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Monday, November 21, 2022

Overcoming Dysfunctional Ways of Relating in Your Family

For many people, this is a long-awaited time of positive reconnection where family members get together and enjoy each other's company. For others, it may be a dreaded time for going home to see their family where everyone tends to fall into the same old dysfunctional patterns that they've been playing out for years.

Overcoming Dysfunctional Ways of Relating in Your Family

Here's a typical scenario (a fictionalized account made up from a compilation of many stories I have heard over the years and not representing any one person):

Susan is in her early 30s. She was recently promoted to be the marketing manager at her company with a large salary increase, a big office, and a secretary of her own. Now that she is earning so much more money, she can pay back the $1,000 loan that she received from her parents last year. What a relief that will be. She plans to surprise her parents by handing them a check for $1000 and telling them about her big promotion. She moved away from home after college and only makes visits home once during the summer and also at Christmas.

A week before she takes the flight home, she begins to feel that old anxiety about going home. She begins thinking about how her parents will nag her about not being married yet, how her father will talk to her like she's a teenager, and how her mother will try to convince her to move back home, telling her that she still has her old room, as if she did not have a life of her own here in New York. She thinks they need to get a life of their own so they can stop focusing on her life whenever she comes home. On the flight, her thoughts are immersed in old memories of recurring arguments with her parents and many prior ruined visits.

By the time she is walking up her parent's drive, she is very anxious and angry, anticipating the worst. In the meantime, her parents are also nervously anticipating Susan's visit. They're both reminding each other not to bring up certain topics that usually cause arguments. Within the last year, they've met two new couples in the neighborhood and they've started socializing more, going out to dinner with these couples and having them over for a friendly game of cards in their new game room. It's been the happiest time of their lives.

Both parents are worried about how they will tell Susan that they packed up the things that she left behind and converted her old room to the game room. They feel she is so easily offended that this might cause an argument and ruin another visit. The more they talk about it, the more anxious and irritated they feel.

Susan's father is bracing himself in case Susan wants to borrow more money. With the new renovations that they've made converting Susan's room into a game room, they can't afford to lend her any more money. In fact, he thinks to himself, we could use the money that we lent her last year, but she didn't even bring this up at all during their last phone conversation. This irritates him even more. By the time Susan rings her parents' doorbell, both she and they are primed for re-engaging in old, dysfunctional family dynamics again. Not surprisingly, within a short time of Susan arriving, her mother begins to bring up the subject of Susan's room and Susan flies off the handle, her parents overreact and they're back to their old dysfunctional ways of relating, stuck in an old dynamic, even though external circumstances have changed.

Why Do Families Get Stuck in Old Dysfunctional Ways of Relating?
In the scenario with Susan and her parents, it's clear that many external circumstances have changed for both Susan and her parents. There have been new and positive developments in each of their lives that you would think might change their ways of relating to each other. Yet, they're still stuck in the old dysfunctional ways of communicating.

 Part of the problem, as you can clearly see, is that their thinking has not changed. They're all ruminating about old arguments and resentments and anticipating that it will be the same this time--so that before they even see each other, their anxiety, anger and resentments are right under the surface and ready to explode at any moment.

Overcoming Dysfunctional Ways of Relating in Your Family

Old dysfunctional ways of relating to your family are difficult patterns to give up. It's so easy to fall back into feeling like a teenager again and relating to your family in the same way you did then, and their doing the same, even if you're in your 40s, 50s, 60s and older, especially if you're anticipating that this will happen again and again.

Your response to me might be to say, "But my parents will never change. This is how they've always been and this is how they'll always be. Family visits are horrible." And you might be right--maybe your parents will never change, even when you're in your 70s and they're in their 90s. It's also true that you can't control their behavior. But you can change your own behavior. This is often the key to changing family dynamics: If one person changes his or her own way of thinking and behaving, very often, the dynamic changes.

In the scenario above, everyone would have benefited from not allowing their anticipatory anxiety and anger to get the best of them. Going over and over old arguments and resentments in your mind has a way of priming you for the very interaction that you're hoping to avoid. It reinforces the old, dysfunctional ways of relating and doesn't allow room for anything new to occur.

It's like doing a mental rehearsal for the dysfunctional dynamics you're dreading, where the usual cues for old behavior patterns remain just under the surface, waiting to rush in at the first sign of a possible problem. This kind of mental rehearsal and acting out of old behaviors serves to reinforce the same dysfunctional behavior so that you and they get stuck in a rut.

Had Susan allowed her mother to finish her sentence, she might have been surprised to hear that her parents (the same parents she thought would never change) actually made positive changes in their lives. And if her parents had remained calm when Susan got angry and waited for her to calm down, they might have salvaged the day by telling her that there has been a misunderstanding and then explained what they wanted to tell her about her room and that they are now focusing on their own lives. Instead, the conversation degenerated in just the way that everyone was anticipating.

What You Can Do
If you and your family are stuck in old communication patterns that are producing the same dysfunctional patterns that you would like to change, think about what you might be doing to reinforce these old patterns and try to change your own behavior.

You might be surprised to find that one person changing his or her own behavior could make a big difference in the overall way that you and your family relate. (This is often true in family dynamics as well as in romantic relationships, friendships, and work relationships.)

And if it doesn't change the way your family relates to you, at least you can feel good that you've grown and improved your own personal development, you're not going for the bait (or providing the bait) and engaging in the same dysfunctional behavior yourself.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist in New York City. 

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome dysfunctional ways of relating in their relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.