Are You Serious, Clark?

A Guide to Navigating Challenging Family Circumstances

Article by: Ian Woodwick

With national and religious holidays approaching, many of us may find ourselves in less-than-ideal circumstances regarding family relationships.  Traumatic events, divorce, religious and/or political affiliation and differing expectations are all factors that can impact relationships and cause conflict. Regardless of the source of the conflict, family and cultural expectations may add pressure to attend stressful gatherings.  From legendary folk hero and everyman Dominic Toretto saying, “You don’t turn your back on family, even when they do” to the backlash Jennette McCurdy received from titling her autobiography I’m Glad My Mom Died, great emphasis is placed on maintaining difficult relationships and reconciling differences.  Unfortunately, that perspective denies the lived experiences of many people in those circumstances. This guide will attempt to provide a framework to help with navigating challenging family relationships during the minefield that is the Season of Mariah!

Step 1: What Do You Want?

Oftentimes with decision-making, identifying goals and desired outcomes can be a helpful first step.  When thinking of future family gatherings or interactions, what is the best-case scenario?  What is the best possible outcome to be hoped for?  Reality will come into play a bit later, but imagining this can be useful for bringing awareness to our emotions and needs.  What does it feel like when imagining the best possible outcome? Based on those emotions, is working towards the outcome something worth trying for? If the answer is yes, please proceed to Step 2. If the answer is no, please proceed to Step 3!

Step 2: What Do You Need to Make Things Work?

Sometimes in difficult relationships, the people involved are willing to work together towards a better place.  Unfortunately we are each limited in our capacity and/or willingness to change.  When considering the effort involved in trying to improve challenging relationships, appropriate expectations are necessary.  Finding options that are workable and safe, may yield better outcomes than the most desirable options. It may be useful to again reflect upon the feelings that arise when thinking of those difficult relationships. Emotions each serve their own purpose and can illuminate needs that we have.  What is needed to move forwards in a difficult relationship?  Some common needs are for improved communication skills, accountability for past harm (whether unintentional or intentional), and/or limited discussion of potentially volatile subjects.

Step 3: How to Communicate Your Needs? (A few tips)

  • Plan to have the conversation when things are emotionally neutral.  Attempting to “talk things out” in the middle of or shortly after intense conversations or arguments is rarely productive. 
  • While “we need to talk” is a classic for a reason (clearly states a need, engenders fear in others), there may be alternate phrases to initiate significant conversations. 
    • “As I was thinking of the [dreaded family gathering], I was wondering if we might be able to connect to avoid any discomfort between us”
    • “I’ve noticed lately that we’ve been more disconnected than usual.  Would you be interested in trying to work through that with me?”
    • “I’d love to attend but before committing, there are a few things I may need in order to feel more comfortable.  Can we set up a time to discuss them?”
  • Remain respectful, describe the behavior you would like to be different, and identify the emotion you experience as a result.  The iconic structure is “When you do [challenging behavior], it makes me feel [emotion].  It would help me feel more comfortable with you if you would [specify behavior change]”.
  • Be specific in your request about the behavior you would like to change.  “I would like you to be nicer” may be true but is vague and unhelpful.  “I would like you to stop asking me when we are having children because it makes me feel hurt and angry” is a specific request that guides others in how to better interact with you.
  • Allow room for compromise, if you feel as though that is appropriate.  Some things may not be worth compromising.

Step 4: What Do They Need to Make Things Work?

Our own emotions and pain can make it difficult to see the perspective of another.  Our brains and bodies are really good at protecting us and part of that protection is prioritizing our own thoughts and feelings.  It can be difficult to consider our part in the conflict or that our words and actions may cause others pain.  If the relationship feels safe overall, it can be helpful to offer space to hear the other person’s perspective.  They may need similar needs of accountability, improved communication skills, or have other conversational subjects which they would prefer be avoided.  Some requests may be easy, some may be challenging but workable, but unfortunately others may be incompatible with your values.  And that brings us to Step 5.

Step 5: What if Things Do Not Go According to Plan?

The term “boundaries” refers to what we need in relationships to feel safe.  It addresses behavior that we do not want and also behavior that we desire in our relationships.  For example, when we watch a movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, we expect one-liners, bloodless action, gratuitous sweat, and Kevin Hart.  We do not expect a period drama with historically accurate costumes, substantial monologues, and co-starring Maggie Smith and Colin Firth.  While some of us may thoroughly enjoy that film, it is outside the bounds of what we expect from Mr. Johnson as an actor.  

It is also important to remember that boundaries are about what actions we do in order to keep ourselves safe.  If Dwayne Johnson desires to act alongside Eddie Redmayne in a historically accurate adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, that is completely within his rights as a person and actor!  It is not our place as the audience to tell him what kinds of movies to make.  To protect ourselves, we may choose to not see the film or choose to wait until it comes out on a streaming service so that it is more affordable.  

Just as many people would likely not pay to see the historical drama with Dwayne Johnson, so might we establish boundaries with those unwilling or unable to change.  With the challenging family relationships, what consequences are appropriate for the situation? For some people, that may mean leaving a conversation if a particular topic is discussed.  An example: “I said that if this subject was discussed, I would no longer be participating in this dinner.”  Or, if a reminder is appropriate: “When we spoke, I requested we not talk about that.  If this continues, we may need to reevaluate our time together.” Deciding what consequences are appropriate depends on values and goals for the relationship.  Sometimes the appropriate consequence is to severely limit interactions or discontinue participating in the relationship entirely until it becomes safe to, if it ever does.

Ending Thoughts

Family relationships can be challenging for a variety of reasons.  Holidays and family gatherings may add additional pressure to face the uncomfortable emotions associated with our relatives.  Hopefully this guide will help provide a decision-making tree to improve awareness of our emotions.  Future posts will explore more of the dynamics when estrangement occurs.  Holidays can be a painful reminder of the loss that has occurred and is ongoing.  If you feel as though you would benefit from additional support at this time or would like additional strategies for navigating complicated family situations, Deep Eddy Psychotherapy offers individual and family therapy, as well as group therapy.  Please contact our scheduling team at 512-956-6463 if this is a fit for you!

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