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.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
(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?