Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Can you fix your family? (Harold’s response)
Who hasn't tried to "fix" their family? Most of us grow up in homes where we learn to adjust to the wackiness or in some cases dysfunction that is our family. We learn to navigate mom's quirks and dad's temper. We deftly tolerate sister's narcissism and Uncle Ralph's biting sarcasm. It is all part of being family. In many ways (sometimes to a fault), it feels normal.
I remember my first time back home after leaving for college. While I was away I noticed differences in how other children interacted with their parents. I saw up-close how other husbands and wives interacted. When I returned home for the first time, my "normal" family functioning seemed "wrong". So, I took it upon myself to "fix it."
I figured it I just told my parents a thing or two about parenting and husband-wife interaction that everything would be fine. The Arnold home would be transformed. You know where I'm going with this don't, you?
Not only did my words fall on deaf ears. But, I was reprimanded for acting like I knew something. In retrospect, I probably deserved it. Out of the naivete of my youth, I thought that behavioral change was really just about having someone point out the problem to be corrected. I thought that my "inspired words" could fix years of dysfunctional interaction.
We all wish for a fix--at least of others. We usually can't see the fix that we need ourselves. The moral of the story here is that we can't make anyone change. All we can do is change ourselves. Someone aptly coined the phrase "be the change you seek." If we each take that to heart we can fix our family by fixing ourselves.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Can you fix your family?
After Celia changed Christmas
plans on her mother, Mom tried to play the helpless card. This typically would
cause Celia to feel guilt, and it did this time, too, but she held her
boundary. She called her sister
Catherine to try to get her on her side about coming up to Canton for Rob’s
grandma’s birthday party. But
Catherine was no help, because she had made other plans for Saturday, “assuming
you and Rob would be here for Mom.”
party for Rob’s grandmother was in full swing – or at least in as full swing as
a party for a ninety-year-old was likely to get. Rob’s mother and her relatives had done a lovely job
decorating the meeting room at the assisted-living facility where she lived. Long tables were spread with
photos and mementos, including letters.
She was a walking history of twentieth-century America: helping to organize soup kitchens with
her church during the Depression, working with the USO during World War II, and
marrying her sweetheart, Rob’s grandfather, right after he returned home from
the war. They started their family
while he went to college on the GI Bill, living alternately with one set or
another of their parents until he graduated. Then, they moved to their own tract home in Cleveland, where
she had raised her family and then lived as a widow for almost twenty years
before moving to this residential facility.
met many in Rob’s extended family who had not been invited to their very small
wedding. They were for the most
part welcoming to Celia, with the exception of one aunt who attempted a snide
comment about not being invited to their wedding, but Rob’s mother deftly
parried that drama. Celia loved
learning about Rob by learning about his family. Celia’s own family was small and distant, both physically
and emotionally. To witness a
family so stable through the generations as Rob’s seemed to be was a revelation
for Celia. So this was what normal looked like. It was something to aspire to for the
family she and Rob would one day have together.
Celia could not help wonder what her mother was doing right now. Mom had refused to drive to
Cleveland for the party, blaming that on the fact that Catherine was not
available to come with her. Celia
had struggled all week, trying to distinguish feeling guilty that she had caused her mother’s situation from feeling sad that her
mother was in the situation.
effort had its complications this week, though. It had been a strange conversation with Catherine. Catherine had implied that since Celia
was now married, it was time for her to take on more of the emotional burden of
Mom, “since I have been doing it for a few years now.” Catherine had begun internet dating,
and she was unavailable today because she was spending the day with someone she
had met and liked.
Celia did not buy that this meant it was her job to take care of her mother,
who was not even fifty years old yet.
Celia began to grasp that her job with her mother was to empower her to
take charge of her own life, NOT to either fix it for her or protect her from
it. This was the only way she and
Rob would ever be free to grow their own family into one that, someday, might
actually have its own party like this one.
decided to call her mother right now and walked into the lobby to do so.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Negotiating through the Family Pull (Harold’s response)
Healthy marriage requires boundaries. This includes personal boundaries that must guard the identity that God gives each person. But, it also includes boundaries around the married couple--protecting against outside intrusions that are unsafe for the marriage. There are unsafe people, places, things, and even ideas that are enemies of your marriage. Sometimes, these unsafe people are ones that we hold dear.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't the time necessarily to excommunicate yourself from your loved ones. But, it is important to understand when you must draw a proverbial "line in the sand" for how much you allow people who aren't safe for your marriage to influence it.
