How can I learn to get along with my family again?
December 26, 2010 4:35 PM   Subscribe

How can I find a way to get along with my family again? When I'm around my family for big family occasions like Christmas, everyone seems to fall into long-ago-established patterns of behaviour in which I'm treated like an awkward/over-sensitive/"difficult" twelve-year-old. Anything I do seems to reinforce that impression, and (although I try hard to prevent it) I'm pretty sure that the more they see me that way, the less calm and less inclined to make nice about everything I become, making the whole thing worse.

(Anonymous because they know I hang around here sometimes, and dear God am I in trouble if they know I'm asking this.)

Background: I'm the oldest of three siblings, quite close in age (I'm 30). I moved out when I was 18 and visit two or three times a year; my siblings live much closer to my parents, and see them more often. We don't all work the same way - they're all quite loud and extrovert, while I'm quieter and more introverted - but I'm very fond of all of them, and they of me. We keep in touch regularly by phone and email and get along fine there. The problem: visiting family seems to go badly. Not when it's just me, parents and siblings, but usually when I'm visiting it's to celebrate birthdays and Christmas, when aunts and uncles are around too. I'm not sure why this particular mix of people creates this particular dynamic, but it does.

I'm sure I was often quite annoying to them when I was a child. We do have quite different personalities, and I probably wasn't the best at being able to calmly and politely express what I thought/felt/wanted when it differed from what everyone else did. But the pattern that seems to have become established from that is that any time my thoughts/feelings/wishes differ from my family's prevailing ones, it's yet another sign that I'm being difficult, or sulky, or unreasonable. Even on fairly trivial things like Christmas TV shows - where we all sit quietly through the one my aunt likes, we all sit quietly through the one my brother likes, but ten minutes into the one I like there are loud discussions about how stupid it is and why does Anonymous even like this and can't we put some music on or have a conversation instead - it's a problem, and heaven help the dinner table when it comes to issues like making homophobic jokes (which I'd rather they didn't). Saying "I'll be happy to talk when this has finished, but I don't mind if you don't want to watch with me", or "Hey, I've got lots of gay friends - can we not make that kind of joke?" tends to get met with laughter, comments of "there she goes again," and patronising explanations that it's Christmas, Anonymous, and it would be nice if you could stop being so difficult. It's especially pronounced this Christmas because my father, who's most like me in personality, has had an incredibly difficult year of depression and unemployment, and mostly wants to be alone out walking the dogs and not talking to people. My family deal with this by making fun of him, I find that hugely upsetting, and there doesn't seem to be a compromise.

It probably sounds like I'm exaggerating the calmness of my responses and the dismissiveness of their reactions here, but I'm not (or at least, trying very hard to recount such events exactly as they happened). My family aren't bad people, at all - it's just that in their minds, I really am a whiny kid who can't play nicely with everybody else, and that impression has been there for so long I don't think they can see past it. And after having spent most of my 20s trying desperately to find the exact right tone of voice and phrasing to express myself in such a way that they talk to me as an adult, not a child, up to and including "Please could you talk to me like an adult, not a child?", it's finally starting to occur to me that maybe there just plain isn't one.

(Right now, for example, I'm holed up in a quiet room because my brother decided to look for YouTube videos of bears mauling people on the wide-screen TV in the room where we were eating breakfast. Everyone else, although not usually inclined to gory spectacles, thought this would be hilarious; I asked him politely twice to please not do that while I was eating, then left the room to eat elsewhere. Cue sighing, eye-rolling, and loud speculation about why I'm being so sulky at Christmas. But honestly, I just don't want to watch bears mauling people over my poached eggs and toast.)

As I've got older, and more comfortable with the idea that I have a right to my own thoughts/feelings/wishes, this dynamic has actually got worse to the point where it's getting really unpleasant to visit them. I've tried everything I can think of - staying calm and expressing myself clearly (I'm a master of that by now!), ignoring the whole thing and trying to go along with my family as much as is possible, talking to people about the way I feel both individually and collectively, phrasing my feelings in terms of I-statements ("I find it upsetting when," etc), and nothing. For them, I'm the problem. It's not that they're hugely offended by my presence - they see my 'sulkiness' and 'being difficult' as more as a long-running joke and minor annoyance, if anything - but they can't honestly see themselves as acting in any way that should be any kind of problem for me.

