Wright Foundation | October 23, 2018

Getting Along with Family:
Make This Year Different

Our family are some of the most significant people in our lives.

Getting along with family is one of the biggest challenges many of us face over the holidays. How can you make this year different? How can you connect with your family?

Most of us have been connected to our family since the time we were born. Getting along with family is important…but it’s not always easy, is it?

When it comes to family, we’re often working with long patterns of behavior. We fall into old habits. We long for the closeness and harmony of getting along with family, so we avoid confrontation or addressing the issues.

These past hurts, resentments, fears, and frustrations build up and block our happy relationship with our family members. As we approach the holiday season, now is the time to prepare so you can experience a meaningful time with your family this year.

Getting Past the Hurts

We all yearn for closeness and intimacy. Our connection with other people is an inherent human quality. We long to connect; to love and to be loved.

Many of these feelings start out with those in our family. Like it or not, our relationships with our parents and siblings play an integral role as we develop socially. Many of us would like to believe we can simply move past any hurt or shortcomings and go forward with our lives.

But from our early childhood, we’ve formed attachments and relationships based on our experience with our family. The way our parents treated us and interacted with us as youngsters—even as infants—can powerfully imprint our behavior and even our beliefs about ourselves.

Our family also acts as our model for our future relationships. We often seek out partners who mirror the behavior of our parents (the adage about “marrying your mother” really does have some foundational truth to it). We may notice these feelings arise when we get in an argument with our spouse or significant other. If you’ve ever said, “you’re just like your mother,” or “you remind me of the way my dad used to act when I was a teenager,” then you’ve experienced the way our relationship patterns repeat throughout our lives.

None of us likes to hear we’re like our parent (or we’re like our spouse’s parent, for that matter), but there’s probably a kernel of truth behind the argument.  In fact, in our book, The Heart of the Fight, we identify the “You’re Just Like Your Mother/Father” argument as being one of the most common fights amongst couples.

This often-explosive argument generally cuts to the quick, especially when you have long dreaded being link your mother or father. Your partner plays on this, which is why these are fighting words. But if the argument is only a debate about who’s right or whether you really are like that parent, then it will go nowhere. If you’re fighting about a specific behavior or attitude you exhibit that is similar to that parent, though, then you can use it to burrow down to a richer, more productive conflict. Maybe you fear that your relationship will be just like that of your parents. Maybe you are exhibiting a parental behavior that you know is destructive, but you’re trying to communicate a more profound message to your partner about what’s missing in your lives.
Use the mother/father debate as a powerful lens into your past to see its impact on your present relationship—how your upbringing and your relationships with your parents affects you individually and as a couple—and what you can do to change it. Questions that lead to deeper understanding include: What about the behavior that is like your mother or father is problematic for you? What feelings does it evoke? What would you like in its place? What is the desired behavior and outcome you want? You will be dealing with the roots of your pain or anger and you’ll be free to see and love your partner for who he or she is—not just as a projection of your parent or your past.
The Heart of the Fight

Our relationship with our parents carries over into our other relationships, creating what we call “unfinished business.” This unfinished business isn’t “bad” or “wrong” but it’s simply the stuff we need to clean out, address, and recognize. As we start on a journey of self-discovery, we often start to identify these patterns as they arise. We can extract the lessons from these realizations and use them to strengthen our existing relationships. We can even use them to get along better with our family.

Getting Along with Family Doesn’t Mean Avoiding Conflict

Many of us imagine an idealized version of our family, especially over the holidays. We think of harmonious meals around the table. Warm laughter and conversation—the Norman Rockwell “fairytale” picture.

The reality often looks quite different. No sooner do you walk in the door than your mom starts up a critique making you feel like you’re a third grader again. Then your sister argues with your father about the way she’s parenting her kids. Your uncle brings up politics….and suddenly it feels like a big frustrating disaster.

First of all, it’s important we remember there is no perfect family like there is no perfect spouse or partner. Our flaws and differences make us unique and lead to more interesting connections.

Underneath most of our interactions are layered unfinished business and yearnings. The unfinished business is what Freud called our ego ideal. Others call it the false self.

This is what we show the world and want the world to validate. Most of us were taught not to show the cracks in the masterpiece. To hide our true feelings and emotions from others.

