Thanksgiving brings the annual mix of happy anticipation and dread as we gather at the old homestead for a day of food, celebration and family politics.
Many of us will be bringing along spouses, fiancés, new boyfriends or girlfriends, some of whom will not fully grasp the context of mom’s subtle ribs about some friend’s brilliant son/daughter/nephew who made a fortune as an investment banker or dad’s ritual rant — as the Lions go down to defeat (again) — on all the ways football was far superior in his day.
But for all the fractured family dynamics the holiday gathering can expose, there are lessons to be learned about love — both by your partner and by you, the child who grew up observing every quirk in your parents’ relationship.
Suppose, thanks to the presence of a new love’s fresh eyes, you are struck by how often your mom criticizes your dad’s disintegrating hearing, and how he nitpicks at the way she loads the dishwasher. The white noise of bickering you grew up with may suddenly seem nightmarish.
So you say to yourself. “No! I will learn from this. I vow that my relationship will not be like my parents’.”
That might be a big mistake, psychologist, relationship therapist, and New York University professor Judith P. Siegel believes.
A wake-up call to patterns you’d like to avoid in your own relationship can be nice, but strident vows can “narrow our options” for behavior, said Siegel, author of “What Children Learn from Their Parents’ Marriage.” “Very few things in life are absolute.”
Don’t overreact to the negative things you see in the relationship between mom and dad. Instead, the goal should be to reach a kind of “comfortable acceptance” that a little conflict is OK, said Siegel. Otherwise, “you may be silenced or become passive and withdrawn. You need a voice to express your differences and disappointments,” she said.
Overreaction is not uncommon, especially if you’ve been away from mom and dad for awhile. The trick is to avoid locking yourself into a pattern just because your folks drive you nuts.
For example, if you’re a woman who sees her mother taking a lot of guff from pops, and you tell yourself “I will demand respect!”, you may shut yourself off from constructive, legitimate criticism. Then, when your own boyfriend or husband suggests that perhaps you could do a little more to keep your home clean, you may become needlessly enraged.
“Everything could come across as criticism,” Siegel explained. “Her intolerance [of criticism] could be so acute it could preclude her ability to separate what’s a genuine request or expression of dissatisfaction from what is truly devaluing.”
All good relationships have room for disagreements. You don't need to fear that you're becoming your parents.
What if you are the visitor accompanying your partner home for Thanksgiving? There are commmitment clues you can pick up from observing the in-laws.
In a twist of ‘monkey see, monkey do,’ the kind of relationship parents have can be indicative of the kind of behavior their children will exhibit in their own relationships, said Sarah Whitton, clinical director of Boston University’s Child and Adolescent Anxiety Treatment Program who also provides couples therapy to adults.
Whitton took part in a study of 14-year-olds interacting with their parents in solving a family problem or conflict. The observers gauged the level of hostility or warmth. Seventeen years later, those 14-year-olds were brought back as married 31-year-olds and the researchers had them do the same exercise. The level of hostility or warmth in the family of origin correlated with the level of hostility or warmth the grown children showed their spouses.
Yet while we may be strongly influenced by how our parents resolve conflicts, just because mom and dad bicker constantly doesn’t mean we’re doomed to quarrel endlessly, Whitton cautioned. But if your partner's partner deal with every conflict “by screaming or being hostile, or engaging in character assassination, you might want to delve a little deeper into that,” she warned.
And if your partner comes from a verbally pugilistic home and remains placidly non-confrontational about any issue, that should raise a red flag, too. People who experience hostility at home can overreact by ‘refusing to talk about anything,’ Whitton said. Instead of talking through a conflict, your mate might just prefer to go mute rather than address anything uncomfortable.
A little regression is OK
On the other hand, take inspiration if mom and dad are one of those older couples who are constantly smooching and holding hands. The only possible downside of growing up in such a happy, loving environment is that the child of such a perfect-seeming couple may over-identify and idealize that relationship to such a degree as to have some unrealistic expectations. Siegel hardly ever sees that, though.
A bigger worry, she said, is that the child of such a family may be rigid about the “right” way to celebrate holiday traditions. Any family – like say, yours – that doesn’t put pearl onions in the creamed peas, well, they simply have it all wrong.
If you’re accompanying your partner home, don’t worry about a little regression. Everybody works to forge their own life and identity once we leave the nest, but when we return, old family roles can re-emerge. This is the effect of powerful family “systems” that develop over time.
“When somebody tries to act differently, everybody goes ‘What is happening?’ and pushes that person back to acting the way they did before, even if everybody hated it the way it was before,” said Whitton. Don’t worry, your lover will snap back to normal sometime after the return flight reaches cruising altitude.
One final lesson to take from tomorrow’s festivities and the coming holiday season.
Siegel tells the story of a well-known social worker and family therapist who always asked new students to write an essay about a normal family. Inevitably, students would approach her privately and confide that they did not know a normal family. So she began simply asking students to raise their hands if they came from a normal family.
Nobody ever did.
Brian Alexander is the author of the book now in paperback.