Ironically, we all got along better when I was more inclined to see any differences of mine as personality flaws, and accept my family's discontent about them as something that was ultimately my own fault. But that isn't exactly a solution I'd like to go back to.

I'd like to find a peaceful, constructive way to break this pattern so we can all treat each other healthily and well, and so going home for Christmas isn't an increasingly unpleasant thing. We can do this on the phone and via email, and when there's only a few of us present - surely there has to be a way to extend that to big family occasions too? And I'd really like to fix it sooner rather than later, especially before me and my partner (who usually spends Christmas with his own family, but has seen my family dynamic enough times to find it baffling) start a family of our own. Help?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
This doesn't sound like an introverted vs. extroverted problem to me. It sounds like scapegoating/group bullying. I wish I could say something more helpful, but I have no idea what to do to stop group bullying other than removing oneself from the group. I also have no idea how to remove oneself from being a group/family scapegoat. The only thing that seems to work is the group finding a new/better scapegoat, like for example your dad. I think the only thing to do is set boundaries and remove yourself from their company when they violate the boundaries.
posted by Ashley801 at 4:43 PM on December 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think some families have members who just... don't fit into the established hierarchy. I never understood as a child why one of my aunts never came home for Christmas. Now I *totally* get it. My family has started treating me as an adult enough to stop getting me the cool Christmas presents, but I've been trying to work through this for a few years and I still get lectures on how I load the dishwasher wrong. My much-younger sister-in-law, who they never knew as a child, does not get treated like this, which makes things even more peculiar.

My new theory is that family holidays are best indulged only every few years, when it's been long enough that you're willing to put up with the BS bits. 2-3 times a year may be more than you're really cut out to handle, but on the up side, if you're only doing it that often now and you live some distance away, it's not hard to phase it back. Also, not staying with people when you are visiting is also helpful; I can't afford the hotel thing, but discussion of this same problem with other friends dealing with it has indicated that when you have another place to go where you can escape the family, it's easier to cope.

But in a lot of ways, I think it's just a matter of trying not to force it to be something it isn't. I got raised to value certain things in a family that as an adult, I realize my family doesn't in fact have. It's an ongoing adjustment, but over time it's getting easier.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:50 PM on December 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


Walk the dogs with your dad?
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:55 PM on December 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


I'm sorry I don't have any good advice, but my family is like yours. I just don't go. I have better, more healthy ways to spend the holidays than by sitting with people who think that making bigoted comments to make me unhappy is a great joke.
posted by winna at 4:55 PM on December 26, 2010 [11 favorites]


Cue sighing, eye-rolling, and loud speculation about why I'm being so sulky at Christmas.

I find that this happens a lot in families - and continues to happen namely because, unlike in the case of friendships, they get away with it. If anyone did this to me outside of my family (and I can relate) it would be over. I have handled such poorly myself - the best thing I've done is ignore it when it happens. Not terribly satisfying for me - but maybe not for them, either (?) and maybe that shuts it down. I would love to hear (here, in the answers) /employ some clever thing to do in these instances myself. But at the end of the day you can't really change them, only you - and if they don't catch on I have to wonder if it isn't to get a rise out of you. And - if that is the case, then not giving them anything to "work with" is at least as easy as doing nothing/saying nothing.
posted by marimeko at 4:58 PM on December 26, 2010


We can do this on the phone and via email, and when there's only a few of us present - surely there has to be a way to extend that to big family occasions too?

Hotel.
It sounds like you are staying at your parents places along with a bunch of other people.
I find having somewhere to eat breakfast in peace away from the maddening crowds is priceless at large family gatherings.


Saying "I'll be happy to talk when this has finished, but I don't mind if you don't want to watch with me", or "Hey, I've got lots of gay friends - can we not make that kind of joke?"

I asked him politely twice to please not do that while I was eating
talking to people about the way I feel both individually and collectively, phrasing my feelings in terms of I-statements

I'm going to say this as nicely as possible, but honestly, no-one wants to hear this at Christmas time or at any special event. If you keep bringing it up or wanting to talk about it, then yes, you are going to get a reputation for being "difficult".
I suggest that you either limit your exposure (see the above suggestion) or find a way to politely focus your attention elsewhere when things are a little out of hand.
(I mean, seriously, you got up and left the room because you didn't like what was on TV?)