We disown many of the other parts, thinking these parts are bad or aren’t loveable and we hide them from others, even ourselves. We conceal unacceptable aspects of ourselves: our criticisms, emotions, pain, or even joy. So the only parts of us that we present to others are the acceptable parts in our false self. And people close to us, like our partner, are likely to see and stir up the parts that don’t fit our ego ideal.
The Heart of the Fight

The other underlying factors are our yearnings. Each person experiences universal yearnings. These are to be seen, to be touched, to be loved, to love, to matter, to make a difference, and other longings of the heart. These yearnings are deeper than wants or desires. They are powerful and so is our drive to meet them.

Similarly, each person in our family has yearnings of their own. Your mother, father, sister, uncle; they all have yearnings driving them and shaping your interactions with them. When we start to strip away the front we put on when we’re getting along with family—when we start to engage, rather than simply “get along”—emotions are bound to come up. Unmet yearnings, unfinished business, hurts, and resentments may all arise. This is why many of us feel apprehension before we face our families in November and December.

Follow the Rules of Engagement for a Happier Holiday

We need to realize that all our feelings are okay. There’s no such thing as a wrong or bad emotion. If you have past hurts, fears, or sadness, it’s natural and normal. The key is learning to address conflict (yes, fight) productively.

Now, this realization doesn’t mean you go to the turkey dinner with emotional guns ablaze. It means working to identify and address common patterns before we go into the situation. When we start to become aware of these patterns and beliefs, we can change them.

While this isn’t an easy task (and may not happen before your next trip home for the holidays), you can start by implementing a few rules of engagement to help conflict become more productive and easier to address.

One of the rules of engagement is that each person is 100 percent responsible for their own happiness and satisfaction. This means it’s not your parents or siblings’ responsibility to make you happy. It also means the reverse. You aren’t responsible for your parents’ happiness or unhappiness. It’s their own responsibility to discover what satisfaction looks like for them.

Similarly, no gets more than 50 percent of the blame. Even if your parents have been repeating certain patterns your whole life, the blame is 50/50. You aren’t allowed to shoulder more than half the blame in any given situation.

Another important rule is to assume goodwill. This is an important one for getting along with family. Assume everyone is there because they yearn to connect with each other. They WANT to go home for the holidays too. They want to engage with you and you with them. Sometimes, they simply don’t know how.

Always remember to express and agree with truth. This means when you go into those family situations, it’s okay to be honest—even if you don’t believe your parents want to hear what you have to say. Don’t put on a false front or pretend everything is fine if it isn’t.

How to Get Along with Family and Care for Yourself

Now, some of us cringe at the thought of being honest with our parents and family. The holidays aren’t always an ideal time to address all your hurt or frustration. That doesn’t mean you need to hide it, though. One way I’ve found helpful is to view the situation as an experiment.

What will happen this holiday if I assume good will? When I feel feelings of hurt, anger, sadness, or fear, how will I acknowledge them and address them? How will my dynamic change with my family if I really attempt to identify and meet each person’s yearnings (including my own)?

Look at the holidays a chance to learn more about yourself. Observe the patterns you see in your relationships and note the reactions you see amongst your family members. Take the different approach of expressing your appreciation for your family. Say something like, “Mom, this conversation is making me feel hurt. I would like to address it with you later, but for today, I want to focus on all that we appreciate about each other.”

The key isn’t to shy away from the conflict, but to realize a party atmosphere or a room full of people isn’t always an opportunity to clearly address concerns.

When you’re ready for an honest conversation, review the rules of engagement we outline in our book The Heart of the Fight. These rules help you have more productive conflicts that lead to resolution, learning, and growth.

Make the holidays different this year. Work toward identifying and meeting your yearnings throughout the holiday season. If you yearn to connect with others, surround yourself with events and opportunities where you can really engage with friends. If you long to feel loved, look for signs of a loving universe by enjoying the holiday lights and appreciating the beauty of the season.

Nurture yourself this holiday season!

For more ways you can live a life of greater fulfillment, please visit us at the Wright Foundation. We have many of our courses available for download on our website. Don’t miss out on our special introductory price on these great courses!

Judith Wright receives the Visionary Leader Award from Chicago NAWBO.

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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.