The season for family meltdowns
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
- JANUARY 16, 2015
IT started with a scone. In their suite at a London hotel — with a view of the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park and the sound of harp music wafting up from the lobby — Heather Tobin’s two sisters both reached for the last scone on the breakfast tray at the very same moment.
One sister grabbed it. The other tried to swipe it away. The two women, in their 20s, bickered and then quickly moved on to insults: “Do you have jet lag, or is this your own usual selfish self?” one asked. “I’m glad I don’t have to live in the same house with you any more,” the other shot back.
Tobin, 30 and holidaying with her family to celebrate her mother’s birthday, jumped into the fray. “This is ridiculous, we’re on holiday. Calm down,” she said. One sister threw the scone at her.
The women stormed down the hall to their parents’ room overlooking the atrium lobby to complain. Their mother yelled at them for acting like children. Their father bellowed: “You are behaving like animals.”
The parents fought with each other in the hallway about how to deal with their children.
Eventually, everyone went back to their rooms and slammed their doors. Down in the lobby, the harpist, who had stopped the music because of the commotion from above, began playing again. “We all love each other,” says Tobin, an antiques dealer. “But we regressed.”
Did you spend time with family this past weekend? If so, you may have taken part in or witnessed a family meltdown — or you may be bracing for your turn.
An argument where everyone is talking and no one is listening is a hallmark of what clinicians call “stuck” or dysfunctional families. Yet even healthy families occasionally exhibit the behaviour, they say.
In the course of writing about relationships, I have heard about epic, multigenerational meltdowns at birthday dinners, in hospital waiting rooms and in taxicabs hurtling down New York City’s West Side Highway. One family had a screaming match in the middle of the street. Another traded shoves while waiting in line to board a plane. My cousin Sarah responded to my general request for information about family meltdowns with just five words: “The Bernsteins. Look no further.”
Most times these arguments start because of something small, like a scone. But the quarrel itself is about a much larger matter: competition, power, favouritism. These fights hark back to childhood, and may contain echoes of previous generations’ conflicts.
“If someone’s reaction is way bigger than the actual harm done to them, it’s old stuff,” says Candida Abrahamson, a US life coach and family mediator who studies family systems.
Meltdowns take different forms. In some families they are silent. Experts in family dynamics say they typically unfold like a movie plot, along predictable lines with a familiar cast of characters.
First there is the “trigger”. This person gets things started by acting out, often taking offence at a real or imagined slight. The trigger may see himself or herself as the outsider or victim of the family with old grievances to air (“You were always mum’s favourite”).
Someone, often a sibling, reacts to the trigger by taking the role of “prosecutor”. This person may have decided ahead of time to point out the trigger’s “bad” behaviour so he or she will improve. (“Stop being so sensitive!”)
This exchange is a signal for others to jump in. A “defender” or “peacemaker” might stick up for the trigger (“Back off, OK?”), or might chime in with the prosecutor. Others might attack both (“You two ruin every family gathering!”).
Parents and other family members fuel the conflict with inaction. An “enabler”, typically the mother, talks about ending the conflict (“Please, let’s just all get along!) but may really be trying to sweep it under the carpet. A “passive enabler”, perhaps a father, distances himself from the meltdown by marching from the room. (My father has been known to retreat to his study and don his skeet-shooting headphones.) The “deserter” — an in-law or someone else not in the thick of the fight — herds children away from the scene.
Families tend to have more meltdowns when they have unresolved conflict and when they value individual self-expression over repression. Are these blow-ups ever productive? Experts say only if the participants can come to a respectful resolution.
“You can have a positive outcome from conflict, but then you have to be willing to see other people’s perspectives,” says Eli Finkel, Abrahamson’s son and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
Experts say it is possible to step back during a tense moment and help steer the family back on course. Someone will need to remain calm. It might as well be you.
It will take some advance planning, not just nervous anticipation about what might go wrong.
Many people brace themselves for the worst, and think about what they will say or do if someone upsets them. “All this does is raise your anxiety,” says clinical psychologist Pauline Wallin.
Reframe the event in your mind (“It might be stressful, but there are many worse things to go through”). Give yourself the job of enjoying the gathering. “You have a responsibility to try and make this a happy experience for other people,” Wallin says.
Make a resolution, Finkel says: “I am going to finish this family get-together being proud of my behaviour and knowing that I behaved like an adult.”
In a study at Northwestern published in the journal Psychological Science in August 2013, Finkel asked 120 couples to write every four months for a year about a fight they’d had, half of them writing from their own perspective and half from the perspective of a neutral third party.
The couples who wrote from the third-party perspective rated their relationships as happier and better connected. Finkel believes the technique can apply to families too.
Another technique is “if then” planning. You expect specific behaviours from your family and plan your own specific reactions. (“If my sister starts to brag about her kids, then I am going to agree with her and tell her what she wants to hear.”)
To recover from a family meltdown, ask the person who is upset what’s wrong and offer to listen. Susan Kuczmarski, author of Becoming a Happy Family, published in November, says: “Identify something that is important for the person and spend a little time on it. A little compassionate asking, listening and reaching out within the family is sometimes all that’s really needed.”
Original article here