If you really feel like you need to change the culture, you need to approach people outside of the event. Talk to them in June about Christmas, not on Christmas Eve.
posted by madajb at 5:00 PM on December 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


It sounds like they trying to push your buttons because they can. I had an experience where family had bullied a close friend of mine two days before I was to arrive and when I was in their company (since I have a sterner spine and more detachment), I dished right back, ripping every argument to tiny shreds in a very heavy handed way. And you know what? I discovered that (a) they could dish it out but couldn't take it and (b) that the retribution had no value.

So one piece of advice, don't try to exact retribution: be above it.

You can disarm what they say with questions. "I'm being difficult? Huh. I didn't realize that! How was I being difficult? Help me so we don't have to go through this again." And when you're saying, "help me..." you're not talking to them. You're using an omitted "God/Deity" in a wonderfully out loud prayer. And laugh back. The more they try to touch you, the further out of reach, and the more they'll grasp for straws.
posted by plinth at 5:03 PM on December 26, 2010


Make other plans for the holidays. When asked why you aren't coming home, explain it objectively and dispassionately. Don't make a big deal out of it. If they make a big deal about it, tell them you'd be happy to discuss it after the holidays, separate from the whole family.
posted by TheBones at 5:04 PM on December 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


I'm not quite sure how to describe what they're doing: it seems to be a type of banter, careless about feelings, either of those present (you, your dad) or large groups of people (jokes about homosexuals). They probably don't see what they're saying as offensive, they're being funny, and to them someone stepping in and getting politically correct is a bit of a wildcard, and something they describe as "difficult", perhaps because they don't have a better way of saying that they don't see how anyone could see this type of conversation as political at all. They were having it in the safety of home with family and loved ones, and don't have to be careful in the ways they might have to be outside of the home.

This is gross insensitivity, in a way, and as Ashley801 suggests, could be experienced by you as bullying. But as you seem to be saying, this insensitivity is combined by the fact you guys actually are fond of each other. And while you are presenting their differences as unacceptable, they see your differences as a joke or an annoyance.

I'm not sure what to suggest. Maybe, as you have a good relationship with them 1-on-1, explain to them some of the positions in which you feel uncomfortable; there's advice in other places on askmefi about how to do this emphasizing the ways you feel and not the things they do, or how terrible people they are. Or you could simply not expect any better from family meetings; they can satisfy some of your needs, but not others. And then decide whether it's still worth going.

One witty suggestion I saw on askmefi and liked is one of Ashley801's, about misdirection of insults; I'm not sure if you could use that to control the areas on which they make jokes.

It doesn't seem they're treating you like a child; that's the way they're ready to treat your dad too.
posted by squishles at 5:08 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow anonymous, your family is mine, and you are me.

I've tried everything I can think of - staying calm and expressing myself clearly (I'm a master of that by now!), ignoring the whole thing and trying to go along with my family as much as is possible, talking to people about the way I feel both individually and collectively, phrasing my feelings in terms of I-statements ("I find it upsetting when," etc), and nothing.

What you have left out, and what seems to be the only thing that works, is humor. Whether it's laughing it off or doing your own version of eye-rolling "there-he-goes-again" to your brother's antics, humor defuses situations like that. In the situations you described, I would watch my preferred Christmas movie with friends before/after the family visit, say "oh that's lovely, watching bear-mauling at breakfast" and roll my eyes at my brother, and only be serious about the anti-gay comments. Choose your battles and respond to other things with humor. When I finally realized that asshole family people aren't worth me taking all their little digs seriously, and I stopped responding with sincerity (all those "I" statements and articulate expressions of your feelings just feed the beasts), the digs really let up. Really, you're not going to change them, you can only change your response to them.
posted by headnsouth at 5:13 PM on December 26, 2010 [13 favorites]


One of the challenges with being a new person around old friends/family, is that that isn't what they signed up for. You changing suggests that they need to change their behaviors too, and they may not be too enthusiastic about that. So in a way, you are 'difficult', in that you aren't interested in playing your assigned role. Aaand...you aren't particularly enthusiastic about just going along with their racist/prejudiced/annoying ways. So you're kind of at an impass.

You can handle this a couple of different ways - divide and conquer - find the member(s) in the group most likely to see you in a new light, and chat with them individually, sharing what you see in these exchanges, and asking them what they see, and listening to what they say. Or you can change your frame of mind - that you are interested in finding a peaceful constructive way to treat each other healthily and well, but that might not overlap with anything they are willing to do. So part of your peaceful constructive way is limited to you treating them and yourself healthy and well.

