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Holiday Dysfunction: Flipping the Script

Posted on Thursday, November 26, 2015 12:25 PM

Charles Dickens' opening words in the Tale of Two Cities ring true: “It was the best of times...it was the worst of times.” These are common feelings when we get together with family on holidays. Some of us have lost loved ones. Others are estranged from beloved family members. Memories of the past are peppered with the paradox of gratitude of being together and sadness due to dysfunction. Alongside the long history we’ve shared is also toxic tension. We feel stuck in the past but don't know how to move forward. Most of us want to make it better but don’t know how. Fearing making matters worse, we stay silent and go through the motions.

What is dysfunction? This concept emerged after World War II. Most likely it began in the 1940‘s with the recovery movement and Alcoholics Anonymous. It gained greater definition with Dr. Murray Bowen’s family systems approach to psychopathology. Rather than emphasizing the individual patient, he focused on the dysfunctional family (Foley, 1984). Popularized by social worker Virginia Satir, dysfunction came to be seen as a set of behaviors that locked family members in rigid roles (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998). Broadly defined by Salvadore Minuchin, dysfunction became “interrelationships that serve to detract from, rather than promote, the emotional and physical health and well-being.” Here’s a list of what dysfunctional dynamics look like:

  • locking people deeply in roles that disallow change
  • denying conflict rather than negotiating differences
  • blaming others without taking any ownership
  • holding onto grudges instead of letting go
  • fearing the expression of honest feelings
  • triangulating with others instead of speaking directly to the person
  • blurring boundaries that disrespect another’s space and personal privacy
  • caretaking another's feelings rather than speaking for ourselves
  • taking a patronizing position that refuses to see others as equals

In all fairness, these traits creep into all of our relationships because of our common humanity. But if we care about coming closer or becoming peacemakers, it's important to rethink a new way. Theologically speaking, sin didn't only ravage our souls and bodies, but our relational skills. Sin impacted God's image in us and how we treat one another. Because churches are like families these dynamics from our families of origin are imported into our communities of faith. For the same reason family members cut off because they can no longer cope with these behaviors, church members leave their parish. In Paul's words how can we be "transformed by the renewal of our minds" to find the courage to change and the tools to incarnate Christ in our relationships? Here's some tips to flip the script:

Reframe old roles
Recognize that it’s unfair and disrespectful to freeze-frame people into old roles. Maturing people change and grow. Some are life-long learners who even reinvent themselves. Rather than locking people into old roles or labeling them by past behaviors, it’s important to see and accept who they've become. It’s judgemental to pigeonhole people in roles or define them by the worst moments. Some of the pain of getting together on holidays is feeling we have to play a part from our past. “Once a child always a child” one of my clients bemoaned. “Every time I’m with my mother I collapse into what she wants me to be instead of being who I am. So I stay away.” Naturally my client feels resentment. The flip side is that her mother feels rejection. The net result is distance, disrespect and cut off. A reframe might look like being curious, expressing interest in one another and accepting the changes even when we don't approve. This stance equalizes relationships and requires that both parties relinquish the need to be “right.” Instead of convincing another we affirm them and ask “Given these changes, what do we need to renegotiate in our relationship?"

Communicate honestly and directly
Renegotiating roles requires honest communication.This is tough for those of us who grew up with the message "don't talk, don't feel and never disagree." But staying silent about such things and sweeping them under the rug ruins relationships. It not only takes away our agency to author our own stories but hits at the heart of our identity as individuals created in God's image. Staying silent at the expense of pleasing people and keeping peace has a high price-tag. Unwilling to confront problems directly we triangulate. We tell others who take sides and polarize our problems to the point of becoming a needle in a haystack.If we want to treat people with dignity and respect, its important to communicate with them directly.

