Family Dynamics

Roberta’s brother called to ask for “a little favour.” Could she take a birthday gift to his old college pal in Whistler when she went on her ski holiday?  Roberta agreed reluctantly.  In her experience family requests had a way of backfiring.

Sure enough, her brother called the day before her departure to ask if she could pick the gift up, as his car was in for repair.  This meant an hour-long trip to Sam’s place and back at a time when she was frantically trying to tie up loose ends.

It got worse. Sam had wrapped the package for maximum protection, turning a smallish item into a much larger one. And he insisted she take it in her carry-on, because it was fragile.  She looked at the package in dismay.  She only had a small carry-on bag and needed it for the few things she wanted for the flight.  When she explained this, and that the gift would be safer in her hard-sided suitcase, he angrily told her to forget it—he’d courier it, despite the cost.

Roberta felt caught once again in the old family dynamic:  if she said yes to a request—and there were a lot of them, from Sam, from their brother Eli, from their widowed mother—somehow it turned into trouble. If she said no, that became trouble of a different sort. No wonder, as the years went by, she sought to avoid family interactions of any kind.

This social reluctance really became a real problem when it infected her marriage. Her husband was gregarious and had many friends and business acquaintances.  His marketing work involved many social occasions at which he wanted her presence.  Despite her good intentions, she dreaded such socializing and found it difficult and awkward.  She often felt that things had gone badly, despite her husband’s reassurances to the contrary.  Because socializing was so important to him, both personally and professionally, she felt she needed to change something in herself.

How, Roberta asked me, could she become more like her husband? Why couldn’t she enjoy these social gatherings in the whole-hearted way that he did?

We talked about her family. Even when she tried to do what was asked of her, it was usually not good enough. After Christmas, Roberta’s mother thanked her for arranging the new digital cable service, but blamed Roberta for her endless troubles with the new multi-function remote. Eli asked if she’d look after his dog for the weekend, then reacted bitterly when she declined because of her husband’s allergies. Their disappointment with her was always clearly expressed. If she pleased her family, it usually meant giving up something that was important to her. If she chose herself, she had to deal with the emotional fallout.

No wonder she often suffered headaches or an upset stomach. These minor medical issues provoked further problems, as she would be accused of deliberately not joining in the conversation, of not eating enough, of leaving a family meal too soon. Gradually she had come to view all social gatherings, not just those involving family, with anxiety and low-grade tension.

During our sessions, Roberta came to see that her anxiety around her husband’s friends and colleagues grew out of the difficulties with her family. Even the most pleasant, successful social events made her anxious.  Once she realized that her husband’s friends and colleagues didn’t make the same sort of demands on her—did not have the power to turn a seemingly minor request into a quagmire of guilt and bad feeling, the way her family did—her anxiety began to dissolve.

In every social situation, she realized, she automatically braced herself for the inevitable moment when she would end up disappointing others, or feeling compromised. The trick was to make a distinction between her family and other people. Not everyone would be angry, or hurt, and try to make her feel guilty, if she said no to a request or declined an invitation.

Roberta just needed to recognize that she had a freedom in her dealings with others that she did not have with her family. This helped her feel less stressed if she was asked to join in, or help out, or make plans.  Her family’s reactions, she saw, were manipulative and excessive. She became better at saying no to them, and ignoring their negativity.

Keeping family and friends separate in her mind was hard work at first, but well worth the effort. It allowed her to open up socially in much the same way that her husband did so naturally. The last time I saw her, she spent most of the session describing  the new friends she’d made and telling me how much she was enjoying them.