Personally, for me, this involves bringing my phone, taking breaks and checking my email or metafilter, or talking to family members individually, which I enjoy. Reminding myself what I do like about my family and engaging them around those topics - everybody loves scrabble! Or just getting some distance while in the discussion by examining my family like an anthropological experience around the dinner table, wondering who these people are, why they think what they do, and what it all means. I've had extra fun as my partner is a mental health professional and I ask him what type of cognitive trap family member X is engaged in, although, it's sort of interesting just examining where the boundaries of those traps are. That said, there are times when my partner still has to hold my hand to bring me off of the brink of the epic battle I feel the need to take on in the name of whatever group of people some family member has just maligned, because they aren't at the table, but for the most part, these strategies have helped.

And now, during christmas dinner, when I am speaking up about something that someone has said about some group of people, and there is the communal eye rolling of oh, "Anitanita is going on about X" again, I can usually look sincere say with barely veiled irony about hearing my comment: "Oh, that must be very difficult for you", and then I laugh. Because if you can't appreciate the irony of a sharing a christmas dinner to celebrate the life of Jesus (who dedicated his life to giving voice to the voiceless) with a bunch of minorities/women/etc. who use that day to by sit around the dinner table to talking smack about other minorities who aren't there to defend themselves, the you, sir (or madam) really appreciate the true meaning of the word Irony.
posted by anitanita at 5:21 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I used to have this problem when I lived at home and my much-older brother was around. Nothing I said was ever taken seriously, and I was always an object of fun. The family, led by my brother, could be as dismissive and demeaning as they wanted to, and if I objected, I was told to "lighten up." It was always my fault because I had the reputation of being sensitive and emotional.

The way I dealt with it was to move away and live with my boyfriend on the other coast for some years. By the time I returned, I had grown up and become my own person, and the dynamic was totally different.

Given all the different things you've tried to make this better, I would just limit visits to one a year at most and stay in a hotel while you're there. Maybe bring a friend with you who will help change the dynamic, someone who treats you like an adult and will back you up, not be tempted to join in. I'd say you've done all you can do to work with them to change this, and now you just need to focus on protecting yourself.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 5:22 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


There is no law, written or unwritten, that says individual adults must spend Xmas with their growing-up families. Strangely, many adults (maybe most adults) think it's absolutely a commandment to do so. This idiotic "tradition" must end.

The way they treat your father is despicable. I agree with gracedissolved; stop visiting them for the holidays on a yearly basis. Make it every three years, every five years. You know you have friends you'd rather hang with for the day; they don't want to hang with their families either! You can bank on that.
posted by BostonTerrier at 5:24 PM on December 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


My dad does this. He baits me (and my husband! really!) about politics, gay people, whether or not I am "calm," whatever you can name. It sucks.

As others above have stated, remove yourself. You don't have to make it as dramatic as not going to the holidays at all, but when the watching of bears mauling people on YouTube begins, take your breakfast and relocate. Silently, without huff or statement, nothing. Maybe you suggest watching the weather instead, or listening to the radio, but not necessarily. Disappear. Walk the dogs, do whatever, but just nondramatically remove yourself. I'll go up to my room and sort through a box of something for half an hour and reappear. If my dad tries to make it, "Oh, where did YOU go to be ANGRY? HA HA," then I just make it, "Would you ever believe what I found in this box of old crap? I've been meaning to go through it."

Deny them reaction, and generally make believe that anything offensive they do does not exist. I find it baffles my father into silence, and over the months and years, slowly into civilized conversation.

Good luck. It's hard.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:37 PM on December 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Walk the dogs with your dad?

This. At least one other person in your family has found a way to carve some separate space out for himself. Whether or not you walk the dogs with him, he is modeling at least one way to be there, but not really be there, if you see what I mean.

And, stop taking the bait. The anti-gay jokes are only made more funny when you get all angry about them, for example. There is a clear pattern to your interactions, and you are very much playing your part. If you want a different result, do something different -- you aren't going to get a different outcome by doing the same thing you've been doing for 30 years.

