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Dec282013

SURVIVING FAMILY FRIENDS AND FAMILY ENEMIES

            This time of year, millions of travelers jostle through airports, highways, train, and bus stations, spending scarce money and taking precious vacation time to be with family.  We invest this money and time because the upside can be so wonderful—happy reunions with moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents, favorite cousins, aunts, and uncles.  Cozy quality time in familiar living rooms, memory-capturing family photos, feasts of traditional foods and home made sweets, and longed-for, loving family hugs.

            And. . . .  Almost every family gathering is also punctuated by at least a few painful arguments, old conflicts that just won’t die, long-held resentments expressed with frustration and hurt, shouting matches, and bitter midnight tears.  Why does this happen?

            Because families are the sharpest double-edged swords in the cosmos.  I made this point in this space last December.  One edge of this sword cuts through painful history, dysfunction, and fears to embrace members in warmth, support, and unconditional love.  The other edge slashes self-esteem, wounds hope, and impales dreams.

            Families are the places where we can feel most secure, most at home, most understood, most appreciated, most loved.  And, precisely because family relationships can be so long-term and intimate, family communication can also wound us most hurtfully, even fatally.

            The happiest and least-stressed family members live with their eyes wide open to both of these possibilities.

            Chapter 6 of U&ME: Communicating in Moments That Matter offers five guidelines for effective family communication that can help you strengthen the best parts of your family’s communicating.

            The first is to maintain fairness.  Few family members demand moment-to-moment equality, and most of us want our family relationships to be equitable over time.  Parents want their spouses to be as committed as they are and to make the same kind of emotional investments in the family as they do.  Brothers and sisters want to be treated fairly.  This is why many families expect holiday hosting duties to be shared over the years and for everybody to contribute to dinner.  When family members sense inequity or unfairness, they resent it and often engage in harsh criticism or passive-aggressive withdrawal.

            The second is to communicate confirmation.  At the most basic level, confirming communication says, “I recognize your existence as a person," and in many Western cultures this point is made with direct eye contact, comments relevant to the other person’s topic, and equitable turn-taking, which means minimal interruptions.   Disconfirming messages fundamentally “say” “You don’t exist/aren’t important,” and although it’s hard to imagine anyone using these words, parents, siblings, and other family members disconfirm those around them all the time.  It’s disconfirming to remain silent when it would be natural to greet a family member, to ignore your sibling’s contribution to a conversation, and for parents to talk about a child who’s in the room as if she were absent. 

            A third guideline is, don’t sweat the small stuff.  Healthy family communication includes members’ overlooking minor irritations and frustrations that are inevitable when people spend intimate time together.  Effective family communicators develop thick skins about inconsequential happenings and reserve serious talk times for the topics that really matter.

            Without taking anything away from #3, the fourth is to recognize that there’s small stuff you should sweat.  Many not-obvious, low-key, and everyday  family experiences deserve the attention of anyone who wants to make their communicating as personal as possible.  Simply making time for each other can speak volumes about caring and support.  You can also celebrate family members’ small victories—“You lost two pounds last week?  Great!  I’m proud of you!”  “Nice job on the tree!”  “You look terrific!”

            Number five is, keep talking—forever.  As I recently wrote in this blog, a relationship is a commitment to conversation, and family relationships inherently involve the strongest version of this kind of commitment.  Parents who have disowned their children, brothers who refuse to talk with their sisters, and aunts who ignore troubled nephews are all violating this guideline.  Embarrassing, shameful, and even violent family events often isolate family members from one another.  And in every case, family members can choose to keep talking.  Why?  Because history isn’t over yet.  Therapy, treatment programs, maturity, and jail time can prompt genuine change, and only if you’ve kept talking will you share the benefits of this growth.  This guideline needs to be remembered each time we find ourselves stubbornly waiting until a spouse or relative apologizes, refusing to call or write while we lick our wounds, criticizing a family member behind his back, or in some other way withdrawing from family contact.

            Happily, most families are populated most of the time by friends rather than enemies.  And, especially at those times of the year when we spend most time with families, it helps to remember that joy and pain are part of every family’s life, and that each of us can make choices to help our family communicating be as personal as possible.

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