For better or worse, we first learn how to make and maintain all kinds of relationships from our families. During our formative years, our parents establish patterns with us—patterns of connection and separation, of independence and dependence, of give and take—that literally shape our developing brains and how they work for the rest of our lives.
The problem, of course, is that this is an imperfect process. Our parents have inherited their own patterns from their own parents, families, and culture and combined them into their own style. We remain unconscious of the majority of these emotional patterns; we rarely notice or examine them. This automatic process is why family emotional patterns are so often repeated generation to generation. When they work for us, they help us develop into caring, connected, loving human beings. When they don’t work well, we can be shaped by anxiety, demands, rigid roles and expectations, and inflexible rules for behavior. Of course, most of us have a unique, messy combination of both.
One of the most emotionally charged family experiences we share are the subtle and not so subtle family expectations that swirl around “the holidays.” Whether the holiday is Christmas, Passover, or the cultural New Year, many families have traditions that involve returning “home,” visiting parents or relatives, eating, and sharing worship or rituals together year after year.
For adults who have left their parental home and established an independent life, these expectations can arouse surprisingly high levels of anxiety and worry. We can be caught off-guard by overwhelming feelings of obligation, excitement, frustration, pleasure, anger, or any combination of feelings about the family traditions we know but now have a small measure of distance from. And if we add into the mix the distance and cost of travel, or the demands of college, work, or a new spouse or child, it can feel like a chaotic world inside our heads.
Most of us solve this internal family stress in a few ways. We may promise to return home, but find a conflict at the last minute. We may go, but bring along a friend, spouse, or child, and use them as an emotional buffer. We may go and find the old emotional patterns so arousing we eat, drink, sleep, or spend too much while there. We retreat to the computer, the new novel we brought, or constantly check our smart phones for communication from the outside world. And still others of us find the whole returning to our family so stressful we end up in huge, raging family fights, when we want to be relaxed and connected.
It is hard to return home to our families. We want to behave well, but find our own reactions surprising and troubling. How can we stay connected, in a healthy way, to the people and traditions we had growing up without completely starting over? How can we be calmer under the stress of bad communication, or alcoholism, marital conflict, unspoken rivalries, disappointments, or fear?
Family systems theory understands the family as both the source of this emotional stress as well as the soil in which new, more flexible personal patterns of connection need to grow. How can we change our point of view of family and behave in slightly more helpful, relaxed ways?
The answer is twofold:
- We must recognize that we are part of that same family that makes us so confused. We need to return to our families over time, in small amounts, and become a witness or observer of our family’s emotional process. We can enter into our family process as both participant and student. What do we notice? How does this family work? How do I participate in these patterns? What if I were to do something slightly different than before?
- We make a steady effort to talk with, deal with, and know each member of our family one to one. When we can have real, face to face relationships with the people in our extended emotional system, we stop behaving with them in old, rigid, familiar ways, and have to deal with them as people in the here and now. And, not surprisingly, they have the same experience with us.
These basic emotional changes are the building blocks to creating a more flexible self when dealing with our families from a distance. We don’t have to cut our families out of our lives, and we don’t have to simply accept their unique problems and bear our burdens silently. Observe your family system, and focus on your relationships with people, individually. You can go home again, with a shift in purpose and perspective, and find yourself better connected and less anxious.
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