Lastly, I agree with the people who have said that maybe you should visit your family less often. Sometimes a break lets everyone begin again with a cleaner slate, less imprisoned by the old patterns of interactions.
posted by Forktine at 5:44 PM on December 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


You might be interested in reading "Controlling People" By Patrica Evans
posted by jbalwen52 at 5:53 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I actually think that what you call calmness and politeness are trigger behaviors that are aggravating the problem. You are reinforcing your, for lack of a better word, differentness by acting like they are monkeys in the zoo and you are the anthropologist trying to understand their strange ways from your superior perspective.

It seems like they are all enjoying themselves and just doing whatever they normally would. If you don't like what they're doing, you might want to try being in their faces about it a little more.

And you know what, you probably do this unconsciously when it is just your siblings and your parents anyway. You just tell your brother to knock it off or roll your eyes with the others, and that's why you all get along.

But when the aunts and uncles come along, maybe because you feel like you should be on your best behavior, you start using textbook solutions for diffusing tension (when this happens, I feel this way) instead of just saying, "Hey, I'm watching this show, and I sat through yours, so could you quiet down while I watch mine?"

Be direct, don't stand on ceremony, and EXPECT to be treated like an adult, because you are one. But recognize that being an adult doesn't mean being sanctimonious or superior, either. You aren't bringing civilization to the savages, you're eating with your family. Oh, and by the way, for heaven's sake, don't run off to your room if your brother does something you don't like! You're the oldest sibling, you don't need to go sulk in another room. Just tell him, "Watch your bears later, we're eating here!"
posted by misha at 5:57 PM on December 26, 2010 [12 favorites]


I agree with Medieval Maven: ignoring the meanness, the biting, the silliness works better than trying to defend your attainment of adulthood. You are permitted eye rolling while you remove yourself from gory imagery in silence. Family dynamics do not change much: I'm still treated as a young ignorant child by my older siblings in spite of having raised my own family. Because of this, I have exchanged eye rolls with my younger sister on several family occasions. It helps a lot to have at least an ally. Is there anyone who could commiserate with you and help you bear the rest?
posted by francesca too at 6:06 PM on December 26, 2010


Mondo thanks to everyone here for the comments! Great reading and so true. In the same situation as anonymous, I've done the humor thing, I've detached and ignored them, changed the topic, disappeared for years, I've sat silently smiling and waited the holiday out - NOTHING I have done has changed the patterns that were set 50 years ago. To them I am always the flake, the artist, the unwed, the lib/dem, the single mom, the tech geek, too much hair, foreign clothes blah blah blah. You cannot and will not change these people. Even worse, when you cease to engage with them in the manner to which they are accustomed, they will escalate their garbage. RUN, FOREST, RUN.
posted by henry scobie at 6:15 PM on December 26, 2010


the more they see me that way, the less calm and less inclined to make nice about everything I become, making the whole thing worse.

This reaction is the only thing you can control, so I'd focus on diminishing that. Ask yourself how you can be a net contribution to the situation from the point of view of things you can change.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:18 PM on December 26, 2010


my father, who's most like me in personality, has had an incredibly difficult year of depression and unemployment, and mostly wants to be alone out walking the dogs and not talking to people. My family deal with this by making fun of him, I find that hugely upsetting, and there doesn't seem to be a compromise.

Oh, and the more I read this, the more I wonder if you might be misreading good-humored ribbing for 'making fun of' your Dad. My husband's family jokes around all the time, but there's love there and it is not intended to be hurtful. You've already said your parents and siblings all love each other and they are great people; surely they don't just turn into monsters when the rest of the family is around. Isn't it more likely that you are interpreting this in the worst possible light?

For example, your brother putting on live videos of bears mauling people while you were eating breakfast--that right there sounds like an exaggeration to me. How many YouTube videos of actual live maulings by bears can there be?

I went on YouTube myself to check this out and found a LOT of prank videos, some actual after-the-fact accounts from people who had met up with bears (from National Geographic) with absolutely no gore, and a couple news stories which briefly showed (as a still picture within the video) a man with a bloodied face who had reportedly been attacked by a bear.

So you went into your room because of, most likely, prank videos, which is no doubt what your brother thought was so hilarious about it all. Jerkish behavior on his part, yes. But did you play into it? Absolutely. Tell him off next time instead of retreating.
posted by misha at 6:30 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just watched a pal go back home for Christmas and endure all the usual awful crap he'd endured for years when he lived closer.

He's pondering opting out next year. I suggest a hotel room, too, and I'd recommend a nice one in Vegas. The MGM Grand West Wing is both tastefully appointed and a bit off the beaten path from the casino proper.

