The Family at Thanksgiving

THE FAMILY AT THANKSGIVING: Grievances, Gripes and Gratitude // 11/12/14 Thanksgiving Hollywood style, sadly, is viewed as normal. But is it? Rarely. Most families have emotionally charged stressors — outside, like financial insecurity and inside, like warring factions. These less than perfectsituations by no means preclude a Thanksgiving defined by gratitude and forgiveness. But emotional challenges will need to be recognized and managed. Difficult, yes Doable? Absolutely! If Thanksgiving seems especially troublesome, it’s an ideal time to seek out a good therapist for yourself, the family, or both. You don’t have to navigate these often choppy waters alone. Steady on as we take an unfiltered look at November’s nemesis. In this week’s posting, you will find three Family Therapy terms with which you may not be familiar. Most families experience these dynamics. Turns out 1/ they have names and 2/ they tend to be exacerbated by the holidays. All three concepts originate with Dr. Murray Bowen (1913 – 1990), an American psychiatrist. Dr. Bowen is widely considered to be a pioneer in family systems theory.

DIFFERENTIATION — the ability to separate one’s own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family. Your principles, morals and ethics help you evaluate family and social issues without lapsing into emotional reactivity. Differentiation is a sign of emotional maturity.

TRIANGULATION — when two family members are in conflict, they may “triangle in” a third member. The focus shifts to the new member (the “outsider”), relieving anxiety felt by the two “insiders”. The “outsider” may be a person, a job, a religion — anything takes removes the focus from the “insiders”.

THE CUTOFFS — the identification and description of “The Cutoffs” is Dr. Bowen’ most significant contribution to family systems theory. To reduce anxiety from unresolved issues with their parents or siblings, “cutoffs” distance themselves. They spend less and less time with family members, avoid sensitive subjects which might require emotional involvement and eventually move away to avoid all contact with the family.

FAMILY THERAPY 101 Thanksgiving is almost never “normal”. Most families have stressors, both outside — like financial insecurity and inside — warring factions. These situations by no means preclude a Thanksgiving defined by gratitude and forgiveness. But emotional difficulties will need to be recognized and managed. The Greeting Card Family To a family ruptured by cutoffs, Thanksgiving may seem an ideal opportunity to mend broken relationships. TV shows and commercials present an idealized portrait of a family sharing, caring and enjoying the yearly feast. The food is praised; “inside voices” are used; no one leaves early. “Home for the holidays” brings tears of joy to the parents, which delights their children. “But you didn’t have to cut me off / Make like it never happened and that we were nothing / And I don’t even need your love / But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough” “Somebody That I Used To Know” feat. Kimbra, as performed by GotyeInside this greeting card family, gripes and grievances were brewing. Theirs was a two-parent household — the marriage was rock solid. Their home had ample space — inside and out — in which to raise their two daughters, which they did perhaps a little too well. The girls were Daddy’ s diamonds. Ellen was the Mom who brought scratch-made cupcakes to school on the girl’s birthdays. But she hovered. With the best intentions. Ellen craved involvement in every aspect of her daughters’ lives. Debbi was just two years older than Becky — which could have caused turmoil and tears. Perhap because of their stable family life, their closeness in age led to closeness in life. Besties, they considered themselves friends first, sisters second. Both girls were educated and married well. Both elected to purchase houses in their hometown. Becky had two children in Middle School. Ellen offered a bit too much child-rearing advice, but Becky knew she meant well. Debbi chose not to have children. Her husband Stan caught the crest of the dot-com wave and surfed the couple into a lavish lifestyle. The family remained intact. Becky and her husband Marvin were both teachers. They were exceedingly proud of their children who excelled in public school, abetted by their parents’ coaching. They expected to ace the SATs. Albeit the occasional child-rearing quarrels, which Debbi ignored, they were the TV commercial prototype. Until Becky noticed subtle changes in Debbi: it seemed to take longer for her to return Becky’s calls. Oh, and she was no longer Debbi. “I prefer Deborah,” she announced. While Becky shopped at Marshall’s and Ross, Deborah had a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus. Stan no longer played pick-up basketball with his brother-in-law. He and Deborah joined a posh country club where Stan took up golf and Deborah took up with a new crowd. Becky felt like an embarrassment, a “poor relation”. Heart-broken, she invited Deborah and Stan to join the family for Thanksgiving. She was thrilled when Deborah accepted. When the big day arrived, Deborah and Stan were hours late and had already eaten! They’d joined their new friends at “the club”: Deborah was tired of the same old family recipes. She preferred her stuffing enhanced with oysters. When they moved to a ritzy suburb 50 miles away, they were officially cutoffs. It’s important to note that while the family was unusually close, it was not dysfunctional. Deborah had differentiated herself — she managed her emotions, thinking, individuality and connection to others quite effectively: she wasn’t emotionally reactive to her family’s conflicts. Becky, far less differentiated, felt any family tension acutely. Deborah’s differentiation was healthy. But by cutting off, she maintained her functionality at the expense of others. A cutoff is a painful rejection of parental and family values, beliefs, teachings and love. Because we all need connections, the feeling of belonging to a group, the cutoff will inevitably seek out new people in their social circle or work to fill roles that are inappropriate. Should they lock into a friendship with someone who has the same needs, codependency is sure to result: a short-term solution to a long-term problem. One of the codependents is likely to move into a new codependent relationship, leaving the other bereft. Deborah’s family was also bereft, especially her mother and sister. Deborah’s cutoff made her the “outsider” in a triangulation. The “insiders”, Becky and her Mom deflected their tension to Deborah’s distancing. Their own issues remained unresolved. In this scenario, nobody wins.