In this specific episode, Celia is acutely aware that a boundary is necessary. And, I applaud her for refusing to be drawn into her mother's issue. It is a move that is likely important for future decisions as well.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Negotiating through the Family Pull (Joanne’s response)
I wrote last week about the family pull. The family pull is harder to resist when you are in the middle of it, as Celia is right now. Our family crazy is the air we breathe: we get so used to it we don't even know it's there. Celia is using a ton of emotional energy right now to identify and break the gravitational hold her mother has used since the divorce to keep Celia close. Mom has her own work to do right now, obviously. She welcomed Rob into the family, but it is more complicated than gaining a son-in-law to be the man in the family. Celia can facilitate the process by staying out of it, for now. Sometimes we have to speak our truth and back off, letting the consequences unfold. It's never pleasant in the short term, especially around the holidays, but it allows long term growth and change to happen.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Negotiating through the Family Pull
Rob suggested to Celia that they
invite her mother and sister Catherine to Cleveland to attend his grandmother’s
ninetieth birthday party on the 26th. He and Celia both hope this will mitigate any negative
reaction when Celia told her mother that they won’t be spending Christmas in
Canton with her after all, which Celia had promised without first checking with
was silent on the other end of the phone.
Celia, sitting at the kitchen table, winced and dropped her head into
her hands. “Mom?” she said. Was her mother really stunned or was
this a ploy to make Celia jump in and fix the situation?
hated that she was reneging on her promise to her mother. But she remained silent, refusing to
fall into the old pattern of fixing it.
Hadn’t the party invite been the fixing, anyway?
Celia,” Mom said, sighing. “But I
have gifts for you and Rob. I
already bought a turkey for Christmas Day. And where are we supposed to stay in Cleveland?”
you don’t need to stay anywhere in Cleveland,” Celia said. “It’s only an hour
away.” Mom was silent again,
playing the helpless card. “And
you can give us gifts anytime. We
have one for you, too.” They did
not really have gifts yet but they did intend to get them.
about the turkey?” Mom said.
exhaled. She had provided entirely
acceptable solutions to two of three contrived obstacles. There was a time when she might have
panicked right now and jumped in with that solution, too. “Roast it anyway,” she would have
said. “You can eat the leftovers
for days and then Catherine can make soup from it. You can freeze the soup.” Then she would have promised to forward a good turkey soup
recipe. But Celia was tired of
fixing things for her mother.
I think you can figure out what to do with the turkey. It’s just a turkey.”
was silence again on the other end of the phone. I could just say goodbye and hang up if I wanted to right
now, she thought. That seemed
rude, but Mom did not seem to be getting the hang of her end of changing the
“Mom. I’m very sorry I’m changing the plans,
but I think Rob made a great suggestion. The party for his grandmother will be wonderful, and
we’ll get to hang out all we want.
Rob’s parents would love to have you.” Celia felt like she had done her best, although she realized
she was sweating.
this is the way it’s going to be with you married, Celia? It’s all about Rob’s family now, isn’t
it? I’ll talk to Catherine and get
back to you about the party.” With
that, Mom hung up. Celia exhaled
does Celia do next?
Friday, December 18, 2009
Conflict Resolution Starts With An “I” (Joanne’s response)
Harold has identified what Rob and Celia are doing right in their relationship. I will therefore highlight the other half of Celia's growth edge right now -- being married to Rob while still being her mother's daughter. As we have noted here before, leaving home and cleaving to one's partner are not only about first hiring a moving van and then having sex. These are emotional as well as physical tasks, and they are therefore ongoing, not fully accomplished just because "I do" has been spoken. For Celia to leave well, she will learn to balance her role in her family of origin with her role as Rob's wife. "Resist the family pull," we say in the field of family therapy. Our birth families' pull on us is powerful; maturity requires that we acknowledge and make conscious choices about how to respond.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Conflict resolution starts with an “I” (Harold’s response)
Every marriage have conflict--at least hopefully. Why hope for conflict? Simple. It means that each of you have an opinion. It means that you are being true to yourself. It suggests that you are expressing that which God has invested in you. Since no two people are alike, no two people can be in agreement about everything--hence conflict. The point here is that conflict offers the potential for a great good because it allows two people who respect one another's viewpoint to arrive at a conclusion or decision that is better than either of their individual ones.
The key to a successful marriage is healthy conflict resolution. And, the key to healthy conflict resolution is being introspective. Typically, one wants to see the flaws in the argument of the spouse rather than looking at one's own idiosyncrasies.