Go back when you have kids, and don't visit for long enough to expose yourself to judgment about your parenting or your kids to any bear maulings.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:31 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


hey guys: it doesn't matter if you think a given thing is nothing to get worked up about, or something like that.
what's more of an issue is that the OP's family is seemingly incapable of respecting his/her wishes, no matter how clearly those wishes are expressed.

to OP: i wish i had something more directly helpful today, but i sympathize, and commend you for being able to express this in clearer words than i ever could.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 7:34 PM on December 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


where we all sit quietly through the one my aunt likes, we all sit quietly through the one my brother likes, but ten minutes into the one I like there are loud discussions about how stupid it is and why does Anonymous even like this and can't we put some music on or have a conversation instead - it's a problem, and heaven help the dinner table when it comes to issues like making homophobic jokes (which I'd rather they didn't). Saying "I'll be happy to talk when this has finished, but I don't mind if you don't want to watch with me", or "Hey, I've got lots of gay friends - can we not make that kind of joke?" tends to get met with laughter, comments of "there she goes again," and patronising explanations that it's Christmas, Anonymous, and it would be nice if you could stop being so difficult.

Family do so love their traditions of assigning everyone a character to play. And then the reactions become part of the "story," and it's an expression of a sort of familial intimacy to run through the paces. (From my experience, I will remind you to think about whether you participate in a similar sort of "role affirming" with other members of the family, to make sure you're not unwittingly guilty of this sort of thing yourself?)

As for the flat-out inconsiderate stuff, I think you're being too passive with your objections. By being all "I statement" about it, you really are making it your issue and not about their behavior. They're going to eyeroll anyway, so dish it out a little harder and assign blame correctly. "Seriously, I sat through your stupid program quietly, so either shut up or go do something else. GEEZ." "What the hell is wrong with you that you're so hateful? Seriously, knock it off, I've told you a hundred times that that's not cool."

I'd like to find a peaceful, constructive way to break this pattern so we can all treat each other healthily and well, and so going home for Christmas isn't an increasingly unpleasant thing.

If I were you, I'd be heading out to walk the dogs with Dad. Consider limiting your time spent at the house, and instead prioritizing time with close friends. When anyone in your family wants to know why, well, you can decide in what tone you'd like to tell them that going home for Christmas is increasingly unpleasant.
posted by desuetude at 7:51 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


As a kid of divorce I can promise you that family is easier to like when you aren't around them. Stay in a hotel room, have your own schedule (on Christmas day, say, only come by from 10am to 6pm,) and meet your essential needs in your non-family time.
posted by SMPA at 8:10 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find humour is the only thing that works in this sort of situation, but my family is a lot smaller, and so there isn't such a feeling that everyone is ganging up on me: it's just individuals treating me like a child or a freak. Also, it seems in the thread above that some people might be suggesting (or inferring) that humour STOPS the joking/pigeonholing/bullying. It totally doesn't. But it makes you feel better because you are putting yourself on the same level as everyone else by giving back as good as you get.

Here's an example:

BAD INTERACTION THAT MAKES US ALL FEEL LIKE SHIT
Mum: oh my goodness, look at that woman! She is so incredibly fat! She should be ashamed to go out like that.

Me: I don't appreciate it when you make criticize other people's bodies. It's judgmental.

Mum, rolling her eyes: There you go again being difficult. You are so politically correct. Trying to ruin everyone's fun!

Outcome = I sulk and/or remove myself from the conversation.

GOOD INTERACTION THAT MAKES US LAUGH AT EACH OTHER

Mum: oh my goodness, look at that woman! She is so incredibly fat! She should be ashamed to go out like that.

Me: Hah, and here goes mother-the-body-police again! [Laughs]. Let's tell the poor woman that she isn't allowed to leave the house in tight jeans anymore because it offends your eyeballs. I'm sure she'll be thrilled. [Smiles and rolls eyes].

Mum laughs: Little Miss political correctness strikes again.

Me: That's DR Political Correctness to you. Dr Political Correctness and Ms Judgypants Bodypolice. We're quite a team! Maybe we should have superhero costumes.
posted by lollusc at 8:40 PM on December 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Ever heard the phrase “resistance is part of power” (meaning that direct disagreement just serves to affirm the power structure in place)?

