A funny thing happens on the way to the holidays. Families reach out to one another, even dysfunctional families who forget how awful Christmas was last year. They go to great lengths to be together no matter how far apart they are physically and emotionally. No matter the price of airline tickets and the inconvenience of flight delays, no matter how high the cost of gas and no matter how difficult it is to get time off from work. Like birds families flock together with high hopes of happiness. They crowd into the old family home to spend a few days in close proximity with the family that, unfortunately, was more like The Kardashians than The Brady Bunch.
There may be changes and families don’t accept change readily. New additions to the family seem to add to the chaos at home. Mom is exhausted from cooking, cleaning, shopping, and wrapping presents. Dad seems irritated and in a bad mood. Too much money is spent grudgingly. After the initial welcome everyone gets stressed and no one seems happy. Is that how it always was?
Linda Michels, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, provided really great insight about how people realize that disaster strikes every year and their hope for a better outcome this time:
“You want things to be the same. That’s because the conscious memory conjures up some happy recall. Then you realize your memory has played tricks on you, and you want things to be different. But people don’t change (without therapy). Almost universally people regress when they get back with their families. While individuals may excel away from the family, when they return home they are the little kids who fought as siblings, who rebelled as teenagers, whose parents were harsh and unkind to each other. They go back into whatever role they had growing up in the family. They realize, often angrily that nothing has changed.
The sights and sounds and smells trigger repressed childhood memories. People feel sad and don’t know why. They wonder why the Christmas trees, the lights of the menorah, the mistletoe, the ham, the turkey, the latkes, bring feelings of sadness, pain, and anger. What’s going on? Experience gets fixed into memory without our awareness. Things at home were never really like we remember them.
The pressure to make a happy memory is stressful. Holidays always seem to erupt and become anything but happy times. People are fighting. Was it always this way?
Do we forget what happens when people get drunk? Often people prepare for the family reunion by having a few drinks or smoking some pot and making sure they have some in reserve for when they surely will need it.
When the family gets together to celebrate they bring out the beer or the wine and get buzzed. The whole family revisits the unspoken roles and rules that they created long ago: Someone becomes the distracter in the hopes that others won’t notice how much alcohol is being consumed and how it is affecting the group. Someone becomes the peacemaker and the caretaker trying to hold the family together. Someone diverts the focus from the drinkers by misbehaving in a different way. One may withdraw entirely.
As chaos ensues, there is a feeling of shame and fear and disappointment. And yes, there is the anger. Family members strike out at each for his/her own reason and the holiday experience quickly deteriorates into a really bad time and, alas, a new memory is formed that is not unlike the old ones where Xmas, Chanukah, Quanza get acknowledged as failed efforts and forgotten until next year.”
Linda suggests that there are paths out of this unfortunate cycle: If even one family member goes to therapy and explores the maladaptive patterns, it can improve the whole family dynamic.