Similar dramas and debates often crop up in families over the years, causing guilt for not presenting a perfectly happy family unit. But with advice from our counsellor, you can address the dynamic in a healthy way and stop history repeating itself
With the arrival of spring, comes a time of rebirth – we clean out and declutter our houses, we think about getting out in nature as the days get longer, and consider how those New Year’s resolutions have stuck (or not). With the dark winter days confining us to our houses for the past few months, some families will have shared social posts of enthusiastically playing games, or cooking up a storm together in the kitchen. Then there are others made to feel guilty that our families aren’t as happily bonded and have spent our time squabbling instead.
Yet I am sure we might well have all experienced the complete opposite. There are many families who are naturally far more combative.
We argue, throw things, cry, drink, fall out, vow to never have anything to do with each other ever again. When we’re all in a small space, and venturing outdoors is only for the brave, we can experience a start-of-year period full of drama, and the fall out from it can be intense. Yet this latter behaviour and family system possesses far more energy than the “feel-good” family who, I always suspect, are harbouring deep secrets and fissures that no one wishes to reveal or fall in to.
In reality, we all fall somewhere in-between, ricocheting between falling out and falling in, and then somehow balancing out.
Most families go along inhabiting a family system that suits if not all the time, at least some of it. But as bank holidays and summer vacations approach and the prospect of spending extended periods of time together looms, it can be a time of reckoning for many families. But with a bit of thought and contemplation, it may also be a time to think about family dynamics and how to shift the bits that don’t serve you so well, for a stronger family unit going forwards.
In my clinical practice, I often find that clients tell me about their own families and how distressing they can find them. I find siblings who are not talking to each other, parents and their grown-children who rarely communicate. There can be a lot of pain behind these miscommunications, yet it is very difficult to bring these things into the foreground. Part of our fear is that if we mention anything, the entire house of cards will fall down.
Yet I often find the opposite can happen. The family dynamic that is present is often a replaying of a past difficult relationship – a historical family system as it were. The client with a terrible relationship with her sister reveals that her mother doesn’t speak to their auntie. Another who has a demanding, difficult brother has a father whose family was, in his eyes, torn apart by his own difficult brother.
In this way, families hold together through a process of secrets and lies that have become embedded over generations yet, through therapy, a lot of these things can be laid bare and looked at.
For the client – once they have got over the sudden, rather shocking, realisation that their own relationships with members of their family are a re-enactment of an older generation’s experience, there can be a sense of resolution. Part of it is the relief that “it’s-not-just-me”. Part of it is the challenge to maybe make the choice not to continue to repeat these old dynamics. Maybe it is possible to be curious as to how situations have occurred. Why does the aunt and mother’s relationship feel so antagonistic and stuck, and does this mean the system has to continue? Once we consider how our families work, or don’t work, we are able to bring thought and consideration to how we could possibly do it all a bit differently.
We often give our children the same messages we were given in our own childhoods – some of these can be helpful, and others not so much. Clients may not be aware of the messages they have been handed down, yet, once we come in to more awareness of these messages, we can be empowered to change them.
This is what therapy can do. It helps us to look at the situations we create within our families and the messages we have become used to – from “I was never my dad’s favourite” to “my sister resented me being born” – and empower you to change these so we, in turn, don’t hand them down to the generations coming after us.
Lucy Cavendish MBACP is an integrative counsellor and a regular contributor to ‘The Times’.