I kept thinking of it while reading your story. My family is similar, and I’ll tell you that direct, vocal disagreement does not work for several reasons, no matter how polite, clear, or logical. It’s reactionary, it’s more evidence for their labeling you as difficult and disagreeable, and it doesn’t motivate them to change. We have this cultural image of the lone dissenter standing up in court and saying “objection!” and it’s a formal, powerfully ingrained image, but dissenting that way rarely works in real life. Think more along the lines of Gandhi. (seriously)

What works for me (beyond avoiding them as much as possible and minimizing holiday time spent at home) is just living my life around them. Instead of responding negatively, I tune out and don’t respond. I come from the position of making them work to engage me as a general rule. I don’t try to ask questions I think they want me to ask them or otherwise make small talk, I don’t laugh and smile and smooth things over and go along. If they want to tell jokes that offend me, I don’t laugh, and excuse myself for a plausible reason without creating drama. If they tease me, or badger me, I respond honestly and briefly and let them get it out of their system and don’t get worked up, then go do something else. I ask for what I want and don’t fall all over myself preemptively to find a compromise. In other words, I withhold positive reinforcement unless they really deserve it.

The more important thing, though, is that somewhere along the line my attitude shifted and I really, truly disengaged from them. It’s cold, yes, but I just had to stop caring so much. I had to distance myself. Sometimes in conversation I look directly around and cultivate the feeling that I’m 1000 miles away from the person across the table and my mind is already on tomorrow and this conversation is just so much fluff and nothingness. I imagine that they’re strangers and home is a hotel, and suddenly I’m not nearly as acutely embarrassed by them and don’t take their actions as a personal reflection on me.

At first, the more obvious I was in this, the more they tried to get a rise out of me. But I know that losing my temper first means they win. Doing this long enough, combined with acting serious and grown-up and just taking care of my business while at my family home, has over time won me much more respect. Also, I realized that part of their attempting to gain control over me showed me how much power I had. Resistance is part of power, remember? Well, their resistance to my growing up, my adulthood and success showed me that I had more power and pull all along than I thought. Consider that some of it is insecurity and jealousy, and some of it is people going along with stronger personalities and picking on you-not because they don’t like you, but because they gain in some way by making you the scapegoat, possibly deflecting attention from themselves out of fear. If you win over the stronger personalities to your side, or get to a mental place where you can really disengage, the others are cake.

Just visualize them collectively as getting smaller and father away and further into the past-picture them as an annoying little gnat or just flapping jaws spewing so many words. Think transcend and work around. The only way to win is not to play.
posted by Nixy at 9:12 PM on December 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


"Hey, everyone, I'm feeling sulky and difficult again, so can we please not watch bear mauling during breakfast?"

To echo an earlier comment: during the course of a visit, how much of what they do are you objecting to? Maybe it does feel like a lot to them. Maybe trying keeping quiet with some of your objections and saving it up for the big stuff (like the homophobia).

Also, if this were me, I probably wouldn't assert my own opinions much about things, especially in choosing a tv show.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:14 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]



I'd like to find a peaceful, constructive way to break this pattern so we can all treat each other healthily and well, and so going home for Christmas isn't an increasingly unpleasant thing.


This won't happen. Only way to break this pattern:

1. Never stay at home, book a hotel
2. Meet your parents in a cafe or restaurant

Do not break this rules.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:58 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Accept the fact that you cannot change them. Family dynamics tend to be set in stone and you can't make it be different. Decide how much of it you are willing to endure for the dubious pleasure of seeing them all together, and construct other ways to fill your holiday with people and activities you do enjoy.

For most of us with we used to call dysfunctional families, the sooner we recognize that the sickening holiday gathering not going to magically get better one day, the sooner we can stop going back over and over and trying to get them to see that it should be different. Stop arguing and accept that the things that are offensive to you are not right for you and, while you can't change those people, you don't have to swallow what makes you feel sick.