Reciprocate: learn to give as well as take
It's one thing to restore a relationship. Its another thing to maintain it. Reciprocity is key. While we can unilaterally accept differences and even forgive, it takes 2 to make a relationship. Fearing rejection, some try too hard. We go 95% across the bridge to make it work. Systems theorists call this over-functioning. While one person over-functions, the other under-functions. For instance, do you do all the initiating, calling, giving, talking, caring and hoping? This takes a toll down the road. It damages trust and erodes hope. Sooner or later the over-functioner gets tired and angry. They realize there’s no real relationship.This is a painful. But if we've shared our feelings over and over and nothing changes, sometimes the next best step is to let go. Letting go isn’t cutting off. It simply means that we can't do all the work. It allows another the spaciouness to reconsider their role in the relationship without demand. Melody Beattie's prayer puts it this way: “Today I will stop doing all the work in my relationships. I will give the other the gift of requiring both people to participate. I will accept the natural level my relationship reaches when I do my share and allow another to chose what their share will be. I will trust my relationships to reach their own level. I don’t have to do all the work; I need only do my share."

Respect boundaries: learn to let go (forgive) instead of holding on
Boundaries are personal limits that are fluid depending on safety and trust. But healthy boundaries are not walls. Boundaries define the personal property lines of who we are, what we’re willing to take and how we want to be treated. They give shape to our identity, help us navigate relationships and protect us from harm. Because people are all different, our boundaries are different. People differ because of temperment, intellect, physical/psychological limits, life circumstances, and wounds from the past. Knowing our own limits and respecting another’s is paramount to emotionally mature and long-lasting relationships. Boundaries can be impaired or even broken by life circumstances. This soul rupture from the past informs present relationships. Triggers from trauma are often projected onto partners, spouses, friends, family and authority figures. Unwittingly, relationships become strained and even estranged as one seeks space and needed perspective to re-narrate the past with redemptive strands.This is deep inner-work for our loved ones and requires loving patience. As we all trust God and focus on our own journey, resolution of old wounds and recociliation of relationships has its best chance. This is good to remember on holidays. Giving one another space to come and go and stay as little or as long as people want instills safety. Safety is the hallmark of healthy relationships.

Be defined but stay connected
As irritating as behaviors can be on holidays, research says that staying connected is better than cutting off. While cut-off happens around issues of money, divorce and religion, the real battleground is self-differentiation (seeing ourselves as adults and not children). While cut-off can feel better for a brief time, it's benefits are short lived. Over the long haul it heightens anxiety and deepens depression. Studies further suggest that cut-off from families effects work relationships, friendships, and marriages/partnerships. Because the social systems of people who are cut off tend to be smaller, the relationships they have are more intense creating overly reactive emotions that leave people feeling “socially adrift and suffering." Hence, “patterns of cutoff are like cancer that spreads into all areas of life” (Gilbert, 1992). If you find yourself cutting off, step back and recognize the pattern. Do whatever is necessary to gain perspective and see things against wider sky. Remember: All of the good memories and gifts from this relationship. Ask: “What is my part here?" “Is there anything I can do to bridge the cutoff?” “Could there be a way to regulate my emotional intensity and make a new game plan?" Be defined but stay connected.

Summarizing, holidays are hard because dysfunctional dynamics recycle that sabotage our relationships and keep us stuck in the past. While attempts to bridge the gap might not alter another’s behavior, we can take steps toward undoing our own dysfunction. Working toward reframing roles, communicating honestly, reciprocating and doing our fair share, respecting boundaries, and attempting to stay connected instead of cutting off can keep us close together. Because without families we are all strangers who shiver alone in the dark. In a world of gathering darkness shedding light in locked places is a way to move the dial from the worst of times toward the best of times. With God's help we can do this.

Beattie, M. (1990). The Language of Letting Go. United States: Hazelden.
Foley, V. (1984). Family therapy. In R.J. Casini (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Gilbert, R. (1992). Extraordinary Relationships: A new way of thinking about human interactions. Canada: Wiley.
Nichols & Schwartz. (1998). Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Weinhold, B. (2011). Healthy Boundaries: Recovering our God-given limits for the good of the church. Louisville Seminary: Doctoral Project.

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