Strategy #4: Become a Participant Observer
Some social scientists use a technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do. Back when I was training to become a sociologist, I loved participant observation. People I might normally have avoided—criminals, fundamentalists, PTA presidents—became absolutely fascinating when I was participant-observing them. Almost any group activity is interesting when you're planning to describe it later to someone who's on your wavelength. Here are some approaches to help you become a participant observer of your own family.
Queen for a Day
This little game is based on the old TV show in which four women competed to see who had the most miserable life. The contestant judged most pathetic got, among other things, a washing machine in which to cleanse her tear-stained clothing. My version goes like this: Prior to a family function, arrange to meet with at least two friends—more, if possible—after the holidays. You'll each tell the stories of your respective family get-togethers, then vote to see whose experience was most horrendous. That person will then be crowned queen, and the others will buy her lunch.
In this exercise, you look to your family not for love and understanding but for comedy material. Watch closely. The more atrocious your family's behavior is, the funnier it can be in the retelling. Watch stand-up comics to see the enormous fun they can have describing appalling marriages, ghastly parenting, or poisonous family secrets. When you're back among friends, telling your own wild stories, you may find that you no longer suffer from your family's brand of insanity; you've actually started to enjoy it.
Dysfunctional Family Bingo
This is one of my favorite games, though it involves considerable preparation. A few weeks before the holidays, gather with friends and provide each person with a bingo card, like the one on page 93, only blank. Each player fills in her bingo squares with dysfunctional phrases or actions that are likely to surface at her particular family party. For example, if you dread the inevitable "So when are you going to get married?" that question goes in one square of your bingo card. If your brother typically shows up crocked to the gills, put "Al is drunk" in another square, and so on.
Take your finished cards to your respective family gatherings. Whenever you observe something that appears on your bingo card, mark off that square. The first person to get bingo must sneak off to the nearest telephone, call the other players, and announce her victory. If no one has a full bingo, the person who has the largest number of filled-out squares wins the game. The winner shall be determined at the postholiday meeting, where she will be granted the ever gratifying free lunch.
Strategy #5: Debrief
Even if you don't play any participant observation games, it's crucial to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really "gets" you, call him after a family dinner you've both survived. If you don't trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. Generally speaking, you can schedule a debriefing session for a few weeks after the holidays, when everybody's schedule is back to normal. However, you should exchange phone calls with your debriefing partners within a day or so of the family encounter, just to reconnect with the outside world and head off any annoying little problems, such as ill-considered suicide.
All of these strategies, from relinquishing hope of transformation to mimicking your relatives in riotous conversations with your friends, are designed to help you love your family unconditionally, in whatever way works best for you. They help you greet the tar baby with genuine affection, then walk away clear and happy. And that, in the end, may be the best holiday present you'll ever give to the people you cherish most.
More Martha Beck Advice