For what it is worth, if my brother looked for bear mauling on tv as breakfast entertainment, I would have had a polite reason long before lunchtime to be in my car and on the way back to the sane life I've worked so hard to make for myself. I won't sit passively and endure what makes me feel ill. I'll see them separately and at times I choose. If I go to the big gatherings, I pick the time, give the gifts and spend one-on-one time with the individuals that are the real reason I go there and I don't stay for the rest of it. Long ago I learned I never go to any iffy gathering without a reliable escape plan.
posted by Anitanola at 10:25 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm 32 now. Back when I was 29, and again when I was 30, I almost posted questions similar to this. "I have grown up enough to see all these dynamics and to be experimenting in my responses, but nothing is working! What do I do?" Now, it is much less of an issue. I'm not sure if it'll work this way for you, but it's possible this is just a phase in growing up. Since that point, I've more and more felt something akin to "oh yeah, this again," but it doesn't really upset me anymore. In my better moments, I skip straight from recognizing the pattern in how they're treating me, to realizing what they are likely feeling, to acting the way I'd act toward someone else I loved who was feeling that way, while also resisting a reaction that would make me feel bad. In my less good moments, I gnash my teeth but consciously choose not to react. I try to remember to feel compassion for whatever would make someone act that way. Sure, it bugs you, but it has got to be a lot harder on them to have those dynamics going on in their lives 365 days a year, whereas you get to live in a much more gentle world where people don't make someone else the outsider and mock them. At a certain point, who YOU are has little to do with how they treat you, and if you hold onto your identity and then ask "well, who am I and how does that person react to people who behave like this?" you'll find yourself with more power.
posted by salvia at 1:25 AM on December 27, 2010


Does it help when your partner is around?
I don't think you are very likely to change the dynamic unless something else changes - something that might assign you a new role in the family. This might be bringing your partner with you for Christmas, having children, or just staying away for a few years (at Christmas).

Otherwise, I'd strongly suggest doing something else instead of spending Christmas with them. Go to your partner's family, take a vacation, do charity work, host Christmas for other people. When you tell them what you're doing either don't offer an explanation, or tell them the truth - they find you difficult, and you don't enjoy Christmas with them.
posted by plonkee at 1:47 AM on December 27, 2010


I thought I'd be the first person to show up and recommend walking the dogs with your dad, and maybe he'd rather be alone (I don't know) but dog walking with dad (and getting to hang out with dogs) sounds much more fun than hanging out with the rest of the family.
posted by Neofelis at 1:58 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sounds like my family. I haven't been home for any holidays in the last several years (indeed, I haven't been there at all in about 2 years).

Nthing the suggestions to disengage from it (cf. Nixy's comment about Gandhi) and to stay away as much as you can. I tried discussing/explaining/whatever with my parents about what was problematic (and they aren't even as bad of bullies as it sounds like your family are), but they heard what they wanted to hear, as usual, and didn't pay any attention to what I was actually saying. If they don't want to change, or to accept you as different from the role they've cast you in, there is nothing you can do to force them to accept it. So this has to be about taking the moral high ground: and really take it. Don't do the right thing and then try to make sure they know you've done the right thing - either they won't notice, or worse, they'll think you're trying to be condescending, which will backfire miserably - just do it and don't create drama (again, like Nixy says).

Basically everything Nixy says, really.
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 2:58 AM on December 27, 2010


I spent many years trying different strategies in order to spend a "peaceful," "constructive" Christmas with my family. I eventually came to the conclusion that the family I had in mind when I booked my plane tickets and bought presents had nothing to do with reality. It was an ideal, based on a pastiche of childhood memories, TV shows and popular culture. The real family, though hardly a bunch of villains, required too much effort and produced too much stress for me. Unlike some of the others above, I don't see the point in taking the trouble to be with people with whom you must then make an enormous effort to ignore, "be above" or "resist." I choose not to go, and my holidays have become very peaceful indeed.
posted by Paris Elk at 4:27 AM on December 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


Disengage from the big family events. Since you have good interaction at other times, just enjoy those, and don't go to the events where everyone gangs up on you.

This dynamic will never change, and you trying to inject level-headed, mature behavior into their craziness is like bashing your head into a brick wall. The only thing it's going to get you is a headache and them laughing at you.

When you get the inevitable backlash from not attending, you can honestly say you don't like the way they act when everyone gets together, and life is too short to spend with people that make you miserable.
posted by lootie777 at 6:44 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you are me, this will not get better with the current family members. Let's just hope you are not stupid enough to be more successful in some way than your siblings (and I mean in any way - better trained dogs, more money, taking a trip to Italy - any little thing they can be jealous about.)

Fortunately for me, I have a large family and many members of the second generation think I'm the bee's knees. I shouldn't enjoy how galling this is for their parents and grandparents, but sometimes I can't help it.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:10 PM on December 27, 2010


« Older Just out of grad school (HCI, ...   |  I'm looking for the word for a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.