The holiday season is upon us, and Hanukkah is here. Friends and family get together to celebrate. Memories are formed, food is enjoyed, sometimes gifts are exchanged. The holidays are a wonderful time of celebration- but is it all joyful? As families come together, along with it are those pesky family patterns…
As the children open their gifts from John, he is just as surprised as they are at what he’s given them this year. As per usual, Sue ends up buying all the gifts because he hasn’t had time to do his own shopping.
Clair is upset at Tracy because she got the pair of socks in the colour she wanted. Jim quickly sides with Clair and demands that Tracy switches with Clair… anything to keep the peace. Sue and John jump in trying to get this scuffle under control before Clair storms out of the house. Luckily Sue thought ahead and bought each child two pairs of the exact same socks. As soon as Clair opens her second pair of socks, peace is restored.
The Smith family arrives and dinner is served. (Shelia has already prepped Craig “no politics, no religion talk. Got it?!”). Conversation about the weather takes place and everyone agrees that they hope it snows soon. Craig feeling rather bored with the topic pipes up and shares his positioning on the latest news report. Jim’s differing stance on the topic is abruptly made known. Everyone starts fidgeting, eye contact is being made…. The discomfort builds. Que Sue- she interrupts the building tension by asking “who wants seconds” while Sheila simultaneously gives Craig an under-the-table kick.
Perhaps this is an exaggeration of how family patterns play out… or is it? When family comes together, it’s inevitable that some of the old patterns, the ways we all handle tension in relationships, pop up.
Maybe you’re the one that buys all the gifts for fear that your partner won’t.
Perhaps you’re the one that when you don’t get what you want you, or perceive something as unfair you turn up a stink to get your way. Or perhaps you’re the one to quickly take sides and defends your favorite sibling. Or are you the one who does everything in your power to try to avoid the explosion… “We MUST keep the family happily together” you cry.
Perhaps you’re the one that is inclined to express your opinion on the latest new article with the intention of convincing everyone else to agree. Or maybe you’re the one that can’t handle a different view point so you buttal by trying to convince the other that your position is more accurate. Or are you the one that as the tension build you get so uncomfortable that you must interject and distract…
What a work out!!!
Over the years I have become more and more interested in how these family patterns play out, and have observed all of the above in my own family. These patterns are not good, or bad, they are really just our own unique ways to manage relational tensions. In saying that, when these patterns become chronic, they can cause problems. Sometimes physical health problems, sometimes mental health problems. The one who is always doing for the other becomes exhausted. The one who isn’t doing for themselves can forget how. The one who is trying to keep the peace, becomes exhausted and the others don’t learn how to be responsible in their relationships. And so on…
Any time with family, including the holidays can be an opportunity to do something different. Try an experiment.
I encourage you to reflect on what role you tend to play in your family? What function does that serve? Are there anyways that you could make gentle shifts? When tension rises, how could you bring your most mature self to those moments?
Be gentle with yourself. Whenever someone makes a move in an old family pattern I always call it a “courageous move”. It takes effort, and when we are going to make a move in an old family pattern it’s as equally important that we don’t do it reactively. Or else it won’t be sustainable. See my blog post “Slow. Steady. Trial. Error. Forwards. Back.” for more information on how to make sustainable changes in your relationships.
If this post speaks to you and you’re thinking about the patterns that are playing out in your family and wondering what you can do about them, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Written by Kathy Kutzer, MSW, RSW, RCC