Do you already know that you will come away from meeting your family this Christmas feeling upset and that it will take you weeks to get over it? If so, could your family
dynamic be toxic? Ailin Quinlan goes in search of answers
Christmas can be a magical time for some — but for others, it’s not quite so wonderful:
“I’ve come across people who actually dread going home for Christmas,” says Eithne Bacuzzi, a psychotherapist with 20 years’ experience.
“A lot of people thoroughly hate it. As a counsellor I’ve seen clients experiencing high levels of anxiety and sadness at the prospect of returning to the family home at Christmas time.
“Home should be a safe place of security but for many people they’re returning to a toxic environment that they had left.
“I think people go back because there’s an unrealistic hope that this year will be better. However, that’s a fantasy and it rarely happens.”
A toxic or dysfunctional family is characterised by dysfunctional relationships.
“A toxic relationship is one which takes more than it gives and when it does give, there’s always an agenda,” explains psychotherapist Karl Melvin. “It tends to exist when one person in the relationship is only concerned with themselves and where there’s past emotional baggage which is bleeding into the current relationship.
“Often open communication is not welcome and keeping secrets is common practise.” A dysfunctional family unit, he adds, tends to have significant issues with everything from anger management to fear, low self-esteem, an obsession with control or power, selfishness or a preoccupation with health or finances.
“Emotional dysfunction is very often at the root of the problem with a dysfunctional or toxic family situation, because emotional dysfunction often drives unhealthy behaviour,” says Melvin.
This may manifest through an obsession with power in which, for example, adult children are reminded about past mistakes, where there is open or subtle criticism of choices they have made, the use of passive-aggressive communication styles or emotional blackmail.
“You’ll never know what’s going on in the heads of people who are hurting you,” he explains.
“Half the time they’re not even aware of what’s going on themselves. Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for families like this. This kind of behaviour can intensify around Christmas.”
Many people from dysfunctional families will distance themselves during the year through shallow or long-distance relationships hinging on brief phone calls or visits. However, at Christmas they feel a great sense of obligation to visit and spend more time around family.
“Despite your hopes that things will be different this year, they probably won’t,” says psychotherapist, Bernadette Ryan of Relationships Ireland.
“Everyone’s travelling back with their presents at Christmas, but packed at the bottom of the bag are all the old grievances and resentments, so come prepared,” she says, be realistic in your expectations. “Expect it to be the same and if you’re ready for that, you can enjoy yourself more.“
“Sometimes we can be in a lot of denial about what went on in the family dynamic and there can be a slow falling away of the fantasy and we need to replace it with the reality.”
Many families have a degree of mild dysfunction, Ryan says, but in some it can be an over-riding characteristic to such an extent that “for some adults it can be impossible to go back to the family of origin because they feel so disempowered when they walk in the door”.
When everyone is brought together in the family home at Christmas-time, people tend to return to their childhood roles, says Bacuzzi, who explains that a critical mother or father who has always undermined their offspring, will probably continue to do so when they are adults, through subtle remarks about their weight, the grand-children’s academic performance, or subtle questions about where their career is going.
“All of it brings people back to where they were 20 years ago, and when they go back it triggers the old pain, rage and fear. The father may have been a bully and 20 years later nothing has changed,” says Bacuzzi, a therapist with Relationships Ireland.
“A family that is dysfunctional is like a pressure cooker.
“Some families will have outright war, others have an undercurrent of feeling which is never expressed openly and which causes great discomfort.”
The second kind is the most common and the most hurtful, she says, adding that despite this, people do manage to deal with it.
You cannot change the behaviour or attitudes of others, says Ryan, but you can change your response.
She advises that your ask yourself why you’re going home for Christmas, and if you want to go, to focus on the positive reasons calling you back, as opposed to the upsetting things, like an over-controlling parent or a sibling you dislike.
It’s also important, adds Melvin, to look at the situation realistically, and objectively and assess the hurt it’s causing you.
“Going inside you own head and addressing the hurt and taking responsibility for it can result in you making healthy decisions around your family instead — and also in your extended circle of friends and acquaintance.
The secret, he says, “is acknowledging how someone behaves is affecting you and deciding you won’t not be affected in that way again.”
Tips for coping at Christmas
Typical behaviours in dysfunctional families
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