  • If the scenario is slightly altered, nobody has to lose. As painful and even hopeless as your situation may seem, keep perspective. Your troubling interaction is part of a much bigger universe, one in which the holidays are truly tragic for some. In fact…
  • Encouraging the family to volunteer at your local food bank before dinner makes it quite awkward for guests to show up late and fed. It brings your family together and honors the spirit of the holiday.
  • Consider dining in a public place. Many highly regarded restaurants offer two prix fixe Thanksgiving seatings. Most families behave well in public.
  • If you love preparing the feast yourself, set extra places for friends at your table. Give special consideration to those who, without family, are relegated to watching football all day (although there are worse fates!). Your invitation will comfort people them. Make it a dinner party rather than a family gathering.
  • Change it up! Deborah actually has a point here. Maintain your traditions, but try adding a couple of new dishes: foodnetwork.com has options galore. Including at least ten recipes for oyster stuffing. Why not beat Deborah at her own game?

FAMILY THERAPY 201 Winter never entered Sam’s mind as he planned his Thanksgiving outfit. Clearwater, Florida wasn’t Miami heat, but the climate was reliably temperate. Should he go with red, the power color? Blue, the essence of calm; white, the symbol of innocence? Or black, always chic and often mysterious? His decision symbolized far more than a superficial style choice. He was 14. For eight years, he’d held tight to his secret. He had chosen Thanksgiving for the “big reveal”. On an ordinary November day 8 years back, Sam had been startled to discover himself fascinated by the girls in his class: their clothes, their hair, their nail polish. Even their shoes. “I’d look better in that outfit than she does” he believed as he watched Ashley, the class fashionista, catwalk into class. Late, as usual. And so began Sam’s evolution. The next eight years were a mash-up of shame, denial, confusion and defiance. He didn’t want to play ball; he wanted to attend a Ball, wearing a party dress. He didn’t want to paint the garage; he wanted to paint his nails. The Mall? Sam catwalked past the Lego Store, headed to Forever 21. On the morning of his 14th Thanksgiving Eve, Sam awoke alone in his parents’ modern mansion. Affluent and borderline oblivious, his parents were off to their high octane jobs. Sam removed his adored lipstick, “Iconic Red” (also favored by Taylor Swift) from his well concealed make-up pouch. In the master bathroom, he meticulously applied lip color…and equally meticulously wrote “I am a girl” on the mirror (in Iconic Red Lipstick). The family of three was not close. However, there was mutual respect. Unfortunately, that respect tended to discourage conversations deemed “too personal”. The lipstick message was not mentioned. Thanksgiving dinner was called for 4pm. Sam’s mother believed that dinner for more than eight was “uncivilized”; the family’s gathering was smallish. Sam was the last guest to be seated. Legs together, he lifted the skirt of his black dress ever so slightly to avoid stretching the fabric at the knees and to reveal his ultra-sheer black panty hose. “Good afternoon”, he said, hoping his tone was girlish. “I’m Samantha. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.” Although Thanksgiving is an emotionally charged holiday in the best of times, its inherent spirit of forgiveness, togetherness and gratitude compels us to turn up the charge. Samantha turned the dial to 11. His mother whispered, “Sam. Oh, excuse me, Samantha, we do need to talk”. Meanwhile, his Dad scheduled a round of golf at the club on Black Friday. “There’s nothing unusual going on here,” he seemed to say. Nonetheless, the guests were visibly shaken; Sam, loaded with adolescent bravado, had to be terrified. The hosts / parents faced two challenges: For Samantha: When the time is right for that talk, some simple ground rules will allow the family ties to remain secure:

  • Because Sam’s parents’ marriage was sturdy, triangulation was not a threat. Alienation was.

They loved their boy, even if he turned out to be a girl. So…

  • The 4pm dinner left ample time for an evening activity. If Samantha asks permission to hang with friends, the wise parent will not object. He may need their comfort and reassurance. Possibly, he will prefer to decompress alone. To demonstrate support, Mom might leave her copy of Vogue on Samantha’s bed.
  • Remember, criticizing an emotionally vulnerable person is not helpful, nor is unsolicited advice.

“You don’t know me, you don’t even care, oh yeah / she said / You don’t know me, and you don’t wear my chains, oh    yeah”        From “Boston” as performed by Augustana

  • As incomprehensible as Sam’s transformation may be to you, try to accept the situation as Sam sees and feels it.

For the guests:

  • Your guests may not be ready to rush off. Suggest board or card games. Kick it old school with Charades.
  • Find an iTunes dance music station and see if you can still dance (you can!).
  • Check out what’s new on Netflix and Google Play. Seeing it first appeals to everyone.
  • Get some air! Take a brisk walk around the block together.

For our families here and our readers out there: Black Friday is just days away. Allow yourself to enjoy a peaceful holiday before the madness takes over!