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Heavy Meddle: My Family Is Riven With Strife — And We’re Having A Family Reunion

How should we handle family gatherings when all our family ever did was tear each other down? (Ezra Jeffrey/Unsplash)
How should we handle family gatherings when all our family ever did was tear each other down? (Ezra Jeffrey/Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Dear Steve,

I'm the eldest of three daughters raised by mostly well-meaning but hugely dysfunctional parents who, in spite of their mutual antipathy, remain married. (I suppose conflict becomes like oxygen when it's all you've breathed for 45 years.) My parents raised us with a divide-and-conquer outlook: They fostered competition between us, undermined one in front of the others, helped sow discontent. It's not surprising then, that, as adults, our relationships as sisters have been all kinds of messed up.

For years, my two younger sisters closed ranks against me. I never really understood why, but I didn't really care, either. I'd been reared not to be close to or trust them, and they me. Also, I gave as good as I got.

Do you have any advice for how I can survive that weekend, and all the other family gatherings that will precede and follow it, while rising above the toxic air?

Then, a year or so ago, there was a falling out between my two younger sisters. All of a sudden, I was popular with each of them. I'd never gotten so many phone calls from either; but they only called me to trash the other sister. When I expressed that I wasn't interested in that, one sister kind of fell away. We have sporadic contact now. But the other sister and I got past having only misgivings about our sister in common. We made a real effort to check in regularly, avoid behind-the-back cross talk about our sister (and parents), and I dare say we now have a genuine friendship. We talk almost daily about real things: our marriages, our worries for our kids, our sorrow that our family is so fractured. I'm glad for this new relationship, and our kids and husbands are, too.

My parents and other sister find our closeness very threatening. It's so odd that people would feel more comfortable with a family divided, but that's the way it is. (I should mention that my mother is entirely estranged from her own two younger sisters and was estranged from her divorced parents at the time of their deaths; she did not attend either's funeral, which horrified me. My father constantly badmouths his two older siblings, who have always appeared sweet and benign to me. All of which is to say: This dysfunction spans generations.)

Soon, we'll all be in the same house for an entire weekend — gasp! — to mark a big birthday, and I'm anxious about it. Do you have any advice for how I can survive that weekend, and all the other family gatherings that will precede and follow it, while rising above the toxic air? I find that I revert inside of about five minutes to the old dynamics and my unhelpful role in them, and I'm trying really hard to change that. But I learned mud slinging from the best, and I'm afraid that I have a frightfully good arm when I want to deploy it --and even when I don't.

Thanks, Steve.

Soul Sister

...

Dear Soul Sister,

What a devastating letter. Before I say anything prescriptive, let’s just hit pause and focus on what you’re setting out here: a family in which the central legacy is competition and grievance toward your loved ones, in which children are taught to tear down their siblings rather than supporting them, and in which they become estranged from their parents. Good Lord.

Look: It’s not easy being in a family. Everyone is fighting for limited resources. Everyone knows how to push everyone’s buttons. And everyone is constantly defending himself or herself by attacking others. My wife and I find over and over that our kids are much more poorly behaved around us than out in the world. And why? Because on some level they know that we’ll love them no matter what. So rather than being our best selves for our family, we become our worst selves.

The problem, in your family, is that there didn’t seem to be a corresponding love and support to counteract the competitive and destructive impulses. So things spiraled out of control.

The good news here is that you’ve figured that out. Your letter is so eloquent and clear-eyed, both about the big inherited pathologies, but also about your own collusion in this system. That’s far more than half the battle.

Cruelty is not the absence of love. It’s the distortion of love. Its dark twin.

As for advice, I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know. The first thing you need to do is to remind yourself of something that is not going to be easy to accept: Everyone in your family is actually trying their best. Again: I know that seems implausible. Your parents should have done better by you. But it seems clear that what they put on you was put on them, if you know what I mean. If they could have done better, if they knew another way to raise you, I believe they would have. Of course, I haven’t suffered as much as you at their hands, so that’s easy for me to say. But it’s something to keep in mind. Cruelty is not the absence of love. It’s the distortion of love. Its dark twin.

I say all this because if you can bring yourself to forgive your parents, and your sisters, and yourself, it will be much easier during this visit not to get triggered and angry, not to regress.

I would also strongly suggest that you talk to anyone who might help you as you prepare for these family gatherings. Talk to your therapist (if you have one). Talk to your husband. Talk to the sister to whom you’ve been able to connect positively. Talk to good friends. Talk through your feelings and anxieties, so you can prepare for the inevitable disappointments and provocations.

It will also help to set up clear boundaries. That is: to make an agreement with yourself, even with your partner, that you will remove yourself from toxic situations, as gracefully as possible, should they arise. Unless, of course, you want to confront your parents or sisters about all this. But even if that’s the case, a big complicated family gathering isn’t the time for that. Such a project deserves its own dedicated time and place.

Finally, it’s important to realize that you’re a parent now, and so your behavior is directly influencing your own kids. If you want them to be loving and supportive, gracious and forgiving, you have to show them what that looks like, even and especially when dealing with family members who — for their own tragic reasons — can’t meet you there.

I know you can do this. Your sad, lovely letter tells me so.

Courage,

Steve

Author's note: I didn’t even have time to get into my own family dynamic, which is in many ways similar to Soul Sister's. Then again, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” as Tolstoy instructs us. Still, I recognize so much of this. I suspect most people reading this column do, too. Oh, and please stop just reading the column. We need letters. For real. So send me one. What’s the worse thing that can happen? You get a little useless advice — but for free!  Use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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