Don't Think You Can Manage Problematic Family Relationships?

Holidays are a time for joy and connection; reminiscing with family over treasured memories and making new memories together.  The holidays are also a time of stress and potential conflict for families under the pressure of connecting if the connection has been violated in any way.  People experiencing misattributed parentage, also known as non-paternal events (NPE), understand that violation and the complexity it creates with family dynamics.  Here are two suggestions to address family conversations and connection over the holidays and beyond: separate fact from emotion, and come with a plan.

Let’s use an example of the fictional Jane, who discovered she has a different father than she was raised to believe, which helped her to understand why she felt so different from that side of the family.  The discovery hasn’t improved the dynamics with that side of Jane’s family, in fact, it probably worsened it.  Jane finds herself pushing against attending Thanksgiving this year because dad’s side of the family treats her with indifference when they’re not belittling her struggle.  They may say things like, “I don’t understand why you needed to do this?! Why you needed to find this out and hurt all of us?!”  Someone may have asked her not to talk about it anymore, or keep the secret, perpetuating the problem.

Separate Fact from Emotion

I think the best place to start with any problem in the beginning, identifying the reasons something exists, requiring an intellectual approach.  Separating fact from emotion means identifying where the emotional distortions are, and the most consistently successful way I’ve determined this happens is through writing it down.  When we keep emotional connections in our minds-eye it becomes abstract - distortions of reality.  Those abstractions then serve as the foundation of our perception, leading to heuristic thinking; the rule of thumb thinking we engage to make sense of lots of information or unknowns.  

Think of a work project you dislike.  Chances are you dislike it because you perceive it as a monumental task, taking up tedious time and complex thinking about things you may not fully understand yet but expect a bad outcome from.  Procrastination and avoidance are indicators you use heuristics believing it’s too hard or complex, and that is really no different than how we engage with difficult or unwanted family dynamics.

Before attending the next family gathering, or any phone conversation with family, take out a pen and paper to determine what is a real fact and what is feeling.  Writing this down in two columns is the mental exercise of making the abstract distortions concrete.  Allow yourself to remove self-judgment about whether you should feel one way or not.  Simply allow it to flow.

One prompt to help get you to get started in the exercise is, to begin with, the question “why”.  Why does Jane’s family use microaggressions and treat her differently?  The answer is, it has nothing to do with Jane.  These behaviors are part of the social norms her family was taught in the era they were raised; the cultural and religious influences that shaped them and were handed down generationally.  It doesn’t matter who Jane is or what she discovered, because whoever goes against the status quo will receive the same treatment in an attempt to bring it back to baseline.  Once Jane realizes it’s not her personality that is a problem, she can move on to the emotional component.

In the emotional column, Jane might write that she feels angry, sad, and defensive because of their behavior.  It’s important to understand the difference between the facts and feelings even though one may trigger the other.  Going a step further, Jane could explore the core beliefs internalized over the years - being unlovable, unimportant, or unwanted – in order to understand herself even better.  

When we are hurt, we often overlook the other side’s feelings out of self-protection or righteousness.  Their feelings determine their reasons, just as it does for Jane.  One of the more common reasons for conflict is fear, perhaps the greatest human motivator.  Fear of instability and being socially outcast influences a family’s use of anger to wrestle members into compliance.

Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Making a Plan

Being prepared for something significantly improves the ability to deal with it.  Akin to being prepared in the sense of outdoor survival skills, Jane could prepare herself for family gatherings by planning her responses to anticipated problems in the form of an If-Then flowchart.  Often used in business to make strategic decisions through forecasting, it can be repurposed to serve as a psychological tool to plan conversations and boundaries.

In Jane’s example, she could write down the expected comments and mean behavior she anticipates from them and then brainstorm responses based on the goals she has.  For instance, one of Jane’s goals could be to stand up for herself appropriately or take their behavior less personally (since it’s not about her anyway).  Based on those goals, Jane could devise responses that are rooted in her understanding the family feels threatened but it is not her personal responsibility to save them from the mistakes their generation made by continuing to keep the secret.  

Jane can remove the defensiveness in her responses to foster assertiveness.  Memorize word-for-word responses to passive-aggressive or mean comments that support her goal for boundaries.  A great way to do this is by asking questions, such as, “I can tell you feel threatened by my discovery and I would like to know more about why you’re threatened – what are you afraid of happening now that I know?”  The defensiveness is gone when Jane can ask that question without the answer controlling how she feels about herself.  Regardless of their answer, she knows what she needs, that it’s right for her and their feelings about it don’t depict her worth.  

Everyone is allowed to have feelings and that makes everyone’s feelings valid, for them.  It should not be Jane’s goal to change their feelings or minds – that’s out of her control.  Yet, Jane would achieve more emotional balance if she could remember any positive interactions over the years and combine those to the scale she weighs the negative ones on.  The tendency to forget there have been positive experiences enables generalizations, which erode rational thinking.

If part of Jane’s goal is to maintain relationships with family despite the conflict her discovery has created, she will have to decide what her limits are.  Up to what point does she tolerate mean comments and indifferent behavior before asking for a boundary?  At that point, a boundary may look like reduced contact or refraining from certain topics in conversation.  All of that can be added to the If-Then flowchart to help direct her responses and create a sense of control over something Jane never previously felt she had an agency with. People will prove to you who they are if you are willing to listen.  So Jane’s family may prove they are incapable or unwilling to respect her boundaries and that dilemma will direct a new set of responses from Jane based on what she mapped out in the flowchart.

Through the writing exercise, anyone can learn where their feelings are coming from, what facts are triggering the feelings, and what the feelings influence them to do. That allows some distance from the feelings which translates into better communication. With the If-Then flowchart, strategic planning allows the practice of healthy communication to better achieves a goal.  No one has the capacity to hurt like family, because is no one is supposed to be more concerned with our welfare