31 Aug

Speaking with clients, one of the more common topics that arise involve interpersonal matters - I could write a series on these issues alone!

The tricky thing about interpersonal matters within families and long-term relationships is that there are patterns of behaviours that have repeated ad nauseam over the course of the relationship; for better and worse.

"For better" helps families to stay connected and relationships to thrive, but "for worse" tends to cast shadows and push people apart. Being part of the family unit means that you are so close to the situation it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. In this case, which patterns are healthy repetitions and which are unhealthy, but are repeating out of habit? 

To get a general idea what you're dealing with, ask yourself a simple question:

"But for ________, would the outcome remain the same?"

Another way of wording it is, "If I take _____ away, would the result be the same?" The blank space can be filled by any number of things:

  1. My reassurance
  2. My patience
  3. My attention to detail
  4. My willingness to take the blame
  5. My willingness to put my needs on hold
  6. My willingness to keep the peace
  7. My effort
  8. My ability to control my emotions

A case study

For example, imagine a family scenario where the mother has a history of disproportionate emotional responses to minor situations, and responsibility for her behaviours is consistently allocated to her children (who are now adults with their own kids). 

The family gets together for a catch up on the weekend and the mother is faced with a statement that triggers an emotional response, albeit a subtle one, i.e. "What do you mean she's not comfortable sitting on my lap? She's my grandchild!". The adult child's automatic response is to offer reassurance, validation, and emotional support.

What's going on?

On the surface, this may come across as a perfectly respectable response -When someone we care about feels attacked, we offer emotional support- and one that the adult child doesn't even second-guess, because it is the norm and has been since she was a child. 

In session, however, I sense that there may be something deeper, and we want to identify whether this interaction is a healthy one, or one born of the survival instincts established in childhood to cope with being held accountable for her mother's lack of emotional regulation. 

So, I pose this question to her:

"But for you stepping in and offering your mother reassurance and emotional support... would the outcome have remained positive?"

Together, we explore the possible options:

  • Yes, things would be fine - The same interaction occurred, Mum still had the same response, I DID NOT step in to offer reassurance, the outcome remained positive, and we would go on to have a great family day. Healthy/independent/ILOC
  • No, something bad would have happened - Same interaction and response, I still haven't stepped in for reassurance, however Mum's behaviour would escalate, she would get defensive, and she would blame me for poisoning her grandchild against her and accuse me of suggesting that she is a bad parent. Unhealthy/co-dependant/ELOC

What does this mean?

If the outcome is positive with or without your interjection, you're looking at a healthy interaction, and there's no additional motive behind the offering of comfort and reassurance.

If the outcome would likely become negative or hostile, it's a good indication that the offering of emotional support is more than likely serving a deeper purpose. 

Generally speaking it suggests that you've been in this type of situation before, and without realising it you have analysed the circumstances in depth in a fraction of a moment.

At the same time there are two separate streams of thought that are considering all of the things that you want to say, that are factually true, all the while simultaneously filtering and editing the information in such a way that will allow you to address the situation without making things worse. 

  1. "If I don't say anything, Mum is going to get upset with my sister, and accuse her of putting a wedge between her relationship with her grandchild. 
  2. My sister will then try to explain otherwise, resulting in Mum getting defensive and bringing up the fact that she must think that she was a bad mother when we were growing up and that this is my sister's way of punishing her now.
  3. At this stage she will be incredibly upset and impossible to reason with, and my sister will be agitated and angry, Dad will have shut down and retreated, the kids are surrounded by arguments, resulting in the family day turning sour, and everyone feeling uncomfortable
  4. Everyone will then look to me to fix things, and I will have to spend the next few hours reassuring her that everything is okay, that she was a great mother, that her grandchild is lucky to have a grandmother like her, and that my sister didn't mean to make her upset."
  5. OR! If I step in now, I give Mum the support she is looking for, she doesn't fight with my sister, my sister doesn't get angry and walk away, Dad won't disengage and leave, and I won't be as exhausted afterwards."

In short, "But for my emotional support to Mum during that interaction, the outcome would have devolved into an incredibly negative experience, as has been the case many times before."

Where do we go from here?

Identify patterns with your family members

Figure out why the patterns are continuing? 

What role do you play in the pattern?

What can you do to change it?

- Be kind & stay well. Until next time, Amylia.

Please note: We are not able to see into the future, so this is a 'situational forecast' where we draw from past experiences and use it to inform some probable future scenarios. There are no guarantees, and we are not saying that X will occur, just that it is probable given relevant past experiences with the individual in similar situations.

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