternative is to tiptoe through life, never articulating where you stand or what you need, and accruing the dissatisfaction of never setting the terms. A suspicion of drama can be healthy, but the moment something needs to be avoided at all costs, then healthy no longer applies."

She added, "...if the only way to avoid drama is for you to absorb all areas of disagreement, then pretty soon there won’t be any you left, either.  The way to avoid that fate — the only way — is to figure out which battles matter to you, and to fight those battles.

I recognize that in many families, speaking up is a lot easier said than done.  In some families, it can lead to verbal abuse, vicious arguments, emotional cut-offs or excommunication, and in some cases, physical violence.  Sometimes family members in response start a guilt-tripping chorus of mea culpa's or figuratively or literally stick their heads in the oven.

Still, just sitting there and allowing a big problem to fester is not the solution.  Nor is divorcing oneself from the family - although that is better than allowing oneself to be abused or mistreated.  The problem with the "just divorce them" school of thought about toxic parents is that we carry our parents around with us in our heads. Unresolved family issues can lead one to have marital problems, as well as negatively affecting our relationships with our own children.

Luckily, there is a third choice besides taking abuse or divorce.

I recommend trying to find some way get around one's family's natural defensiveness in order to discuss the family dynamics and to alter dysfunctional relationship patterns (metacommunication). If you change your approach to them, it can force the others to change their approach to you. Family systems theorists liken the family to a mobile - if you tug at one hanging part, it reverberates throughout the whole piece.  (This does not mean that it is your job to "fix" your family.  Your job is to fix your relationships with the various family members).

But it's a bit more complicated than that. Family members have numerous tricks to counteract changes that you try to make. The target of your metacommunication may counterattack with their own complaints about you, some of which may be quite valid, without ever addressing your complaints about them. Seldom-seen family members may even come out of the woodwork to express the sentiment, "You're wrong, change back!"

Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for discussing family interactions, since each family has there own unique dynamics and sensitivities. [Marketing alert, but only in a good way:] Fortunately, there are therapists around trained in family systems issues who help with this sort of thing (particularly followers of Murray Bowen). Finding one, however, may take a bit of work.

Take the bull by the horns and do it.  It's definitely worth the effort and the expense.


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