Kudos to Celia in this week's episode. She is doing exactly the right thing. Although there are some emotional strings getting tugged, she has looked at the situation with as much objectivity as she can muster. Then, she went to Rob to admit her own shortcoming. If all of us married couples could do this we could cut the divorce rate in half almost instantaneously.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Conflict resolution starts with an “I”
Rob and Celia are having their
first home-from-the-honeymoon disagreement over whose family they will spend
Christmas with, after Celia made promises to her mother before consulting
her head buried under her pillow, heard Rob leave the room. She was angry – at herself, mostly, but
she felt petulant, like a tantrum was coming on. Why couldn’t Rob just give in and let her have it her way?
pulled off the pillow and sat up, listening to Rob opening the refrigerator in
the kitchen. She could not just
have it her way, she thought, because she was married now. Somehow she and Rob were going to have
to find a way to strike a balance that felt fair to both of them. Sometimes Rob would get his way,
sometimes Celia would get hers.
Perhaps they could figure out what win-win looked like more often than
not so that married life surpassed kids on the playground fighting over whose
turn it was.
a comfortable average, calculated over decades, was a useful theoretical
construct that did not bring much to bear on this moment, today, when Rob and
Celia each wanted their way.
Rob had been correct, she conceded, in making an assumption that what
fair would look like here would be for them to be with Rob’s family, since they
had indeed been with Celia’s mother and sister Catherine last year. And a grandmother’s birthday
party – you’re only ninety once, after all.
to be completely honest with herself, Mom’s depression and its cycles would be
with her, Celia, always, unless Mom could figure out how to actually do
something about it herself. But in
the greater scheme of things, an emotionally unstable mother and a birthday
party seemed comparatively black and white in terms of importance, and this was
an angle she could parry as she and Rob talked.
threw off the covers and found her bathrobe on the floor next to the bed. But it would be an intellectually cheap
angle, she knew, because it wasn’t that clear-cut at all. Just because Rob married a woman with a
depressed mother did not mean Rob’s life, nor hers as his wife, could revolve
was going to have to tell her mother that she had blown it by making a promise
she couldn’t keep without being unfair to Rob. Celia felt a wave of nausea as she thought about it. It’s not that Mom would get mad –
actually Celia wished she would, more often – but she would moan and carp and
Celia would as a result feel guilty.
walked into the kitchen where Rob was standing at the counter pouring milk on
cereal. She hugged him from behind.
blew it,” she said. “I shouldn’t
have made plans without talking to you first.”
her head leaning on Rob’s back, she felt him nod his head. She wished he would say
something, but he did not. He
seemed to think this ball was still in her court.
it was. “So I’m going to call Mom
and tell her we can’t be there for Christmas. I can tell her I did not know about this party.”
finally spoke. “Well, I have an
idea about that. Canton and
Cleveland aren’t that far apart.”
does Rob suggest?
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Bare ass-umptions (Harold’s response)
Assumptions ruin marriages. They start early (as in the case of Rob and Celia). But, they can last for the duration of the marriage--often a shortened marriage because of them. Assumptions are bad because they are discounting. In other words, I discount the fact that my spouse has an opinion. In some cases discounting is done innocently. In these instances, one spouse is just caught up in his or her own head and forgets that there is another opinion to be considered. In other cases the discounting is done intentionally--disrespecting and uncaring as to the value that one's spouse can bring to the situation.
Obviously the intentional neglect is worse than that which is unintentional. But, the bottom line is that your marriage suffers regardless of which type of assumptions you make. The solution, of course, is to consider one another wherever possible. By doing so, you make a statement of respect. And, you demonstrate the meaning of partnership--we're in this thing together.
Though Celia appears to realize her own mistaken assumptions, here is an opportunity for Rob to enrich the relationship by showing grace and redeeming her rather than throwing it back in her face. Let's see which he chooses.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Bare ass-umptions (Joanne’s response)
Celia has blown it and she seems to know it. Of the three choices made available to Rob via the omniscient creators of this blog, will any of them de-esccalate the situation? One choice, in which Rob swears back at Celia, probably won't help, because he suspects she is angry at herself. Celia doesn't need Rob coming down hard on her when she is already being hard on herself. Another choice, to get back in bed with Celia, may help as it makes it clear that Celia is more important than the disagreement, but only if Celia is willing. If she is feeling defensive, this move may cause her to react or overreact. The remaining choice, in which Rob rolls his eyes and goes to the kitchen, has its merits within the relationship potentially, if Celia needs a few minutes to herself. But the eye-rolling? Depends on what it means. Is Rob feeling contempt for Celia right now? If this is the case, he needs to talk it out now, because contempt is toxic to marriages. But I am a believer in couples occasionally taking a time out -- as long as they reconnect shortly thereafter. It would be preferable if Rob were to say to Celia, "I'm going to get breakfast. We can talk when you come out." But even Rob and Celia make the occasional misstep, so there isn't a best choice here. I am curious to see what our voters decide this week!
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